Several chains, including Dutchman’s and Swig, offer the bright cookies. The question is: Who baked them first?
My entry into Southern Utah’s frosted cookie feud began innocently enough. After living in Colorado for a good chunk of 2020, the time came for the 13-hour drive back to Los Angeles through mountainous highways that, while scenic, don’t provide many opportunities for roadside delights. It’s a long haul of Subways, Starbucks, and McDonald’s, save for the lower tip of Utah jutting out across Interstate 15, where some come for Dixie State University, or a bit of respite after visiting Zion National Park or, for a junk food-loving first-timer like me, the opportunity to eat at regional chains like Iceberg Drive Inn and Arctic Circle in one fell swoop.
As excited as I was for my first go at fry sauce and “thick shakes,” nothing could have prepared me for the alliance I’d unknowingly choose by way of a legendary local treat just steps from the gas pump at Dutchman’s Market.
With a beige exterior and brown stucco roof that belie the pastel delicacies inside, Dutchman’s Market isn’t any old rest stop. The family-run boutique, bakery, and gas station sells everything from Danish Maileg stuffed toys and cutesy home goods to Doritos and Diet Coke out of its Santa Clara store, just minutes outside the quaint pioneer town of St. George. But, above all, it’s known for homemade cookies, perfect $1.50 drops of award-winning chocolate chip, peanut butter, coconut, oatmeal chocolate chip, and its signature item, a sugar cookie slathered in pink frosting.
Pale pink sugar cookies are a bit of a thing in Utah — a regional treat tiptoeing between the realms of dessert and snack time, particularly when paired with a fountain soda, as they often are. Sometimes served cold, sometimes not, the cookies are surprisingly hefty but rarely dry, and thick, immobile pads of rosy frosting render each one tooth-achingly sweet. They’re undeniably delicious and ubiquitous, but are rarely credited with having originated right here at Dutchman’s.
Disputed origins are practically mandatory for regional foods, as are intensely felt loyalties to different proprietors. Did Teressa Bellissimo or John Young really invent Buffalo wings in upstate New York? Is Cole’s or Philippe the originator of the French dip sandwich in Los Angeles? And if you’re driving through New Haven, are you stopping at Sally’s or Pepe’s for pizza? Utah’s pink sugar cookies — perhaps even to the surprise of those who love them — are no different.
Follow its frosted trail back a few decades and you’ll find a family recipe lovingly tweaked to perfection by Nick Frei, co-owner of Dutchman’s Market with his wife, Liisa. Hand-scooped, pressed, and topped with buttercream frosting, they’re a must-try for those in the know, but the ever-popular pink sugar cookie is also symbolic of what happens when something you create takes on a life of its own. Similar versions can now be found all over the state, with most snackers unaware that it actually originated here, at a self-described tiny little gas station in a tiny little town.
You can thank Swig for that. Known for syrup-spiked “dirty sodas,” the Southwestern soda chain churns out flavor-soaked, glitter-infused sodas like a freaky carbonated Starbucks, popular among many Mormons who enjoy caffeine in the form of cola while religiously abstaining from coffee and tea. Transcendent combinations like the best-selling Raspberry Dream (Dr. Pepper with raspberry puree and coconut cream) have grown a rabid fanbase that’s fueled expansion to 30 locations in Utah and Arizona, but one of their most iconic items isn’t even soda. It’s a pink frosting-slathered sugar cookie that’s uncannily similar to Dutchman’s — because that’s what it’s modeled after.
When prepping its first location back in 2010 (Swig now operates 30 nationwide) founder Nicole Tanner wanted a homemade cookie on the menu, “Not something that looked packaged and processed,” she said. A friend suggested she try Dutchman’s and Tanner loved them all. Swig soon became the Dutchman’s first wholesale client, and the cookie one of Swig’s top sellers.
Then came September 2012, when a drastic flood ravaged Dutchman’s and shut the business down for eight months — putting a sudden halt to the supply of pink frosted cookies.
“It was awful!” said Tanner. “They obviously couldn’t supply our cookies any more and didn’t know when or if they would ever reopen. … We were so sad for them, but had to quickly focus on what we were going to do to keep up with the demand of cookies with our now thriving business. So we went to work creating recipes to match as closely [as possible] to the cookies we were selling so that our customers would continue buying them. After revising them multiple times we felt like we had the perfect cookies for Swig.” Now, the Freis believe someone at Swig had begun baking their own cookies and labeling them the Dutchman’s even before the flood, but it’s tough to prove. (Tanner previously highlighted the cost effectiveness and ease of using the company’s own recipe to St. George News in 2014.)
