Category: Georgetown Magazine, Spring 2021

Title:From Battlefield to Bakery to Business

Author: By Chelsea Burwell (G’16) • Design and illustrations by Alina Ruppel • Photos by Phil Humnicky
Date Published: May 27, 2021

from battlefield to bakery to business written in cute lettering

inside of dog tag bakery

Finding their purpose again

In the years before arriving at Georgetown University as an adjunct professor of Catholic Studies, Father Rick Curry, S.J., faced his share of adversity. Born without his right forearm, the Philadelphia-bred Jesuit priest understood the impact of living with a disability, but did not let it alter his life’s path. In fact, his disposition and personal story molded him into a champion for the disabled community in his early days
of priesthood.

“It wasn’t always easy,” Curry shared in a magazine interview with Saint Joseph’s University in 2009. “But this disability is a gift from God.” Though he was a scholar in the areas of English and theater for much of his educational career, the impact of the Vietnam War moved Curry to fuse his pedagogical expertise with advocacy work.

In 1977, he founded the National Theater Workshop of the Handicapped. This repertory and theater school, located in New York City and Belfast, Maine, offered training and space for literary and visual performers with disabilities and ultimately served as the predecessor for Curry’s next project, the Wounded Warriors Writing Workshop program, following the Sept. 11 attacks. Amid increasing popularity, the program relocated to Washington, D.C., opening opportunities for disabled veteran communities from Walter Reed Army Medical Center and National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

“To those who have given so much to our country, helping them transition and facilitate a different way of thinking about entering into the business world has been truly inspirational.”

Disabled veterans “are trying to reclaim the use of their body in a new state,” Curry shared in an interview with the United Service Organizations. “We help them do that in a totally accessible environment.” Curry, who had interacted with the veteran community over the course of three decades, understood that the rehabilitation process for wounded veterans is deeper than just the individual and physical—it’s also about finding their purpose again.

To those who knew him well, it came as no surprise when the Georgetown-based Jesuit priest joined forces with Connie Milstein, a Washington, D.C., philanthropist, businesswoman, and fellow breadmaking aficionado, to launch a new endeavor: Dog Tag Bakery.

father curry in front of the bakery
In December 2014, Father Curry chose to open the bakery with an alternative to a traditional ribbon cutting ceremony. The bread-breaking event fit perfectly with the community aspect of the business. Father Curry, author of The Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking, believed that baking could be a form of meditation.

Integrative learning, without costs

Opening its doors in the December 2014, Dog Tag Bakery combined a standard eatery experience with an educational and training atmosphere for veterans and their families, thanks to a unique partnership with Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies (SCS). Beyond its operation as a bakery, Dog Tag Inc., the eatery’s parent company, works with SCS to offer a five-month fellowship focused on business and entrepreneurship.

During their time in the program, fellows are taken through rotations alongside bakery staff members to learn the ins and outs of running a business, while also assisting with front and back-of-house operation.

“Along with the fundamental coursework, they’re really experiencing hands-on learning,” says Claire Witko, Dog Tag Bakery’s Director of Programs. “From understanding financing, reading profit and loss statements, fundraising, marketing communications… and then of course, being in the bakery and understanding the product development and customer service side of the business, which is very important in any kind of business, too. Ours just happens to taste good,” she adds.

drawing of the bakery storefront

Comprising five interconnected elements, the Dog Tag Fellowship embraces a cura personalis approach to integrative learning, including foundational coursework in business and enterprising, learning labs with field experts, skill building, and wellness programming. Upon completion of the program, graduates earn a certificate of business administration from the university and receive valuable access to the Georgetown University and Dog Tag Inc. network.

“The program is so multi-layered and incredible,” says Julia Murillo, senior director of custom programs at SCS. “Many of [the fellows] are or were in a military branch or have family members in service. To those who have given so much to our country, helping them transition and facilitate a different way of thinking about entering into the business world has been truly inspirational.”

To promote accessibility and offer extensive outreach to all veterans and their families, the fellowship comes at no out-of- pocket costs to participants—an effort supported by ongoing donations and a critical benefit for a community that often depends heavily on federal aid, such as GI Bill funds.

