It's 2:04 a.m. when a delivery of fresh-baked cookies arrives for the professional dancer cheating on his diet.
In the distance, a rooster crows.
This stop west of the Turnpike is the last delivery of the night for the drivers of Night Owl Cookie Co., in Westchester.
A svelte if sleepy-eyed Victor Smalley tries to fat-shame himself for letting it come to this, standing in his driveway in his pajama pants, the scent of fresh cookies dizzying in the April twilight.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
But holding the warm box of eight, soft-baked cookies, he cannot hide an eager smile. The box’s see-through window is fogged with condensation and promise.
“If you’re going to cheat,” he says, resigned, “cheat with Night Owl.”
Three years ago, Andrew Gonzalez, 24, thought it would be a good idea to drop out of Miami-Dade College and focus on delivering fresh-made cookies to the people in west Miami-Dade in the wee hours of the night, between 7 p.m. and 2 a.m.
The response was so great, he literally had a mental breakdown.
Since then, he has figured out how to bake more than 1,200 cookies, fresh to order, every night and deliver them warm to expectant cookie monsters throughout Night Owl’s 10-mile delivery area.
Miami is clearly hungry for cookies with flavors like double-stuffed Oreos, Nutella, maple-bacon and Ave Maria, made with guava preserves, traditional Cuban Maria biscuits and cream cheese frosting. Gonzalez has never advertised. With more than 35,000 followers, Night Owl has become a word-of-mouth social media sensation.
Who is ordering these cookies at ungodly hours are both what you expect and more.
At 9 p.m. on a recent Thursday, the day after Night Owl opened its first storefront across from Florida International, there’s already a line 15 people deep as the store balances walk-up and their hallmark deliveries from a galley kitchen eight feet wide.
They’re down a driver tonight because of a death in the family. So that means Pablo Arencibia is a going to be a busy man: 38 orders are already logged into system, and during their peak times, wait times can stretch between 1 1/2 to 2 hours. You wouldn’t know it from customers’ reactions.
“I’ve had people literally jumping up and down, yelling from inside the house, ‘The cookies are here!’ ” Arencibia recalls as he turns around his gray ball cap and heads to his 2011 silver Honda Accord coupe, balancing two boxes of cookies still hot to the touch.
He wedges the boxes between the front seats. The aroma is reminiscent of Christmas Eve as he pulls out into the night and heads west toward unincorporated parts of the county.
Halfway to a regular’s house, Arencibia gets a call that the address has changed — and they’re asking for a gallon of milk. Night Owl sells up to 10 gallons of milk on a busy night, too — “What are you going to have with your cookies? Coke? No way. You need a glass of milk,” Arencibia said — and he makes a pit stop at Walgreens.
He pulls up to a row of townhouses off 147th Avenue and dials the customer, Ozzie Martinez. Night Owl never knocks. They’d hate to wake up sleeping little kids (or give away the hankering of the big kids).
Martinez greets Arencibia like an old friend, pulling him in for a one-armed bro hug, holding the box of double-stuffed Oreos, Oreo Blast and plain sugar cookies in the other.
A disabled Marine suffering from post-traumatic stress after serving in Iraq, Martinez rarely drives. That’s why he appreciates Night Owl’s delivery service.
“The first month I found out about them, I probably ordered every other day,” Martinez says. “They’re worth waiting for.”
It was the wait for those cookies that put Night Owl at a crossroads.
Gonzalez was trying to study business at Miami-Dade College while working at a photography studio and baking and delivering all night — sleeping as little as two hours a night and still taking well over two hours to deliver cookies as far as Homestead. He knew nothing about baking; what he had was a sweet tooth and a killer business idea.
One night, after delivering cookies to the roommate of a Deco Drive producer, he found himself featured on a television segment and inundated with hundreds of calls and orders he couldn’t possibly fill. He shut down the phones — and the business for the next three months.
“So many calls coming in, so many orders. I literally had a breakdown ... paralyzed, crying, wondering how I was going to do this,” he said. “I had no time to sleep, no time to study. Everything was Night Owl.”
