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Cookie business offers recipe for success

Social enterprise partners with Dégagé Ministries to offer job opportunities for women in crisis.

November 30, 2018
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Volunteers Linda Belgiano, foreground, and Meri Leidel make cookies on baking day for the social enterprise Pauls' Moms' Cookies. Courtesy Dégagé Ministries

Blown through the doors of Dégagé Ministries by 50 mph winds and snow last winter, Susan Schnur was “frozen stiff” and needed a place to stay that was off the streets. Little did she know that within five months, she would also have a job as a baker and a newfound family.

Just over a year after coming to Dégagé Ministries, Schnur works part time at Pauls’ Moms’ Cookies (PMC), a social enterprise bakery founded by Cindy Knape and Chris Mason, who both have sons named Paul.

PMC — which makes cookies in the kitchens of Dégagé, 144 S. Division Ave., and Trinity United Methodist Church, 1100 Lake Drive SE — is a for-profit business that funnels all of its proceeds into Dégagé’s Open Door Women’s Center, an overnight shelter for women in crisis that also helps residents set and meet goals for getting back into permanent housing.

Knape and Mason founded PMC seven years ago. In the beginning, proceeds went to The Manasseh Project, an anti-sex trafficking ministry of Wedgwood Christian Services, then later to a girls school in Sudan. In 2015, the founders formed the now-exclusive partnership with Dégagé.

PMC sells the cookies online at degagecookies.myshopify.com, as well as at Meijer’s Bridge Street Market, Forest Hills Foods and Kingma’s Markets in Ada and Plainfield Township.

Cookie varieties currently available include Lemon Cherry Dream, Mint Meltaways, Molasses Ginger, Peanut Butter Chocolate Ganache (gluten-free), Salted Caramel Chocolate Chunk and Oatmeal Berry. Knape developed the recipes, which she said took “at least” 20 iterations to get just right.

Income from the business has more than doubled since PMC teamed up with Dégagé three years ago. The nonprofit last year appointed Zenobia Taylor-Weiss as the cookie business coordinator to assist the founders. So far, PMC has hired five graduates of the Open Door program and has amassed 20 to 30 volunteers from area churches and the community.

Schnur is far from the only former resident whose life has been touched by PMC, but she is one of the most outspoken.

“I was approached on the first day when I came here last year by Chris (Mason),” she said. “She approached me because she had found out I had been working at an assisted (living) facility as a cook, so she thought I would be good at Pauls’ Moms’ Cookies. It was my first day coming in from 50-mile-an-hour winds and the bad snowstorm where I was staying on the river. So I was frozen stiff, and I was listening to her preach to me that ‘You’ve got to do this.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll think about it after I find out what the program is here first,’ because I had just arrived. Everything was so new, and she was already offering me a job. Of course, I wanted to accept it, and so eventually I did after I finished the program for five months.”

Schnur said she was at “rock bottom” on the streets, not looking to the future because it seemed like “a big dead end.” She had been searching for housing, but her applications were turned down repeatedly for lack of sufficient references.

The night of the storm, she and some homeless men she didn’t know tried to pitch a tent by the post office next to the river, but it blew down, and the next thing they knew, police officers were turning on floodlights and asking them to leave.

A woman she knew told her about Dégagé Ministries, which welcomed her in from the storm — and Mason just happened to be in the building that night on PMC business.

“Coming here, when she offered me that job, it was a little spark of hope,” Schnur said.

After settling into a routine at the shelter with chores and meetings, Schnur agreed to train with PMC for six to eight weeks and then was hired for a part-time job.

“I thank God,” she said. “I’m happy, I’m looking forward to seeing the girls on baking day. I don’t have to put on. I don’t have to talk. I can just work.”

Another employee, Cindy Koppenol, also came to the shelter off the streets and has been working with PMC for three years. She and Schnur both said they count PMC — its workers, volunteers and leaders — as family.

Plus: “It’s a good-smelling job,” Koppenol said, laughing.

Knape, Taylor-Weiss and Bob Kreter, Dégagé’s marketing manager, said the business has maxed out the two kitchens’ capacity, which limits its weekly batch size to 1,500 cookies. At this point, PMC can’t fill anymore Christmas orders due to its backlog.

Although Kreter could not yet disclose a timeline, he said the mission is planning to expand soon to give PMC a dedicated kitchen and retail space.

The move will allow PMC to answer the calls it has been getting from SpartanNash to sell its cookies in its local stores.

Taylor-Weiss said in addition to continuing to sell at pop-ups such as the Made in Michigan artisan event at the Grand Rapids Downtown Market and selling cookies to Frosty Boy and Dairy Queen locations for use in ice cream sundaes, her dream is to get PMC cookies back into farmers markets — the one in Rockford was where the business got its start — as well as placing its cookies on the menu at local restaurants.

“We’re definitely on a growth path, but it’s going to be a while until we get there,” she said.

Knape said her goal is to start formally educating the women in the Open Door program about the opportunities PMC offers, to help them believe they are capable, have the skills and can contribute.

“If I were to tell you what we’re hoping for in the future, it’s more than getting into other stores,” she said. “It’s to get more women from Open Door to be part of our group.”

Open Door Women’s Center

Where: On the third floor of Dégagé Ministries at 144 S. Division Ave.

Who is eligible: Female residents of Kent County who are 18 and older and in need of shelter. Capacity is 40 women.

Requirements: Women intending to stay longer than three nights must sign an agreement with staff that requires them to set goals and report on progress weekly. Drug testing is completed on intake and randomly after. Those who are intoxicated are not allowed to stay at Open Door. All women are required to connect with the Housing Assessment Program through The Salvation Army about permanent housing.

Hours: Intake for overnight shelter is from 7-8 p.m. Women are woken at 6 a.m. and leave by 7:45 a.m. During the day, women may visit Dégagé’s dining room during open hours or utilize services on the second floor.

Cost: Staying at the Open Door is free; “Dégagé dollars” and cash can be used to purchase toiletries and other items.

Reservations: Women can make a reservation on the second floor Life Enrichment Center.

Length of stay: The length of stay varies depending on each woman’s needs and is determined by staff. Women must be willing to meet with staff and make progress toward achieving goals in order to maintain their spot in the program.

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