Bite of a Better Life

Deborah Tuggle bakes people-centric policies into every cookie

By Naomi Tomky, guest contributor

Cookies
Photos courtesy of Bite Me!

 

Most of the week, Bite Me! Cookies produces about 15,000 cookies an hour. But the from-scratch baking and hand-frosting at the Tacoma bakery pauses on Wednesday afternoons, when the staff breaks for the in-house English as a Second Language class.

Deborah Tuggle did not set out to create a de facto immigrant job-and-life-skills training program, but over more than two decades of running a bakery, her hiring practices and business ethos came together to do just about that. “What we want is, whoever we employ, when they leave here, they have a skill set, and they can take it somewhere else.” That means the English classes, but also using grants to help employees take computer courses and train in lean manufacturing, supporting them as they navigate and build lives in a new place. “We don’t want someone to work here, then go work at another cookie shop,” scoffs Tuggle. “We want them to buy a house.”

Tuggle’s first employee, a teenager newly from Moldova, arrived at the interview escorted by her worried father. She left 14 years later, fluent in English, to move to Florida, along with her three children and a group of extended family members—many of whom also worked at Bite Me! Tuggle worried about how she would go forward without the people she called “the backbone of everything” at the bakery. But soon, she hired more workers. “The Lord just kept sending me the same type of people, who happened to be refugees, who happened to be from another country,” Tuggle noticed.

After a while, she thought, maybe that was her purpose. “If this is what it is for us, then we’re gonna take it and run with it. Because we want to make a difference.” So, she leaned in, listening to her employees and trying to meet their needs. Paying for employees to attend ESL classes evolved into the current in-house lessons.

On-the-job training for new employees at Bite Me! includes fundamental skills, like learning how to request time off work for appointments, something there are many of in the resettlement process, explains Heather Sisson, Bite Me!’s director of sales and marketing. Sisson appreciates the flexible schedule because she spends time volunteering outside of work with local organizations resettling refugees. “What we focus on in our volunteer work is all about empowerment and that, of course, pours over to the workplace,” she explains. The company’s policies make the hiring process simpler for employees. Most companies ask for way more documentation than state law requires, Sisson says. By giving the broadest options and asking for the bare minimum of documentation required, they remove obstacles and deterrents to potential hires who might have different papers that make them equally eligible for employment.  “Requesting specific documents or more than what is the minimum is discrimination and is not tolerated.”

Bite Me! Cookies bakery

The company specifically requires no English skills or previous work experience and trains their employees on the job, and all of their documents are interpreted into every language active on the floor.

More than a few times people ask Tuggle why she does this, doesn’t it just make more work? “We do it because we want to,” Tuggle responds. “You want to be able to give someone a chance.”

Multiple chances: along with the training and striving to pay her 30 employees a sustainable living wage, she works to promote from within—she points to the bakery floor, where all three of the leads started at entry level and worked their way up. “I don’t want to hire someone from outside and bring them in to be a lead over these girls that have been here,” she says. “I want to hire one of them to be the lead.”

As she tells endless stories—about the man from Afghanistan who went on to work in food production, and the woman who went from speaking no English to a lead position, then left to work for the school district—it becomes clear how much Tuggle enjoys helping people. “It’s not about me. But in any instance, if I can help someone…” she trails off. “It’s just, like, ‘Wow!’”

Tuggle didn’t set out to help refugees and immigrants, but she also didn’t set out to open a bakery. “I started baking cookies and selling them and people loved them,” she explains.

After eating a particularly impressive cookie at a birthday party for one of her son’s friends, she asked the host why they were so good. The parent gave her a tip to use on any recipe: “Just add more flour than it calls for and double the chocolate chips.” Tuggle followed the instructions and soon found herself on a mission to create great cookies—and on the receiving end of cookie compliments.

As a single mother attending court stenographer school, she needed extra money, and started selling her cookies on Fridays, which brought about the name of her first company, Friday’s Cookies. She graduated and started an internship with the county but realized she didn’t like her day job. She just wanted to make cookies. She had no formal baking background and no business background, but she knew she didn’t want to look back in 10 years and think, “What if?” That was 25 years ago.

In 2004 she acquired Bite Me! and merged the brands, tripling the company’s business within a few months. “It is the grace of God that has me in business,” she claims, marveling at what she’s done, despite the lack of experience or education in the industry. But then she lets slip her true secret: “I’m smart enough to hire people that are smarter than me,” she says. “They carry the load, they make my life easy. So as long as you honor people and meet them where they stand, they’ll be good to you.”

Tuggle didn’t set out to run a bakery or job training for immigrants, but now she understands her mission. “We want to make a difference,” she says. “We’re trying to make it happen, one cookie at a time.” She looks around at her team—hailing from Ukraine, Nicaragua, Guatemala and more—as they weigh out dough balls for cherry almond shortbread and frost seasonal cookie shapes. Over the years, she says, people suggested machines could take over these tasks, and that idea solidified her understanding of what she does. “We’re a cookie company that empowers people,” she declares. “If I become so automated that I can’t empower people, then what the hell good am I?”

 

Naomi Tomky (naomitomky.com), author of “The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook,” writes about food and travel.

 

A bite of cookie baking

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