There's a new, swanky bakery in Georgetown that's serving up premium coffee, teas, and pastries like a crème caramel rooibos teaclair, mini banana bread loaf, and lemon financier, all baked from scratch in an historic building on a quiet side street a few blocks from the waterfront. Exposed brick and light-stained hardwood floors complement red leather seats and blue and white booths with matching red pillows—appropriately patriotic décor for this nontraditional eatery.
Dog Tag Bakery, which celebrated its grand opening this month, is not like other bakeries in the upscale D.C. neighborhood. The staff may be just as talented and pleasant as in other coffee houses in area, and the digs just as nice. But for eight people on staff, baking and brewing is just one element of their jobs. Those eight are injured veterans and their spouses, participating in a work-study program through Georgetown University.
By day, they help run the bakery—from ringing up customers, to marketing, to actually baking the pastries. They learn the ins and outs of running a business and the art of baking. On the side, they take business courses on the second floor of the 150-year-old building. Georgetown professors, through the School of Continuing Studies, come in to teach courses on accounting, business management, finance, and communications. It's the only business certificate program of its kind in the country, helping transition injured veterans into the private sector.
It's an important transition that's often overlooked. Veterans, and especially wounded veterans, often have a difficult time finding jobs after leaving the military. In a recent survey, Wounded Warriors found that over 17 percent of the program's alumni are unemployed—one-third of whom are long-term unemployed. Just 44 percent of those surveyed work full time.
One of the roots in this trend has to deal with wounded veterans lacking the necessary education for the private sector. That's why Justin Ford, the bakery's general manager, wanted to offer the program to wounded veterans—many of whom have combat injuries or post-traumatic stress—and to their spouses, who are often caregivers. Participants are paid a $2,200 monthly stipend by the program and the bakery covers their certificate costs.
"No matter if you have a physical or mental wound or disability, it's not going to stop you from growing professionally and personally," Ford says. "We'll definitely knock down that wall."
Ford knows this situation well. He's a veteran of the Army, serving as a combat engineer for four years, including in Kosovo and Iraq. When he left the military in 2004, he assumed that since he did well in the military and achieved rank promotions at a relatively quick pace, it would translate over to the civilian world. But after he couldn't secure any management positions, he found himself busing tables, working at a gym, and doing other odd jobs that didn't pay the bills for almost two years until he decided to go to college. Since then, he's worked to find jobs for other veterans after they leave the service.
"The military spends a great deal of time and money inaugurating you into the military, but only about a week to send you on your way. So, when someone comes out of the military, they don't have that support network," Ford says. "We've gotten a lot better as a country and within the military transitioning veterans. But there's still a lot of work to do."
Another issue has to do with the structure of the private sector, says Alex Powers, the director of the Warriors to Work program at Wounded Warriors. Because many veterans entered the military at a very young age, typically right out of high school, they don't have a vast amount of experience working in the private sector. His program provides one-on-one career counseling and coaching for part-time or full-time employment. Wounded Warriors has committed to finding meaningful employment for 10,000 veterans by 2017.
"When they go out to the civilian sector, they understand that they have to be at work at a certain time, but they're fearful of whether or not they'll be truly mentored and coached like they were in the military," says Powers, who served 10 years in the Army through the mid-1990s. "These are amazing people, just incredibly courageous individuals. These warriors want to continue to have a meaningful life. They want to take care of their family. They want to grow personally and professionally as they deal with their injuries upon their return from downrange."
Ford, for his part, has made an effort to hire veterans beyond the program as permanent staff in the bakery. He also hired Sham Hasan, a former Iraqi translator for the U.S. Army and State Department. Hasan worked for the U.S. government for over three years in Iraq and finally moved to Washington two months ago after a long, arduous green-card process. But with the new job, and new path in the U.S. he got through his service, he's around a couple things he knows well: food and military folks.
"I wake up every morning pumped up and motivated," says the 28-year-old barista. "I just want to be here and work. I want to be American. That's the dream. I always wanted to be American. I worked so hard and I nailed it."
Patrons of the Georgetown establishment share his enthusiasm. "The bread is good," a new regular customer yells as he leaves on this winter morning, walking past the chandelier made of dog tags hovering over an antique dog tag maker. The bakery hadn't celebrated its grand opening yet when I was there, but the place was packed with coffee drinkers and business people munching on curried chicken-salad sandwiches and chocolate coffee truffles. The space is comfortably airy, designed to be especially accessible for wounded veterans—there's an elevator for the second floor, there's more room in the aisles and behind the counter to fit a wheelchair, and the front door is automatic.
A new wave of program participants will come in the new year. But until that time, Ford reminds his customers: "Although we are a nonprofit, we do offer a good product."
(Image via Flickr user Borya)