Dirty Cookie After Shark Tank: We Caught Up With The Founder

Taking a swim in the "Shark Tank" isn't for the faint of heart but doing so can help catapult a small business into mainstream success. Just ask Shahira Marei who appeared on the hit television series in 2022 to raise funding for Dirty Cookie, her milk and cookies passion project. Dirty Cookie takes the comforting combination of a cold glass of milk and a warm chocolate chip cookie and transforms the cookie into an edible shot glass.

The idea for Dirty Cookie came from Marei's deep love of desserts. She describes herself as a former "sugar addict" whose favorite pairing is, of course, milk and cookies. A forward-thinking entrepreneur, Marei says that she asked herself: "How do we innovate that and make it different?" Enter cookie shots. 

Dirty Cookie's cookie shots can be enjoyed in a variety of flavors including chocolate chip, churro, red velvet, and double chocolate that is vegan and gluten-free. We caught up with Shahira Marei for an exclusive interview to talk all things Dirty Cookie and to hear how her woman-owned business has evolved since her appearance on "Shark Tank."

Having a child inspired Marei to quit her corporate job

In January 2015, Marei signed a five-year lease in Orange County, California to open a brick-and-mortar storefront to sell her signature cookie shots. "At that time, I just had a baby," Marei says. "She was five months old. I was working full-time at Boeing as a project manager. Since I was a child, I've always wanted to start my own business. And when I had my daughter was my catalyst and inspiration to actually start because I didn't want her to stop me from following my dream."

Eight years later, Dirty Cookie is booming, but even if it weren't, Marei says she would never return to the corporate world because the gift she's been given in exchange for stability is freedom. "Freedom of time; freedom of, I'm able to travel," she says. "I'm able to work remotely wherever I want. I am not waiting for my two-week vacation period that I used to wait for." That freedom has enabled Marei to be more present for her daughter. "But I also see my daughter learns so much from me, and I think I'm very grateful and blessed that my daughter doesn't know what a corporate job is," she tells us. She clarifies that "there's nothing wrong with a corporate job," but wants her daughter to have options. Marei's advice is to "'risk it all, mess up, screw up, make mistakes, see what happens. You fail, get up again, and try again." 

Marei almost appeared on Shark Tank in 2017

Although viewers first saw Marei on "Shark Tank" in 2022, she was actually supposed to appear on the program in 2017. Marei had only been running Dirty Cookie for two years when her application to "Shark Tank" caught the eye of the producers. It seemed like a dream scenario, her business was brand new and Marei had the opportunity to launch it on a global stage. Marei was standing behind those iconic double doors, ready to pitch the sharks, when the unthinkable happened. Five minutes before she was set to walk into the shark tank, her appearance was canceled. 

Marei was heartbroken, but she applied to "Shark Tank" every subsequent year for another opportunity to raise awareness about Dirty Cookie. "I kept applying and emailing until I finally made it again. That's part of my 'never give up' story because I was so close, right? I was on stage five minutes from pitching, mic'd up, ready to go, and it got taken away from me instantly," Marei says. "And they said no for almost four years straight."

While the experience of losing out on "Shark Tank" in 2017 was devastating for Marei, she now believes it was a blessing in disguise. At the time, Dirty Cookie was still finding its footing as the cookie shots weren't yet available on e-commerce. In 2021, when her episode was filmed, Dirty Cookie had already transitioned into a successful e-commerce business.

Marei wants you to know that the sharks are just 'normal people'

Most entrepreneurs agree that a chance to appear on "Shark Tank" is an opportunity of a lifetime. After having arrived at the precipice of that professional milestone once before and having had it disappear, Marei entered her second chance at the show with a combination of enthusiasm and fear. "When you're standing in front of the door  waiting there for five minutes before the door is opened  it's just the longest five minutes of my life," she says. In an attempt to stay grounded, Marei says she told herself: "You know what? They're just normal people. Just go out there, talk to them like normal people, like anyone else I would talk to. There's nothing to fear." 

That tactic proved effective as it allowed Marei to demystify the process and to approach her pitch as just a dialogue. "And I think just viewing them as that, I was able to have very intimate conversations with them and just casual conversations with them, and they're not as mean as they make them out to be," Marei tells us. Although they have large personalities on television, each of them was kind to her. Marei's ability to stay confident within the shark tank helped her navigate the conversation with confidence and to remain focused when it came time to negotiate.

Marei would chose a different shark if she had the chance

When Marei entered the shark tank, she was looking for a $500,000 investment for 5% equity in Dirty Cookie to allow her to offset production costs. At the time, Dirty Cookie was making all of its cookie shots by hand and demand was far outweighing supply. Marei's vision was to purchase an Italian machine that could make the shots exponentially faster. The only trouble was, the machine cost $400,000. 

Toward the end of the negotiation, Marei found herself with one offer from Lori Greiner for $250,000 in exchange for 25% equity and $250,000 structured as a three-year loan. Although Robert Herjavec was previously 'out', he countered with the requested $500,000 in exchange for 30% with an offer to reduce his stake to 15% if Marei hit her projected sales. Greiner then adjusted her deal to match Herjavec's reduced stake but stayed firm on her loan structure.

On the show, Marei appeared to quickly choose between the sharks, but there was more that viewers didn't get to see. Behind the scenes, Marei was taking a long time considering both offers so long in fact  that Greiner decided she was 'out'. Marei was then left with one shark. Although she only had one option, she skillfully negotiated Herjavec's initial stake down to 20%. If Marei could do it all over again, she would go with Greiner instead. Marei says: "I think she's just a better fit." 

