Girl Scout economics: Thin mints, thick margins

In today’s delicious issue, Brian Flaherty explores the economics of Girl Scout Cookies.

Who are the bakers behind the operation? How much profit is made per box? Who’s profiting? And how does the cookie money flow?

Unlike Girl Scout Cookies (which cost up to $7/box now) this well-researched issue is free for everyone. ✅

Let’s go 👇

Tradition, transformation, and treats

The Girl Scouts are an American icon.

Since its inception in 1912, the organization has empowered millions of young women through ​courage, confidence, and character​.

​50 million American women​ have passed through the organization’s ranks, including my sister, mom, grandma, and great-grandma. (I figured I’d disclose this conflict of interest early!)

Over the years, the organization has branched away from its camping/hiking roots, and become more focused on economic empowerment and financial literacy.

The shift away from the outdoors and towards science is reflected by the growth in ​entrepreneurship and STEM badges​​.

But nowhere is this focus more evident than in the Girl Scouts’ famous cookie business.

Girl Scout Cookies: Famous, delicious, and exceptionally lucrative. Thin Mints remain the most popular cookie.

What started as a small, home-grown way to raise funds for troops has ballooned into a gigantic sales operation, supported by a massive national marketing campaign.

The Girl Scouts are a registered ​​nonprofit​​. Scouts aren’t paid, and the parents helping out are volunteers.

This actually raises some awkward questions: Where does all this cookie money go? Is it ethical to depend on child and volunteer labor for such a massive sales operation? And how have they changed tactics in the digital age?

We’ll discuss these questions below.

But first we need to discuss a subtle fact with some surprising consequences…

Girl Scout Cookies aren’t the same nationwide

Every American knows the classic flavors, right?

Two of the most popular are Samoas and Tagalongs — err, that is, if you live in New York, Miami, or Dallas.

But if you live in Houston, Orlando, or Philadelphia, you probably know these flavors as Caramel deLites or Peanut Butter Patties.

And it’s not just the names of certain cookies that differ regionally — recipes do too. While Samoas and Caramel deLites are similar, they’re not identical.

Caramel deLites (also known as Samoas) are the second most popular Girl Scout cookie. But names and recipes vary by region. Source: ​Daily Meal​

In fact, even consistent nationwide names like Thin Mint can hide subtle differences. There are actually two official Thin Mint recipes; one is more chocolatey, and the other is more minty.

Internet arguments about the best Girl Scout cookie seem moot if we can’t even be sure we’re talking about the same cookie. Source: ​UTSA Alumni​

And there’s no rhyme or reason to the geographic distribution of these flavors. Which cookie you end up with is kind random.

There’s an interesting reason for this…

Girl Scout cookies are made by two different bakers

To really understand Girl Scout cookies, we need to start at the source: the companies that actually bake them.

When the Girl Scouts began selling cookies as a fundraiser back in 1917, they were just regular, home-baked ​sugar cookies​.

First Lady Grace Coolidge snacking on an early, simple Girl Scout cookie. Source: ​Library of Congress​

As they grew, the Girl Scouts started licensing commercial bakers to produce them instead. By 1948, there were 29 officially licensed bakers.

Over the years, though, the number of bakers has rapidly dwindled, largely to ensure uniform packaging & quality.

In the 1960s there were still 14 bakers. By the 80s that had shrunk to four. Today, just two remain:

  1. ABC Bakers, headquartered in Illinois and owned by ​Hearthside Foods​ (a major American contract food manufacturer that produces products for companies like Kellogg and Pepsi).
  2. Little Brownie Bakers, headquartered in Kentucky and owned by the ​Ferrero Group​ (an Italian company that also operates brands like Crunch and Baby Ruth).
ABC Bakers and Little Brownie Bakers have cute names and logos, but don’t be fooled — these are major corporations.

Both bakers offer Thin Mints, Trefoils, and Adventurefuls.

But only ABC Bakers makes:

  • Caramel Chocolate Chip
  • Caramel deLites
  • Lemonades
  • Peanut Butter Patties
  • Peanut Butter Sandwich
  • Toast-Yay
  • Raspberry Rally
Raspberry Rally is the newest Girl Scout cookie. Introduced in 2023 by ABC Bakers, many troops ran out, and some online resellers were charging $100 a box.