Tanner soon opened her own bakery, and once Swig had more locations, they expanded to a larger operation in Salt Lake City that bakes and ships all Swig’s cookies. Now, nearly a decade later, Swig’s and Dutchman’s cookies remain — visually at least — identical.
Both Dutchman’s and Swig offer their cookies in bulk for the baby showers, weddings, and events they’re known to be served at, but some locals I spoke with didn’t even seem aware of the cookie’s true origins, perhaps because Dutchman’s and Swig aren’t even the only two in the game. Sodalicious, a regional soda company with a business model so similar to Swig they were in a lawsuit over it for years, also produces their own pink cookie after first selling Dutchman’s, while emerging cookie chain Crumbl permanently affixes them to its rotating weekly menus at 191 stores nationwide. (Quickly becoming a regular presence on TikTok, Crumbl’s version, which goes heavy on the almond flavor, are served in — what else? — an eye-catching light pink box.)
While you can’t trademark a cookie recipe, it’s clear Swig has won the battle for name recognition in the court of public opinion. Search “Dutchman’s Market cookies” on Google, and it’ll yield copycat recipes for the snazzy soda chain: Almost Swig Sugar Cookie Recipe, Original Swig Cookies, Copycat Swig Sugar Cookies.(“The Swig sugar cookie has definitely taken on a name all its own throughout the years from Pinterest recipes to bloggers raving about how they can’t get enough,” says Tanner.) A shelf-stable frosted cookie mix was sold online with Swig branding as recently as 2017, and cookies were once even built into the chain’s original name, Swig n’ Sweets, which is still reflected in Swig’s URL, SwigNSweets.com.
Yet, like most facsimiles, one remains an inferior copy. London Blackburn, 37, began visiting Swig eight years ago and noticed a distinct difference in cookie quality as the business expanded. After moving closer to Dutchman’s Market, Blackburn now gets her sweets and sodas from Liisa and Nick’s shop. “The cookies are not factory made — they have much more of a handmade look to them, the way Swig’s cookies used to look. They were also cheaper,” she says. “I have basically quit going to Swig and I solely go to Dutchman’s now — and so do my friends.”
Jessica Walton, 31, agrees. “I definitely prefer the Dutchman’s cookie versus the Swig cookie now,” she says. “The texture between the cookies aren’t the same. Dutchman’s feels like it’s a homemade treat grandma baked just for you, and Swig’s is manufactured for their many locations across several states and seems to miss that human element.”
The main difference seems to be just that. Liisa believes the Dutchman’s bakers’ institutional knowledge — when to add more flour, how to shift the recipe if it’s humid — is a key, unquantifiable ingredient to their pink sugar cookie. Churned out in a kitchen so small it would take “about 30 seconds” to tour, Nick and the bakers still manage to make upward of 25,000 cookies during a big week, prioritizing quality above all else. (The Freis currently provide wholesale Dutchman’s cookies to nearly two dozen other locations in Utah, Idaho, and Nevada, with Nick driving to Salt Lake City weekly to exchange cookies with other business owners in a parking lot, like some pink-frosted drug deal.)
“Some of our vendors who, well, [previously] sold our cookies wanted us to decrease the cost by using margarine or whatever, and we just never would do that. I think just being consistent [with] using fresh and good ingredients has kept us in the game,” Liisa says. When asked to describe its flavor, she struggles, but contends, “It’s just probably the best sugar cookie you’ll ever taste.”
Though they admit it sounds cheesy, the Freis credit “love” as a magic ingredient, indicative of the strength of their community, which rallied behind them when Dutchman’s closed for eight months following that massive flood in 2012, and continue to do so today. “We have people who got cookies here as kids, and now they bring their kids,” she says, after 35 years in the business. “We’ve been around so long.”
Dutchman’s may not get the credit for inventing this iconic regional treat, but they undoubtedly deserve it. The Freis take a homespun approach that’s hard for a larger chain to replicate. While Swig’s cookie is an accessory, at Dutchman’s, it’s the main show, the type of local gem that makes a road trip memorable, an origin story resonate, and those last few hours of a long drive a whole lot easier. I’ve had both, and can say irrefutably that Dutchman’s cookies are better, not just on taste, but for quality in what they stand for: a legacy persevering beyond the gas pump in Santa Clara, Utah, as a soda chain sells copies up and down I-15.
Carlye Wisel is a theme park journalist and expert who reports about things like how Butterbeer was invented and Disney’s secret food lab on her podcast, Very Amusing With Carlye Wisel. Louiie Victa is a chef, recipe developer, food photographer, and stylist living in Las Vegas.
Fact checked by Andrea López-Cruzado