The holidays are the busy season at Angel Baked Cookies, a nonprofit that hires teenagers from north St. Louis year-round to make chocolate chip, sugar and oatmeal raisin cookies.
On a recent December afternoon, Annitta Frost, 17, was on dish duty, washing giant stainless steel mixing bowls, while Darius Franklin, 16, and Vickie Bailey, 18, operated a hand-cranked “portioner” to measure mini-sized chocolate-chip cookies. As the first chunks of dough missed their mark, the bakers took it in stride. They tossed the errant globs into a trash can, quickly made a few adjustments and were soon churning out pan after pan of oven-ready cookies, officially known as “Angel Baked Halos.” (What else would you call cookies baked by angels?)
The teens are enthusiastic about their cookies made with all-natural ingredients — butter, pure vanilla and unbleached flour — and no preservatives.
“They are delicious. And they’re baked by angels,’’ said a giggling Annitta, as she sloshed a bowl through the sudsy hot water. “We’re all angels.”
Darius said that an important ingredient is teamwork — that everyone works together.
“We just get the job done,’’ he said. “It’s fun making cookies. That’s why they’re so delicious.’’
They usually make about 1,500 cookies a week at this baking operation, where “angel” really is a job title. During the holidays, production increases to about 4,000. The cookies are individually packaged and sold through the Angel Baked website and at local stores, including Schnucks, Straubs, Fields Foods and Local Harvest.
Angel Baked was started in 2007 by the Rev. Gary Meier, then-pastor at St. Teresa and Bridget Catholic Church. It’s a program of North Grand Neighborhood Services, a nonprofit that partners with the church to develop affordable housing in the Jeff Vander Lou neighborhood, about a mile north of Grand Center. Angel Baked uses the kitchen of the nonprofit's office for dough making and convection ovens at the church for baking.
“A beautiful consequence of calling it Angel Baked cookies and calling our teenagers angels is that they start to see themselves as angels,’’ said Meier, who is executive director of North Grand Neighborhood Services. “We believe that. And they believe that. There’s a positive effect that comes out of that.’’
Meier said Angel Baked was inspired by the “angels” themselves.
“A group of teenagers had came over to one of our block meetings,’’ he said. “I asked them, ‘What can we do to make this neighborhood community better for you?’ And they all said, ‘We need jobs.’ ”
Meier said that baking cookies came to mind because it was “possible and doable.”
“Surely, we can bake some cookies and we can sell them,’’ he said. “As it turned out, yeah, we can bake cookies — and not only a couple dozen but thousands of cookies. When we started, we were doing this out of my kitchen. We were giving cookies away.”
Angel Baked now hires about a dozen high school students a year. They’re paid minimum wage, and most work two shifts a week, from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m.
“For kids in this neighborhood, there’s no job for them to walk to or get to — this is it,’’ Meier said. “For 90 percent of our teens, this is their first job.”
The youths learn employment skills, including teamwork and customer service.
The hand-operated portioner — and the industrial-sized mixer whirring at full speed in the next room — are about as automated as it gets at Angel Baked. Program manager Carla Jones oversees the kitchen’s efficiency — and friendliness.
“She’s the head angel,’’ proclaimed Annitta.
Jones said the cookies are fantastic — and so are the employees.
"We like to say that our program doesn’t really just make cookies, we make people,'' she said. "The teens make it wonderful, and we help our teens become who they need to be — and who they want to be.''
Each workday begins with a 30-minute period of group reflection. The crew members sit together and talk about what’s happening in their lives.
“All of our kids are coming from school; and sometimes that can be a little bit tough, depending on what’s gone on in school that day. Or what’s going on with their friends and stuff,’’ Jones said. “So having a moment just to sit and calm down can be really beneficial to us.’’
In recent weeks, the discussion has often centered around the grand jury decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson who fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in August.
“Especially now with everything that’s going on in St. Louis we’ve been talking a lot about Ferguson and a lot about how they feel about that and how to get involved in trying to make a difference while still being teenagers,’’ Jones said. “To end those sessions we do something we call our ‘moment of mindfulness,’ and we let the kids just sort of be. Taking a moment for themselves. Taking a moment just to breathe. Taking a moment just to center themselves so that they’ve got those tools that can help them in the future -- and so they can have a more productive workday.’’
Meier and Jones say their “angels’’ all graduate from high school.
“Once they become an angel, they stay with us until they graduate,’’ Meier said.
Annitta, who has worked at Angel Baked for about a year, kept her job after her family moved to Jennings. She rides the bus after school — a trip that takes more than an hour.
“I love my job,’’ she said.
Darius said he planned to spend his next paycheck on gifts for his siblings because his family is short on funds this Christmas.
“I’m going to be the secret Santa. I feel like since I’ve got this job now it’s going to be my duty to at least buy everybody something they want this Christmas. If I can’t get them what they want I’m going to try and get them the next best thing,’’ he said. He paused and called out to Jones. “Carla, I need some overtime.’’
Angel Baked, which was recently honored with the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award, depends on donations, in addition to cookie sales.
“Our goal in the future is to break even,'' Meier said. "If we get to that place where we’re selling closer to 4,000 cookies a week, then we’ll be at a break-even point.”