Tina Rexing doesn’t fit the stereotype of a cookie entrepreneur. First of all, there’s the matter of her hair. Rexing, 46, sports a completely original look.
“I color my hair purple,” she says. “At my age, that’s considered different. And different is what I want to be.”
Rexing also has an impressive collection of intricate steampunk tattoos running up and down her left arm. Many, like the measuring spoons or the mixing bowl that stands in for a hot-air balloon basket, have baking themes. Others, like the gears and clocks or the broken light bulb bursting with butterflies on her bicep, symbolize Rexing’s unique approach to life.
“I have a rebellious streak,” she says by way of explanation. “I always have. I was that way at St. Olaf too.” There were times in college, Rexing admits, when her rebellious streak led her to feel like she didn’t fit in. She pauses, and then adds with a casual shrug, “But that’s how it’s been my whole life. I’ve never been a huge ‘rah-rah’ cheerleader for anything, even St. Olaf. I don’t really fit in anywhere.”
For a person who often felt like she didn’t fit in, Rexing has always done a good job of seeming, from the outside at least, like she was fitting in just fine.
Rexing was born in the Philippines and immigrated to Minnesota with her parents when she was two. As the oldest child of three and only girl (her younger brother, Carlo Castillejos, is also an Ole), she says she felt pressure from a young age to succeed. When she was deciding on colleges, she chose St. Olaf in part because it is known for having good economics and business programs: she’d known for years that when it came time to choose a major, she had to pick from a narrow set of preapproved options.
“One thing my parents instilled in me was, ‘You will not major in philosophy or English or art. Those things can’t get you jobs,’ ” Rexing says. She ended up majoring in economics, with an emphasis in environmental studies and management.
At St. Olaf, Rexing says her approach was to put her head down and focus on her studies, with an eye aimed on her future career. “I muscled through,” she says. “ ‘Muscling through the situation’ has been the theme of my life.”
This mindset paid off when Rexing landed a prime job in Northwest Airlines’ coveted Pacific division two months before graduation. The airline’s recruiters were attracted by Rexing’s fluency in Filipino and Japanese, and intrigued by the colorful cloud paper she’d printed her resume on. When she was offered the job, she was the youngest person ever hired in the division.
With an early success like this one, Rexing felt like she was predestined to climb the corporate ladder, so she muscled through, even though she often felt like she didn’t fit.
“Basically, in corporate you have to stick in this expected mold,” she says. While she now says she often felt constrained by corporate life, she rose through the ranks at Northwest until the 9-11 terrorist attacks put the industry into disarray. Her entire department was eliminated while she was on maternity leave with her first child on September 27, 2001.
After that setback, Rexing launched on a career path that she now likes to describe as “winding.” She did marketing for a tennis center for a few years — eventually becoming a certified tennis instructor — before plunging headfirst back into the corporate world, taking a series of six-figure jobs in finance and IT at some of Minnesota’s top corporations.
Rexing credits her St. Olaf education with her flexible approach to work. “When I do talks about my background and what my liberal arts education has given me,” she explains, “I always say, ‘The liberal arts has given me this winding-road path, because it teaches you how to be good at a lot of things or have interest in a lot of things.’ ”
I had been thinking. What could I possibly do for a living that I might actually like. Versus spending all my time working in a cubicle?
During her corporate years, Rexing fed her creative soul through baking. She’d been making sweets for friends and family for decades, and when she was an adult, she began entering her carefully researched and tested creations in the Minnesota State Fair. She’s got a pile of ribbons to prove it.
“I made everything from cookies to cakes to breads,” she says. But she always insisted that it was just a hobby. “The entire time people were saying things like, ‘Why aren’t you doing this for a living?’ ”
Though Rexing always brushed off suggestions that she pitch it all and go into the baking business, the idea of pursuing it always lingered in the back of her mind. When she finally had enough of corporate life and quit her job, Rexing made an effort to look for another job for a few months. But soon she found herself writing a business plan for a company she dubbed T-Rex Cookie.
“I had been thinking,” Rexing says, “ ‘What could I possibly do for a living that I might actually like, versus spending all my time working in a cubicle?’ ”
With her business plan in hand, and support from her husband, her parents, and a committed team of friends and former co-workers, Rexing decided to take the plunge. In early 2015, she launched a Kickstarter campaign and went to a bank where she convinced them to give her a line of credit. Her plan was to make cookies and sell them at the Minneapolis Farmers Market.
