The Cookie Cart on the North Side’s W. Broadway Avenue has been more than a bakery since it was launched 30-plus years ago by the late Sister Jean Thuerauf and a few neighborhood kids she was helping with homework in her kitchen.

Last year, in response to community demand, Cookie Cart opened a second bakery in a born-again building on Payne Avenue in St. Paul.

Like W. Broadway, it’s a low-income, high-unemployment area that’s slowly rebounding after years of decline.

Now it’s conducting a fundraising program to finance an ambitious growth plan.

This year Cookie Cart, which employs nearly 300 part-time youth workers, expects to generate about $3 million in revenue.

Cookie Cart CEO Matt Halley is asking longtime business and individual supporters to invest about $2 million through an ongoing capital campaign. About half will endow the development and leadership programs, and the rest will go into technology and other infrastructure and sales marketing.

“That $2 million is the gap between where we are today and the four years it will take to get sales up to where they will sustain the program,” Halley tells stakeholders, describing a plan to generate 50% of revenue from sales, up from 30%. “Instead of kids just scooping dough, we’re buying a dough depositor that will make us more productive. And we’ve hired our first sales and marketing person.

“Our three-year campaign provides funds and support while we shift our revenue model from 70% philanthropy and 30% cookie sales to reflect an even 50-50 ratio by 2022. Cookie Cart has grown over 275% over the last nine years and we are doubling down on our investment … to ensure financial and organizational sustainability for decades to come.”

In addition to contributions, “We also have to sell a lot more cookies,” Halley says.

Some of the bakery’s young workers contribute to their working-poor household incomes. As importantly, they are working on their futures, learning to bake, serve customers and clean equipment.

They also learn personal finance, business operations and more from the small professional staff and business volunteers.

A recent study from Wilder Research found that 80% of Cookie Cart alumni are employed three years after graduating from the Cookie Cart program compared to only 64% of working-age adults on the near North Side.

Earned revenue is rising as Cookie Cart focuses more on corporate events, weddings and the higher-margin corporate gift business.

“This year, we’ll have [up to] 300 part-time workers, making up to $11 an hour,” Halley said, minimum wage starting in July for a small business in Minneapolis. “Every dollar the minimum wage goes up is $45,000 more in wage [expense] for Cookie Cart. We have to increase sales. And we’re starting to do better with high-volume sales to business and organizations who are willing to pay for the Cookie Cart brand and who support our youth development mission.”

I don’t hit W. Broadway without stopping for a dozen cookies and a chat at the counter, or to watch the baking crew through the glass at Cookie Cart’s Minneapolis retail bakery.

Janelle McGrath, who works for Medtronic, and Quentin Moore, a North Side native, University of St. Thomas graduate and director of major giving at the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities, are two grateful Cookie Cart veterans.

“Looking back on it, I just wanted to make money,” recalled Moore. “I remember seeing kids selling cookies and telling my mom that I wanted to do that.

“I [also] gained a sense of independence. I learned how to approach people and speak to them. I learned how to work as a team. It taught me how interdependent we are in achieving success. I met friends I have to this day. It helped me develop a sense of worth.”

Local businesses from Wells Fargo to Bremer Bank, the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, Navigate Forward, Cargill and Mytech Partners invest in Cookie Cart.

They help hundreds of bright kids annually in rough-hewed neighborhoods, disproportionately lower income and minority, who deserve the opportunity and who are the workforce of the future.

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.