Little Brownie Bakers exclusively produces:

  • Do-Si-Dos
  • Lemon-Ups
  • Samoas
  • S’Mores
  • Tagalongs
  • Toffee-Tastic
If you want to know who makes your Girl Scout Cookies, just look at the bottom of the box. I live in a Little Brownie Baker region, as evidenced by my last remaining box of Thin Mints.

There are five players in this cookie racket:

  1. Individual Girl Scouts, who do the actual selling
  2. Troops, which all scouts are a part of
  3. Councils oversee the troops
  4. National organization oversee the councils
  5. Bakers actually make the cookies

Councils sit in the middle of the Girl Scout organizational hierarchy. But interestingly, councils choose which baker they want to use.

Geographic distribution of bakers’ Girl Scout Cookies. Some councils (like Hawaii) represent an entire state. Others are focused on a sub-state geographic region (California is served by 8 councils). Source: ​LA Times​

Since councils independently choose which baker they want to work with, cookie selection varies like crazy — not just from state to state, but even within states.

Considering that each baker offers a different collection of cookies, this is a pretty consequential decision!

And it’s not just a matter of going with the lowest price. The Girl Scouts of New Mexico Trails opted to ​switch to ABC​ for 2024, largely due to ongoing ​supply and production issues​ at Little Brownie.

Regardless of which baker councils choose, it’s the council who pays for all those cookies — not the national organization.

Let’s explore the financial relationship between councils and bakers and find out who’s making money off all these cookies.

How the Cookie cash crumbles

Girl Scout councils are at the center of it all.

As discussed, councils buy the cookies from the bakers upfront. Troops and scouts make sales, but the money flows back up to the council.

Girl Scout Councils make $4 – $5 per box

Councils don’t report precise figures, so it’s tough to figure out the exact unit production costs.

But by cross-referencing some financial statements, we’ve come up with some good estimates.

  • Girl Scouts of Arizona Cactus-Pine distributed ​2.7 million boxes​ in 2022. With a ​cost of product program sales​ (COGS) of $3.3 million, we come up with a production cost estimate of $1.22 per box.
  • Girl Scouts of Nation’s Capital sold ​4.4 million boxes​ on ​$9.8 million​ in cookie costs. This gives us an implied production cost of $2.24 (Note: Cost of sales here may include transportation costs).
  • Finally, Girl Scouts of San Diego and Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa both show that $1.96 and $1.40 go toward “program expenses” (including production and distribution).

Overall, we estimate that Girl scout cookies cost between $1.50 – $2.00 per box.

At a sale price of $6 per box (in some areas, prices are now ​up to $7​), Councils earn around $4 – $5 profit per box (or about 70% margins).

Georgians must love their cookies! The Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta sold 380 boxes per scout — ​almost ​double​ the national average​.

What about the rest?

Troops get their cut ($1.10 per box)

Troops and individual scouts both participate in the cookie profits. But the extent to which they reap the rewards varies by council.

Using the same financial statements above, we’d estimate troops retain an average of around 18%, or $1.10 per box. (This is roughly in line with ​breakdowns​ ​published​ ​by​ ​individual​ ​councils​.)

Scouts pick up the crumbs ($0.09 per box)

While most of the revenue goes to the troop itself to pay for activities and experiences, a small amount goes to individual scouts in the form of rewards.

Scout rewards aren’t cash commissions. Instead, you earn things like patches, keychains, and water bottles. In this example, a scout who sells 340 boxes earns $2,000 for the Council, and qualifies for… (drumroll please) …a water bottle! Image: ​Girl Scouts River Valleys​

By comparing ​published​ ​troop​ ​proceeds​ with our $1.10 estimate (along with extra per-box troop proceeds for older scouts who opt out of rewards) we can estimate that around $0.09 per box goes toward individual scout rewards.

The rest of the money is sent back to the council itself.

After accounting for production costs, council funds are used to pay for organizational expenses and valuable programming and experiences for the scouts.

Specifics will vary by region, but we would expect a national average to look pretty close to our estimates.

For their part, the national organization says that they ​don’t actually get any of the money from the cookie sales​ — it all stays local.

While that’s technically accurate, there’s an important detail often left out of the conversation.

While councils pay bakers to manufacture the cookies, the bakers pay Girl Scouts national a royalty fee for the right to use the Girl Scout logo and name on all the packages.

In 2023, this royalty income amounted to $9.3 million; which makes up just 9.1% of Girl Scout National’s revenue. (The national organization earns $60m/year from membership dues and merchandise sales.)

