Veterans Learn Business Skills at DC’s Dog Tag Bakery
On one of Washington, D.C.’s gloriously sunny, almost-spring days, I came across a huge white building with a large glass sliding door whose name, Dog Tag Bakery, piqued my interest. Driven by an insatiable sweet tooth, I ventured in and was immediately captivated by its menu, one teeming with all kinds of chocolates, brownies, and pastries. Yet it wasn’t until I sat down that I noticed something peculiar above me: A chandelier made of dog tags—3,456 dog tags, to be exact—honoring U.S. military veterans.
After doing a little investigating, I quickly learned that the singular chandelier is much more than a decorative ornament. It is, in many respects, emblematic of Dog Tag Bakery’s mission, one that uniquely aims to support the men and women of the U.S. military.
The baking geniuses behind Dog Tag Inc. and Dog Tag Bakery are Fr. Rick Curry, SJ and Connie Milstein. The two co-founders wanted to combine their shared respect and admiration for our troops into a hands-on educational program. Through their innovative organization, veterans attend classes run by Georgetown University on topics such as business administration and entrepreneurship. At the same time, they acquire practical skills while running the bakery, handling the day-to-day operations of baking, marketing, and management.
I recently got to sit down with Meghan Ogilvie, CEO of Dog Tag Bakery, to learn more about the program, their partnerships, and what delicious treats to try.
Can you give an overview of the Dog Tag Inc. program?
We started last year with 10 veterans, caregivers, and spouses and put them through the six-month certificate in business administration through our program with Georgetown.
After taking time to review the program and feedback from our first graduates, we will be taking 20 veterans, caregivers, or spouses this cycle. All graduates will receive a certificate through Georgetown, so they’ll cover accounting, marketing, management, business policy, and business statistics. We also really focus on the learning the ins and outs of a small business.
Can you talk more about the classes, experiences, and events?
First, there is education. Participants take two classes at a time and cycle through the business itself, so they will learn to bake; they will learn customer service; and they’ll learn marketing, social media, and how to look at inventory. It’s an understanding of why and how a small business works.
There is also the bakery and business aspect. It’s an experiential learning process. When going through our marketing class, they will be working on a project for the business and us. So, whether it’s changing the menu or a big holiday coming up, they will show they can come up with marketing campaigns.
Lastly, there is the learning lab where we bring in professionals for a Q&A type event. For example, a rep from EagleBank recently came in and talked about small business loans.
We also have a mock interview day, so we brought in organizations like BP, Advisory Board, Starbucks, and Sodexo. We did something similar to speed dating: Everybody leaves with a report from each hiring manager that shows what they did well and what can be improved, as well as how they can better formulate their resumes.
Do you hire anyone that has gone through the program to work full-time?
We don’t hire graduates because we want to empower them to go use the tools they just gained. We don’t give anything—we provide opportunities. We pay for Georgetown, pay for the professors, pay for any uniforms they may need, and provide a small stipend as well. You need to be committed to the process. It’s not that you showed up today and should get paid.
How has your partnership with Hiring Our Heroes been beneficial?
We were trying to see how we could work with Hiring Our Heroes, but we thought we were very young and a small organization. We got in touch with Eric Eversole, the Executive Director of Hiring our Heroes, about 2 months ago, and he said, ‘Let’s have a meeting.’ It was supposed to be a half-hour and ended up being an hour-and-a-half. I was so blown away. And from there we’ve done hiring events, and he’s put us in contact with USO, transition officers, and other organizations. HOH has a wealth of knowledge in this area and is so dedicated to making it strategic. At hiring fairs, you get resumes beforehand and can reach out and say, ‘We want to set up a one-on-one.’ I think that’s so effective. You have an idea of who is going to be there and who to talk to.
We noticed that you recently extended your hours—does that mean business is going well?
Yeah it’s going well. We started out 5 days a week, 5 hours a day. Peopled started getting annoyed that we weren’t open more, so we’re now open Tuesday-Sunday and have standardized hours from 8 to 6. So far, it’s been good.
Are you looking to expand?
It’s really interesting that we’ve had people call from San Francisco or Alaska who say, ‘We love it. Let us do it here!’ But we’re just not ready for that right now—we want to get the education down first. The education part is paramount. We aren’t just going to expand bakeries. We’ve made up our minds that we first need to make sure we have that accomplished before looking into where to go next.
Let’s talk about the sweet stuff- the menu.
Ninety-nine percent of everything in-store is homemade in our bakery. The breads, pies, brownies, and cakes—they’re all made in-house. We pride ourselves on this. For our coffee, we partnered with Compass Coffee. Harrison and Michael, the founders, are former Marines from the area who have their own roaster and their own shop. We were testing coffee, and they were just starting up, and we knew we had to practice what we preached. If you’re going to talk about veterans and entrepreneurship, then walk the walk. And we went and tried the coffee, and it was like, ‘We would have chosen this anyway!’
What’s the best selling item?
Our brownies go over really well. They are one of Connie’s recipes, and they are pretty decadent. We recommend having a cup of coffee or milk with them! They’re sugary and delicious and comforting. Brother Curry’s pumpkin mini loaf is a perfect snack in the afternoon when you want something special.