An Instagram comment from Pincho Factory founder Nedal Ahmad, who had tried and failed to order cookies, changed everything.
Gonzalez sent Ahmad an email and a free box of cookies to the Pincho Factory Coral Gables headquarters as an apology, and that’s when Ahmad realized Gonzalez was 21, fighting for a dream.
“I saw myself in him. I know what it’s like to be young and inexperienced and trying to make something happen,” said Ahmad. He founded Pincho Factory when he was 25, and it has now spread as far as Orlando. A box of Night Owl cookies was in his office as he spoke on the phone. “I saw that hunger. I saw how much he wanted to learn and grow. I know what that struggle is like. If I could help him avoid my mistakes, I would.”
This cookie idea needed serious rethinking. With Ahmad’s inspiration, Gonzalez decided to put everything into the business.
He left school, quit his job and spent the next three months doing nothing but perfecting his cookie recipes, baking out of his parents’ home off Southwest 137th Avenue before restarting the business in October 2013.
His Cuban-exile parents who had toiled for their two sons — his mother is an elementary school teacher, his father a long-haul truck driver — thought their oldest was abdicating his privilege.
“Baking cookies and delivering them? Who can make a living at that?” his mother, Gladys Gonzalez, thought. “Guess what. You can. He proved everybody wrong. He accomplished what he wanted to do — and he did it on his own.”
Around 11 p.m., while six other employees back at the Night Owl store dance around one another in the 150-square foot kitchen, Arencibia heads for another delivery as the night starts to turn.
The scent of burning marijuana permeates the air outside a house at the mouth of a cul-de-sac in a Kendall-adjacent suburb, where a young man and his girlfriend are in no condition to drive for their late-night snack.
“Me and my girl, we work all day, so at night we relax and when we get the munchies, we enjoy this,” he said. (The Miami Herald has chosen to withhold his name for obvious reasons.) “That’s what we love about them, they deliver late at night, and they’re the best cookies.”
“That’s Miami, right there, man,” Arencibia says as he hops back in the car for another delivery. He has walked in on people partying a lot harder and has been offered tips in beer, vodka, pot and cocaine.
Further south, Samantha Fraga, 17, opens the door with equal parts delight and relief. Studying for her advanced-placement tests in literature, history and composition at Braddock High, she needed this mental break.
“It’s the best substitute for sleep,” she jokes. “I substitute sweets for stress.”
Arencibia, 24, knows about stress. He drives about 20 miles a night for Night Owl after working as a nursing intern at Mercy Hospital during the day, his white scrubs and Adidas sneakers balled up in the backseat. (“I look like a santero,” he says.)
He sees a version of himself at his next stop with Suset Rodriguez, 23, a University of Miami medical student up late studying for a neurology exam. She opens the door as her little brother and the family dog peek from behind her, both their noses in the air, searching for the scent of cookies.
“This is the best snack to have when you’re studying for finals,” she says.
Night Owl’s doors are locked by the time their other driver, Luis Rosales, 22, returns from crushing the dancer Smalley’s diet, and he gives Gonzalez a high five.
A reality star on Lifetime’s Dance Moms: Miami, Smalley is a regular, despite his physique, and has learned the secret to cutting delivery times to an hour or so: order very early or order very late.
Gonzalez falls into a chair at the restaurant, exhausted but beaming as he looks through the night’s receipts. In the last two days, they have doubled their production. Two days into their storefront, and he’s already looking to expand into a second kitchen devoted only to deliveries to reduce wait times.
They’ll be here another two hours cleaning up and return at noon to prep for what’s sure to be another frenetic night.
“I’m going to need a lot more milk,” Gonzalez says.
If You Go
What: Night Owl Cookie Company opened a new storefront to go along with its late-night delivery service
Where: 10742 SW 24th St., Miami
Hours: Open from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Prices: Most cookies cost $1.75 each, with a minimum of eight to 12 per order, depending on distance from store.
More information: Delivery orders can be placed by phone at 786-282-7864 starting at 7 p.m.. Cookie flavors available online at http://www.nightowlcookieco.com/