So it’s a nice bonus for the national organization. But for the councils, cookie revenue is a essential to their financing.

Who else is profiting?

Obviously, the Girl Scout cookie program is a valuable fundraiser that helps secure the money needed for councils and troops to pay for activities throughout the year.

Plus, it’s a great way for young women to learn business and entrepreneurial skills.

But it’s always fascinating to follow the money and understand the breakdown.

The big bakers

ABC Bakers and Little Brownie Bakers are the most obvious profiteers from the Girl Scout cookie program.

Even after accounting for royalty costs, the scale of Girl Scout cookie contracts is massive.

200 million boxes are sold each year. If our $1.40 baker estimate per box is accurate, that’d amount to $280 million in annual revenue between the two bakers. Not bad at all.

Council/national executives

When it comes to the beneficiaries of the cookie program, one party is surprisingly overlooked — the often well-paid council employees dotting the country (along with the national execs).

Now, cookies are just one component of the revenue stream that supports these employees. But it’s a major one for the councils.

We’ve looked through tax filings to find out how many employees earn at least $100,000/year for some of the orgs we mentioned above:

Source: Latest Tax Form 990 (typically 2022). GSNC, GSATL, GSACP, GSUSA, GSGIA, GSSD

To be clear, we’re not saying these employees aren’t earning their money. Managing these organizations is hard work, and all of this contributes to valuable skill development for scouts!

This isn’t a matter of exploitation. Scouts love selling cookies, and parents are happy to volunteer to help.

But it does perhaps seem just a bit crazy that scouts’ only direct compensation from all this is a few very, very cheap rewards.

The open secret about Girl Scout Cookies

Clearly selling Girl Scout cookies at a 200% markup is lucrative.

Given these economics, you might think the Girl Scouts have some super-secret, patented recipe that only they know. But this isn’t the case at all.

You don’t need to wait for cookie season; you can buy “Girl Scout cookies” anytime you want.

Girl Scout cookie knock-offs are incredibly similar

Both ​Walmart​ and ​Dollar General​ carry “Fudge-covered peanut butter cookies” that look curiously like Tagalongs.

Judging by reviews, they taste identical too…

Both Walmart and Dollar General sell Tagalong-style cookies through their own private-label brands. Read more about the ​​economics of private labels​​.

What’s more, they’re both priced at just over $2 a box – a third the cost of the Girl Scout version.

Similarly, ​Keebler Grasshopper and Coconut Dream​ cookies have long been known as Thin Mint and Samoa alternatives, respectively:

Look familiar? Image: ​Keebler​

But hang on a minute — Keebler is a subsidiary of the Ferrero Group, the same company that owns Little Brownie Bakers!

Now, we’re not saying these cookie variants are necessarily coming from the same exact factories as Girl Scout cookies.

But c’mon. These “knock-offs” are so incredibly similar that the term feels almost…inadequate.

Real scarcity vs manufactured scarcity

Obviously, people aren’t just buying Girl Scout cookies for the cookies – it’s also about supporting the organization and its mission.

But the fact that the Girl Scouts are so successful at selling their cookies despite lower-priced and near-identical competitors being available year-round is a testament to the power of scarcity marketing.

It’s like the ​McRib​ or ​Pumpkin Spice Latte​. Part of the appeal of Girl Scout cookies is precisely that they’re not available all the time.

In fact, this is a tactic the Girl Scouts seem to be leaning into even more, pulling the ​fan-favorite Raspberry Rally flavor​ this year after a hugely successful roll-out in 2023.

So with cookie season wrapping up soon, go stock up on your favorite flavors. Because who knows if they’ll be around next year.

(But if they aren’t, just check Walmart or Dollar General)

See you next time, Brian


  • This issue was sponsored by ​Sonic Power​
  • Neither the author nor the ALTS 1 Fund has any holdings in any companies mentioned in this issue
  • This issue contains no affiliate links



Brian Flaherty

Brian Flaherty

Brian's interest in finance started from an early age, when he used money saved from working summer jobs to purchase his first mutual fund at 15. He went on to pursue the field in school, eventually graduating from the University of Virginia with a Bachelor's degree in Economics. After graduation, Brian put his expertise to work advising institutions and high-net-worth investors as a strategist at a wealth management firm. Recently, Brian transitioned to pursue a career as a financial writer, where he leverages his writing skills and his financial knowledge to help investors uncover the best opportunities and make intelligent use of their capital.

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