Can a cookie change a life?

Sister Jean Thuerauf thought so when she opened the Cookie Cart bakery in north Minneapolis 25 years ago as a way to keep neighborhood teens busy.

It changed Dominique Nelson’s life. She started at Cookie Cart as a young teen. Now 22 and a graduate of the culinary program at St. Paul College (and working on a bachelor’s degree in business), she supervises youth workers as part of the bakery support staff — when she’s not tweaking the Cart’s recipes.

The nonprofit bakery started simply over a bowl of flour, sugar and eggs in the home kitchen of Sister Jean, who was part of the nondenominational Mercy Missionaries. What better way to connect with neighborhood youths than while making cookies? When she realized that the older ones needed a more challenging task, she encouraged them to think big. Really big. Big as in “Let’s open a bakery.”

And faster than you can say “snickerdoodle,” they did. But even she did not anticipate the growth of the Little Bakery That Could. Last year, the Cookie Cart made and sold 42,500 dozen cookies (do the math: that’s 510,000 cookies). You’ve probably eaten at least one of them, since they regularly appear at local corporate functions, theaters and churches. (That M&M cookie at the budget meeting, the sugar cookie at the theater intermission, the coconut-toffee cookie at the church fellowship hour? Probably from the Cookie Cart.)

And it all started at a kitchen table.

Today the Cookie Cart on W. Broadway is poised to expand, restructuring its space to accommodate more teens and, as a result, more cookies.

Note the order. Teens first, cookies second. If this were business as usual, Cookie Cart’s goal would be to sell more cookies. Period.

But teens take top billing here; the Cookie Cart exists to serve them. The cookies themselves are the icing on the cake, the sprinkles on the doughnuts, the chocolate chips in that double-chocolate treat.

“From the kids’ perspective, it’s a paycheck,” said Matt Halley, executive director of the Cookie Cart, which offers minimum wage for the teens’ starting pay. “But for parents, it’s a safe place. They know their kids will be safe for a while, away from negative influences on the street.”

There’s more for students than a paycheck and a cookie at the end of the shift. The Cart provides a three-part educational program to prepare teens for the work world, which includes interpersonal skills and job readiness: Everyday workplace issues are covered, such as what’s appropriate to wear to a job, how to resolve conflict and how to tell peers they’ve left greasy thumbprints on the cookie package. Then there are the food safety rules — a necessity in a professional kitchen and ones we all ought to know (starting with “Wash your hands for a full 20 seconds before working with food”).

The revamped space will allow the Cookie Cart to put more kids to work, which will minimize the wait that more than 200 students face annually when the bakery spots are filled.

Over the years, several thousand teens have scooped dough and counted out cookies. Today about 60 of them, ages 15 to 17, work in the bakery in shifts that accommodate their after-school schedules. New spots open regularly — about 145 come through during the year — because students always move on since this is intended to be a first job only. Most stay about a year.

“Once they gain the skills, we want to send them on their way, but it’s always bittersweet,” said baking project manager Stacy Schleeter, who started out as a volunteer.

A spot in the bakery kitchen is a sought-after job that needs no advertising. Most students hear about it via word of mouth or follow the footsteps of siblings. In Nelson’s family, that meant six others took her path through the front door of the Cookie Cart, after she heard about it from a family friend.

Like Nelson, Ying Yang has advanced to a staff position. Now 19 and a sophomore communications major at Concordia University in St. Paul, he began like those he helps supervise in the kitchen — as a kid who only wanted a paycheck.

The poised, articulate young man is now a bakery assistant who credits the program with making him confident. “Before I came here, I was very quiet. This is where I learned public speaking skills.” That ability serves him well, he notes, since his favorite bakery duty is customer service.

About 20 percent of cookie orders come from those who drop by the bakery. That will temporarily cease during the renovation, when the bakery relocates its kitchen during the construction process, from the end of February to late June or July.

Partnerships with local businesses support the bakery with volunteers, lessons and products. “I’d like to see a Cookie Cart in every city that there is a need,” said Shaun Irwin of the Anderson Insurance Agency, who has worked with the bakery for 15 years.

So how are cookies different then, say, widgets when it comes to job skills?

“We’re all kids at heart. We all love a cookie and it connects with our heart,” said Irwin. “It’s like we’re mixing the ingredients so young people can find a path.”

In other words, a cookie does makes a difference.


Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste