John Lira’s time in the U.S. Marine Corps included a stretch as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a second deployment in 2005, when his battalion took heavy casualties in Iraq. He is trained in satellite communications and intelligence with 11-plus years of military service, and never imagined he'd be taking on a new kind of challenge – making bakery items from scratch.
Lira, who recently completed a five-month business training program through Dog Tag, Inc., assembled ingredients and looked over a recipe as he thought of one way Dog Tag resembled the military. Both the service and bakery showed him how to do a job one time, and then expected him to get it right.
“I didn’t want to mess up those brownies,” he recalled with a laugh. “I was a Marine, so I like getting my hands dirty, but this was a whole different type of getting my hands dirty. I have a lot of acquired skills and now I guess I can add baking to the list.”
Designed to support wounded veterans and spouses through education, leadership development and a personalized business management rotation, the Dog Tag work-study program combines classroom instruction with the experience necessary for veterans to succeed as civilians. Dog Tag operates a bakery of the same name in Washington, D.C. That’s where Lira faced the task of making eight trays of brownies that were expected to make the cut for the Dog Tag Bakery display case.
'Entrepreneurial passion for quality comes through'
Twenty-five Starbucks® stores in the D.C. area are now offering a couple of Dog Tag Bakery items for their customers. Baguette Chips in two varieties – cinnamon sugar and parmesan herb – feature the bakery's logo and a label that reads: Making it deliciously simple for you to empower the lives of our veterans and military families.
Starbucks relationship with Dog Tag Bakery is part of a new approach to curating packaged food and snacks produced by entrepreneurs and locally-relevant brands.
"As my team searched neighborhoods around the world for unique snacks, we’ve enjoyed getting to know the entrepreneurs who created them, and their stories are amazing.” said Mesh Gelman, senior vice president of retail brand partnerships for Starbucks. “We are confident this entrepreneurial passion for quality comes through in the products and the stories. Dog Tag Bakery makes crunchy, flavorful baguette chips, and their mission is to hire veterans and provide professional training as they transition into the business world. This is a great example of how a story can resonate with people and make a delicious product seem like an even better purchase.”
An Incubator for Small Business
Dog Tag, Inc. is the brainchild of Father Rick Curry and Connie Milstein. Curry’s many charitable works included operating a nonprofit bakery in Maine staffed by people with disabilities. He also published a popular cookbook, "The Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking." Millstein is an entrepreneur and philanthropist who’d also ventured into baked goods, founding small businesses that donated 100 percent of its profits to charity.
Post 9/11, both Curry and Milstein concentrated their efforts on the needs of veterans. The two met in 2013 and joined forces to create Dog Tag in a two-story, 4200-square-foot building in Georgetown. The first floor of the facility consists of the storefront bakery and kitchen, while classes are conducted upstairs. Fellows in the program earn a certificate in business administration from Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies.
“The bakery is an incubator for small business,” said Meghan Ogilvie, chief operating officer for Dog Tag. “Is it baking? Yes. They do learn how to create products. But it’s also about learning about business and how many of the items need to be sold, for what price, to make a profit. It's about customer service and understanding the needs of running a business and working with customers.”
Translating Military Skills to the Workforce
Lira has come to realize it's about something more. The 34-year-old native of San Antonio, Texas, has a robust academic resume to go with his impressive service record. Employed as the veterans and military families fellow at the Corporation for National and Community Service, he earned his master’s degree in public policy and management from the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University. Dog Tag's multifaceted, hands-on approach made believers out of Lira and many others who went through the program.
“I was coming out of an academic program at Carnegie Mellon that was very rigorous,” recalled Lira. “But this was different. Academics are part of what makes Dog Tag unique, but it wasn’t all academics. It’s was about working side by side with civilians in the bakery. It was about telling our personal story and translating all the skills we acquired in the military into valuable assets for the workforce.”
Photos and video courtesy Dog Tag Bakery
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