Dirty Cookie is still making its cookie shots by hand

Although Marei ultimately made a deal with Herjavec on "Shark Tank", she still hasn't had the opportunity to purchase the aforementioned Italian machine that would allow her to make her cookie shots quickly and efficiently. As of August 2023, Dirty Cookie is still making all of its cookie shots by hand  a process Marei describes to us as: "brutal." The amount of cookie shots that are produced each day varies because the majority of Dirty Cookie's sales happen during the holiday season. On any given day, Marei says the company is making "at least a couple thousand."

Aside from the painstaking process of crafting Dirty Cookie's signature cookie shots, the company has found tremendous success with corporate clients who have become repeat customers, including Google and Liberty Mutual. One of the reasons Dirty Cookie is so popular in the corporate space is that its cookie shots are able to be customized and branded. For an everyday consumer, that customization makes cookie shots a wonderful option to celebrate birthdays or themed parties. 

When Dirty Cookie transitioned to e-commerce during the Covid-19 pandemic, the company began selling DIY cookie shot decorating kits to elevate and further customize the cookie shot experience. Those kits are available for back-to-school and major holidays.

Dirty Cookie launched stuffed cookies in Egypt

Marei cites her time in Egypt as one of the main inspirations for Dirty Cookie. During her "Shark Tank" appearance, Marei explained that she closed her initial storefront in Orange County just before the Covid-19 pandemic and quickly pivoted to e-commerce where her business boomed. 

"We actually opened a franchise in Egypt two years ago," Marei tells us. She traveled to Egypt to help develop the franchise's menu, which is where she launched Dirty Cookie's newest innovation: stuffed cookies. "After six months, they skyrocketed even surpassed sales for cookie shots in Egypt," Marei says. At the flagship brick-and-mortar storefront, in addition to cookie shots, "we do cookies, coffee, and ice cream," she says. "So it's a really fun experiential location."

Marei knew she had found something special with the stuffed cookies. "So, I called my partner in California," she tell us. "And I was like, 'Hey, we need to do something with this because if people here are telling us these stuffed cookies are amazing; we should have them in the U.S. as well.'" Dirty Cookie's stuffed cookies launched in January 2022 in the U.S. and are now available online in decadent flavors like chocolate chip Nutella, red velvet cheesecake, strawberry shortcake cake, and peanut butter and jelly.

Running Dirty Cookie helped Marei redefine success

One of the most powerful moments during Marei's appearance on "Shark Tank" came when she discussed her motivation behind Dirty Cookie. Marei described her father's disappointment that she was female and his belief that she wouldn't be successful as the ultimate driver for building her business. Initially, Marei thrived by trying to prove her father wrong. It was a powerful force that pushed her to keep going.

"I think in order for you to just keep going through these challenges, it takes a lot of resilience, and that burning desire to reach something, or a goal, what drives you," she says. "And for me, it was to prove, for a long time, this burning desire to show my dad that I could be successful, I could build a thing for myself. After kind of doing a lot of healing work and letting that go, that new burning desire for me was like, 'I want to make a difference and an impact in people's lives, and I want to touch as many people as possible now to help them, whether start up their company or show them that no matter what life throws at you, you can still get up and continue.'"

That spirit resonated with consumers, aspiring entrepreneurs, and "Shark Tank" fans alike. After the episode aired, Marei got support from her local community, specifically from retired women who connected with her story and wanted to help champion a female business owner.

Marei wants female entrepreneurs to never give up

Marei describes herself as a "single mompreneur" compounding the challenges of being a female entrepreneur with the immense responsibility of being a single mother. "My daughter, my business, and my mental health are my top three priorities," she says. "Those are the three things I will always prioritize." It's refreshing to hear a founder and CEO place children and one's own mental health on the same level of importance as their business success. "I've become very spiritual through this whole journey of entrepreneurship because you have to believe in yourself, and you have to have faith," Marei says. "And you have to believe that when things are not right for you, it won't happen. And when they're meant for you, nothing can stop it from happening."

When asked about guidance she would like to share with aspiring entrepreneurs, Marei says: "I think it's just, be very tenacious and keep going after what you want, because that's the only way you'll survive entrepreneurship, because it's not meant for everybody. It's really not. People have this idealized vision of being an entrepreneur, and it's a hundred times worse than anyone could ever imagine the lifestyle that we live. And it's not for everybody. So for me, you have to have purpose, and passion, and reason of wanting to get into this to continue and to put up with the daily challenges.

What's next for Dirty Cookie?

After "Shark Tank" aired, Marei received a great deal of international interest, specifically from big retailers in the Canadian markets, but the company wasn't yet ready to expand outside of the U.S. Now that Dirty Cookie has a firm hold in Egypt and has demonstrated the success of its brick-and-mortar model, Marei is ready to build her global empire. One of the primary goals for the next iteration of Dirty Cookie is to become available in Canada with physical storefronts, e-commerce, or ideally a combination of both. 

At present, Egypt has one flagship location of Dirty Cookie and three smaller brick-and-mortar stores. Marei also has her sights set on building out experiential locations of Dirty Cookie across the U.S. to bring the cookie shots and stuffed cookies to a broader audience that can enjoy the unique treat in a fun and festive environment. In order to further scale the business, Dirty Cookie is looking to raise more funds to allow the business to automate the cookie shot-making process to reach an even larger demographic. 

Shahira Marei credits "Shark Tank" for putting Dirty Cookie on the map, which is exceptionally useful for businesses looking to expand. Doing so with a pre-existing consumer base will help ensure that Dirty Cookie's next steps are met with enthusiastic demand.