With a name like Cookie Cart, you might think this nonprofit business is all about cookies. While the cookies are both delicious and beautifully designed, the kids who bake them are the real focus of the organization.
Cookie Cart provides teens 15 to 18 years old who are enrolled in school with life and leadership skills through meaningful work and training in an urban nonprofit bakery. Cookie Cart has two locations: one in North Minneapolis and the other - newly opened in May - on St. Paul’s East Side.
The organization has come a long way since the 1970’s when its founder, Sister Jean Thuerauf, began inviting neighborhood kids into her home to provide a safe place for them to do their homework. As a reward, she taught them to bake cookies. Over time, Sister Jean had more kids than could fit in her tiny kitchen.
And that’s where the “cart” comes in. The youth working with Sister Jean began selling cookies in North Minneapolis, at the price of $1 for seven cookies, using a brightly colored push cart. The original cart is preserved and rests at the nonprofit’s North Minneapolis office above the bakery.
In 1988, Sister Jean’s vision for a safe, creative and engaging space for North Minneapolis’ youth was formalized and registered as Cookie Cart, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with an actual storefront on Emerson Avenue. In just eight years, Cookie Cart had outgrown the space on Emerson and moved to its current Minneapolis location on West Broadway.
Today, Cookie Cart’s customers include corporations, nonprofits and churches with many orders placed online at www.cookiecart.org, in addition to a steady stream of neighborhood foot traffic.
While the sophistication of the operation and the opportunities for youth employees have expanded significantly over the years, Cookie Cart, under Executive Director Matt Halley’s leadership since 2004, has stayed true to Sister Jean’s original mission.
However, when Halley arrived at Cookie Cart, its future was uncertain. The organization was facing significant financial challenges and its business model was unsustainable. To survive, Cookie Cart desperately needed an influx of capital, a clear strategy and a banking relationship built on mutual trust. Fortunately, Halley contacted Ron Zweber who leads the Nonprofit Banking team at Bremer Bank. It was a turning point for Cookie Cart that led to a long, deep and multi-faceted relationship with Bremer. Halley is quick to praise Bremer’s dedicated nonprofit banking team and to credit both Ron and Leo Lopez, Bremer commercial banker, for their contributions, including serving on the site selection committee and providing financing, in helping to make Cookie Cart’s new St. Paul location a reality. “Bremer understands our needs as a nonprofit and is able to offer important technical assistance, financial advice and banking options that make sense for us,” Halley said.
Having confidence in this relationship enables Halley to prioritize the teens, providing a positive work environment and a robust curriculum focused on everything from how to interview for a job to customer service, financial and digital literacy and planning a career. “These kids are quick to learn, and they have more skills than adults often give them credit for,” he says. “The cookies are the tool and the bakeries are the classroom for giving these kids the life-readiness skills that will serve them well in college or a future job.” The students are paid for hours spent baking and selling cookies as well as time invested in training sessions.
Halley doesn’t need to recruit; the youth come to Cookie Cart when they’re 15, eager to work. “We hire based on motivation. We’re not looking at experience because these kids are just starting out. We want kids who want to be here and want to learn – and that’s who we hire,” Halley said.
Cookie Cart teens also have opportunities to visit local companies – and to host adult volunteers from local organizations at the bakery. Each time a group comes to the bakery to help decorate cookies, the teens have the opportunity to engage these professionals in conversation and learn more about their various careers and backgrounds. Similarly, the volunteers quickly see how curious, funny and smart the students are and appreciate the connections they make with the teens.
Just one example of Cookie Cart’s many success stories, Rep. Fue Lee, who represents North Minneapolis in House District 59A, is a proud Cookie Cart alum who joined Mayor Melvin Carter and other community leaders at Cookie Cart’s St. Paul bakery grand opening in May.
At Bremer, we’re proud of our long relationship with this dynamic organization that teaches employment and life skills to teens and our collective, positive impact on local communities. With the addition of its new location in St. Paul, Cookie Cart will engage 250 youth in job experience and classroom job readiness training in 2018 and expects to engage 300 youth in 2019, a 50 percent increase from 2017. And while we recommend trying all the cookies, we’re partial to the double chocolate chip and coconut toffee!