For teen-driven Minnesota bakery, expansion is icing on the cake

Cookies are prepared and ready to bake.
Multiple batches of cookies are prepared and ready to go into an oven in Cookie Cart's kitchen in north Minneapolis on a recent Tuesday.
Russell Barnes | MPR News

Editor's note: In this next installment of MPR News' Young Reporters Series, Aaron Bolton reports on plans to expand a nonprofit bakery.

Cookie Cart got its humble beginnings in the early 1980s when a nun wanted to offer north Minneapolis youth real world job experience as an alternative to violence and drugs.

The idea took hold as Sister Jean Thuerauf started baking cookies with kids in her kitchen until she opened a storefront bakery on Emerson Avenue in 1988 to serve more teens.

Now employing 200 teens at a time at a site on West Broadway Avenue, the nonprofit says its space there is maxed out so it plans to expand to St. Paul's east side in 2017.

Supporters say St. Paul is a natural next step. Cookie Cart's become such a big part of the north Minneapolis community there's always a waiting list of teens ready to work, said Matt Halley, the group's executive director.

"Everybody starts in the bakery," said Halley. "But after they go through our customer service training class, they go out in community events and sell cookies." Kids from 15 to 18 years old don't just bake and sell cookies. During the year-and-a-half long program, they are also paid to take classroom training to develop job skills. "And all that is while they're punched in and on the clock. So it really is a unique experience," Halley said.

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Abdul Ibrahim, a junior at Patrick Henry
Abdul Ibrahim, a junior at Patrick Henry High School, prepares cookies at the Cookie Cart in north Minneapolis on a recent weekday. Ibrahim, who works 10 to 15 hours a week at the bakery, aspires to work in a STEM industry.
Russell Barnes | MPR News

The classes teach resume writing, financial literacy and other skills. "You get money, but also know what to do with it," said Abdul Ibrahim, a busy 16-year-old Patrick Henry High School junior who lives with his mother and siblings in a three-bedroom home in north Minneapolis. He heard about Cookie Cart through other students and has been working there for about six months now, balancing work, school and sports.

The teens are paid $7.25 an hour to start. That rises to $8.25 an hour as they get more experience.

On a recent day at the bakery, Abdul and other teens gathered around large steel tables in the spacious bakery. They followed recipes to make the 20-pound blocks of cookie dough, which they scooped into small chunks ready for baking.

It's a glimpse into what Cookie Cart's St. Paul expansion will look like. The nonprofit's second location is projected to open in 2017 in an old grocery store in St. Paul's Payne-Phalen neighborhood. About 100 teens will work there. Cookie Cart's backers are now trying to raise $3.2 million to renovate the St. Paul location.

M&M cookies wait to go into the oven.
M&M cookies wait to go into the oven at the Cookie Cart in north Minneapolis.
Russell Barnes | MPR News

The nonprofit chose the east side for two reasons, said Halley. "One, folks in St. Paul said that young people are looking for positive activities to do. Secondly, they said there is a real need for youth employment over on the East side."

He said he wants to start working with the kids right away even though the bakery won't be up and running for another year. To do that, Cookie Cart will begin training students next year.

"Starting January, we are going to hire kids out of Johnson High School as an after-school program to teach them the exact same customer service skills and employment skills that young people in north Minneapolis get," Halley said.

While it's unusual starting outside of the bakery, teens from Johnson will help Cookie Cart gain a foothold by becoming ambassadors for the program, he added. "It seems like a really good way to start."