John Erdmann, co-owner of Virginia Bakery, is tallying the sale of Obama and Romney cookies. Photo: Brenda Kahn

By Brenda Kahn

Sorry, Mitt. As if this week didn’t already bring enough bad news for your campaign, Obama is leading the presidential race by a margin of three-to-one in a Berkeley poll. Then again, this is the ultra-liberal bastion of Berkeley, and the poll isn’t a scientific one, seeing as how it consists of cookie sales, so maybe that sweetens the news a bit.

The site of this hotbed of election straw voting is Virginia Bakery, the venerable family-owned bakery that’s been a fixture on north Shattuck Avenue since the 1930s. Co-owners John and Anne Erdmann, a husband-and-wife team who have been running the bakery since 1979, are measuring customers’ presidential preferences this election season in cookies — sugary whitish disks emblazoned with actual photos of Romney and Obama.

The images of the grinning candidates are printed with edible inks on edible rice paper, and then applied to a base of white chocolate coating the cookies’ top surface. Then they’re wrapped in plastic to maintain freshness.

The effect is slick and polished, like the candidates themselves. Retailing for $2.95 apiece, the cookies have proven to be steady sellers since they were introduced just after the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer.

This isn’t the first time the Erdmanns have produced cookies in honor of a presidential race. According to John, who oversees a team of six bakers and has a hands-on role with baking and decorating, four years ago they concocted cookies with caricatures of McCain and Obama – hand-drawn in icing. The presidential cycle before that they created Bush and Kerry cookies, also with hand-drawn caricatures.

The earlier technique “was really labor-intensive,” said Anne, who handles office work for the bakery. Hence the decision to try the photo cookies for the first time this year.

It’s also the first time staff are tracking how many they’re selling of each candidate. Employees keep a running total of election cookies sales on an in-store whiteboard hanging from the bread rack, and Anne also posts regular updates on the store’s Facebook page. As of mid-afternoon on Wednesday of this week, they had sold 91 Obama cookies vs. 30 Romney cookies. By Thursday morning this week, the margin had widened, with 102 Obama cookies sold vs. 34 for Romney, which works out to 75 percent for Obama vs. 25 percent for Romney.

“It’s three-to-one for Obama,” John noted on Wednesday, adding that he had to hurriedly bake a couple trays of Obama cookies on Tuesday afternoon this week to replenish the supply. “We’re making a lot more Obamas than Romneys. It’s Berkeley, after all,” Anne noted.

Still, John is surprised that the pro-Obama margin isn’t even wider — he was expecting a 10-to-1 tilt in favor of Obama in the leftwing political bubble of Berkeley.

“I was shocked at how many Romney cookies we sold at first,” the Berkeley native said, adding that he’s not sure whether the purchasers are closet Republicans or just buying them as a gag. “My overall sense is that they’re buying them for fun. It’s just a novelty thing to do.”

“Some (customers) have said they have friends who are Republican, and it would be fun to give them a Romney cookie,” Anne said. One customer said she was buying a Romney cookie so she could bite off the head.

Virginia Bakery expects sales of the cookies to rise as Election Day approaches, but which ones will sell best?

While their election cookies appear to be fairly unique in the Bay Area, the Erdmanns have competitors elsewhere, including a bakery in Chicago and one in Delaware that is taking orders from around the country.

The Erdmanns prefer to not overtly reveal their political leanings, as staying neutral and letting the cookies speak for themselves is better for business. “It’s totally in fun,” said Anne. “We’re not supporting one or the other candidate. It’s just a cookie vote.”

The election cookies fill a void in the Virginia Bakery line-up of rotating seasonal specialties, which include stollen, yule logs, present cakes, gingerbread houses and other traditional favorites at Christmastime; heart-shaped everything around Valentine’s Day; pumpkin, mincemeat and sweet potato pies at Thanksgiving; and cookies in the shape of bats and pumpkins at Halloween. The Romney/Obama cookies join with Cal Bears football cookies to break up the holiday dry spell in the late summer/early fall before the onslaught of Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

John expects sales of the cookies to rise as Election Day approaches, and the cookies will likely be revived for the presidential inauguration in January 2013, since the Obama cookies were a hot item during the inauguration festivities four years ago.

As for whether to eat your Obama/Romney cookies or to save them as a family keepsake, Anne points out that the edible inks will fade in time and the cookies are preservative-free. Then again, one customer in recent weeks said she has saved a cookie from the last election four years ago, and that it is still intact. “Maybe they would last if you keep them wrapped and as air-tight as possible,” John said.

Whether you can resist eating your edible election memorabilia is another question. This reporter bought one of each on Wednesday, eating the Obama cookie in short order – in the name of research, of course. Can she resist eating the Romney cookie sitting on her desk and staring at her in the face? The concept of “you are what you eat” is giving her pause, but probably not for long.

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