“It’s like this hidden gem that people don’t know about,” says Sue Zelickson.
She’s talking about Cookie Cart, the Minneapolis nonprofit that not only teaches kids how to bake delicious cookies, but offers training in everything from business practices to customer service to leadership skills to financial literacy. Zelickson co-founded Cookie Cart's annual Chefs’ Dinner fundraiser and silent auction, which celebrates its 10th anniversary on October 28.
When Cookie Cart gave Zelickson’s idea for a fundraising dinner the go-ahead, she immediately contacted her friend Pat Weber, a chef, consultant, and then-instructor of culinary students at the Arts Institute who was already involved with the organization. Together, they built it off of an existing project Weber gave his students. Young people plan the event, prepare the food, execute the service, and clean up afterward.
“That’s always been what the dinner’s about,” says Weber of the dinner’s showcase of young talent and energy.
Each year, the event attracted more attendees and sponsors -- and raised more money. (In fact, this year's dinner has already sold out, though there are plenty of other ways to get involved.) Weber also started involving up-and-coming area chefs, big names like Landon Schoenefeld (Nighthawks, Haute Dish), Sameh Wadi (World Street Kitchen, Saffron), Brianna Baldus (Wise Acre Eatery), and Seth Bixby Daugherty (D’Amico Cucina, Cosmos). The dinner has moved over the years to accommodate the crowds and corporate sponsors who want in, but the food is still prepared and served by culinary students, something that'll be reinforced by this year’s location: St. Paul College’s Culinary Arts space.
“It’s been great to watch it grow,” says Weber. “It’s been great to watch the community embrace it.”
Cookie Cart was founded in 1988 by Sister Jean Thuerauf, a North Side nun who loved baking cookies and invited neighborhood kids to join her. The organization has expanded, moving every few years, and recently added a bakery in St. Paul. Most Cookie Cart teens live in the North Side and Payne-Phalen neighborhoods but attend a variety of schools, so it acts as a meeting place for young people to form new friendships as they build business and leadership skills. The teens are also paid for the hours they work, which can range anywhere from five to 15 hours a week.
Though Zelickson no longer sits on the Cookie Cart board, she's a huge supporter and promoter of the organization. “When you give somebody a purpose and responsibility for something to get to every day, that’s a lasting investment in a future,” she says. And when you read Cookie Cart’s weekly Rising Stars blog posts featuring two exceptional Cookie Cart teens, you see that. Many talk about how their jobs have given them opportunities to come out of their shells, meet new people, and learn new skills. They talk candidly about their successes, favorite moments, and plans for the future.
Some of these teens will be on hand at this year's dinner, sitting with attendees and sharing the meal so everyone can get to know each other. The food itself promises to be exceptional, with brisket, Spanish shrimp and grits, a hearty autumnal salad, and an apple tart. Because most of the food and labor are donated to the event, a higher percentage of the ticket costs goes directly to the organization, something Weber's really proud of. “This event is going to happen as long as I live in the Twin Cities,” he says.
While you may not have been able to snag a ticket to this year’s fundraiser, there are lots of other ways to support Cookie Cart and the hundreds of teens who work there: Buy cookies, volunteer, donate, or place a custom order.
With every cookie, you’re making a difference. And how often can you say that?