Rexing rented space in a commercial kitchen in South Minneapolis, and with help from her support team, she began turning out tray after tray of cookies. At first, the cookies were average sized, but then Rexing realized that the scooper she used to measure out dough was aggravating her tennis elbow. So she started making larger cookies that didn’t require a scooper. The resulting dinosaur-sized, half-pound cookies were a hit — and a perfect match for her company name.
“People always say, ‘Oh. They’re T-Rex cookies because they’re big,’ ” Rexing says with a laugh. But the gigantic-dinosaur connection was just a coincidence, she insists: “Oh, by the way, my name is Tina Rexing. Get it?”
Shoppers at the farmers market loved Rexing’s cookies, which she made in creative flavors like sea salt caramel chocolate chip, orange dreamsicle, and monster and dill pickle. She eventually expanded to other farmers markets, and by October 2015, she got a big break when the Minnesota Orchestra Selected T-Rex Cookie as its dessert vendor.
“I packaged my cookies for the orchestra, labeled them, and they would sell them during intermission,” Rexing says. “They were super popular.”
Ever the marketer, Rexing worked hard to promote T-Rex Cookie on social media. “I had a really strong, loyal Facebook and Instagram following,” she says.
One day, the Today show invited viewers to name the best cookie in their state.
“All of my social media followers — a bunch of them — said T-Rex Cookie’s sea salt caramel chocolate chip cookie,” Rexing says. “Two days later, I get a phone call from the Today show.”
The call was an invitation to fly to New York City and appear on the show. Rexing jumped at the chance. “I was on for maybe a hot second,” she says, explaining that the entire segment was surprisingly brief: “There were two other bakers on, and the whole thing lasted like 45 seconds.”
Turns out a hot second was all Rexing needed.
When the Today show segment aired, Rexing was still taking online orders for her cookies on Etsy. “I had it set up so that every time I took an Etsy order, my phone would beep,” she recalls. “After I was on the Today show, my phone just blew up.”
From there, T-Rex was launched to another level. Rexing left her rental kitchen, hired 15 employees, and ran a cafe near the University of Minnesota for a couple of years. When her building was sold to developers who planned to tear it down and build condos, Rexing decided to change her business model. Today she sells cookies three days a week out of a small storefront in Eagan, Minnesota; the back two-thirds of the shop is dedicated to cookie production and online sales and shipping.
Although her Eagan shop is thriving, in her typical style, Rexing is not content to just coast. Her business continues to sprout tentacles, with a cookie contract for US Bank Stadium (she supplied cookies to the Super Bowl, and now T-Rex Cookies are available in the stadium’s clubs and suites). She’s also selling bulk dough so that restaurants can bake their own T-Rex Cookies. In the midst of all this growth, she’s been giving back to her alma mater, judging the annual Ole Cup and speaking to students about her unique entrepreneurial journey.
Now her business is poised to make a major leap. Rexing is in the process of investigating franchise opportunities: imagine T-Rex Cookie shops popping up in malls and on street corners nationwide, or even worldwide.
“That’s a concept I’m tossing around in my brain,” Rexing says. “Can T-Rex Cookie go international? Can the company be owned by somebody else and just ride on the brand? And would it be profitable? That’s the million dollar question.”
Finding answers to those questions will take focus and experimentation, two things that Rexing excels in. Curious to see if T-Rex Cookies could be made by anyone, she purposely hired workers for her Eagan shop with no baking experience. (The cookies turned out great!) And she’s mapping out a vision of what a franchise shop would look and feel like.
Rexing’s not letting the exciting possibility of expansion distract her from her core business. At her Eagan location on an overcast summer afternoon, Rexing proudly shows off her latest acquisition: a colorful (to match her hair), new T-Rex Cookie food truck, paid for through her second successful Kickstarter campaign.
The food truck was something Rexing envisioned doing when she first started T-Rex, but in the four and a half years since she stepped out on her own, the business grew so fast that she never got around to actually outfitting a truck. Now it’s here, parked in front of her Eagan shop and ready to be loaded with fresh cookies.
Rexing opens the truck’s back door, showing where the cookies and milk (because you can’t sell cookies without milk) will be stored.
For all of Rexing’s accomplishments, this one feels concrete, and she seems particularly content and at ease. It doesn’t take long to tour a food truck, so in a hot second, Rexing’s stepping out of the truck and firmly closing the door behind her. But her satisfaction is evident.
“You couldn’t get any further from a cubicle,” she says, flashing a satisfied smile as she gives the truck a quick pat. It’s like Rexing has finally created a world where she fits in, and it suits her perfectly.