“Because this is specifically a certificate and not a degree program, our fellows wouldn’t be able to access the full benefits of the GI Bill for this opportunity,” explains Witko. “So, we’ve been very intentional about ensuring that the barriers to entry are as limited as possible.”

The fellowship features six courses through SCS, which has the largest student population of veterans among Georgetown’s schools. One important aspect of the program, Murillo says, is the relatability between the fellows and professors.

“We have wonderful faculty members that have supported the students’ learning for many years now,” says Murillo, citing several professors including Sharon Welsh and Shye Gilad, both of whom have taught in the fellowship since its launch. “They are truly connected and focused on supporting the continual learning of our fellows, because many of them are or were in a military branch or have family members connected to a branch of service.”

Since the inception of the fellowship in 2014, more than 135 fellows through 12 cohorts have graduated from the program, with many launching their own businesses in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Witko adds that 57% of alumni have pursued additional education since graduating from the fellowship.

Curry died in 2015, but his vision for helping veterans continues to reverberate in the bakery’s mission. “In Father Rick Curry, S.J., I found a kindred spirit,” Milstein, who sits as the co-chair of Dog Tag Inc’s Board of Directors, wrote in a tribute post about her late co-founder.

“We shared a passion for service and empowering others to build meaningful and purposeful lives…you can see Father Curry’s impact in the success of Dog Tag’s alumni. It’s inspiring to watch so many of these incredible individuals go on to find purpose as entrepreneurs, nonprofit founders, and community leaders.”

A new post-military mission

As veterans transition into civilian life and away from more consistent regimens and protocol, many are left to rethink what’s ahead on their personal and professional paths. For Dog Tag Fellowship alumni Sharod Wade and Scott Domingue, participating in the Dog Tag Bakery fellowship shaped that transition in important ways.

“Going through the fellowship was a very therapeutic process for me,” says Wade. “It allowed me to find my traction as a civilian fresh out of the military.” Wade, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, recalls the difficulty of trying to cope with the mental strain of what he endured in the line of duty. As he sought to rediscover his passion alongside other former service members, he says he found a community whose perspectives nearly mirrored his own.

image of dog tag hanging in the bakery with quote that says, "I think if you ask any veteran, were all still transitioning. No matter how long youve been out, its a process"
Crafted from nearly 3,500 individual dog tags, the chandelier on display at the bakery is a moving tribute to fallen servicemen and women.

“It gave me that reassurance that I’m not alone, and in this program, we will have a safe space to explore our interest and self-sufficiency in entrepreneurship.”

Wade said he entered the fellowship program “with little training but an enterprising mind.” When it came time to create a presentable business plan for his capstone project, the Washington, D.C., native channeled inspiration from his grandfather who started and ran his own cleaning service. What manifested was Semper Sanitize LLC, Wade’s commercial and residential janitorial and cleaning company.

“I’ve always known how to do the work, thanks to watching my grandparents,” Wade recalls. “But I wondered how to turn this idea into reality.” Wade, who still lives near his stomping grounds east of the Anacostia River, which is a historically underserved area of Washington D.C. He says he is proud to carry the knowledge he gained in the military and the Dog Tag Fellowship program to educate and connect with people who live in his community.

“I’m deeply rooted in Ward 7. Through the good and the bad, this is home,” says Wade. “I think the experience I gained having access and creating networks with Georgetown and its professors was critical in bringing those lessons back home to the people I interact with and see every day.”

The depth and reach of Georgetown’s network is something Domingue, a Navy veteran and 2020 graduate of the program, can attest to. After completing his fellowship this past November, he landed an apprenticeship at a local brewery in Arlington thanks to a connection he made with one of the owners, who is also a Dog Tag Inc. board member.

Through the apprenticeship, “I became more involved in not only learning about the brewing process, but also about the business side of what it takes to open a brewery—something I’ve long wanted to do,” says Domingue. He adds that one of the greatest takeaways has been “bridging the gap between the theoretical and practical side of business, and developing a plan at the end of the program that I can present to either a financial group or bank.”

Domingue’s journey leading up to his time as a Dog Tag Fellow consisted of an eight-year stint as an aviation ordnanceman. Enlisting right out of high school and after eight years of service, Domingue says the military has been the only career he’s experienced, and the shift to civilian life continues to be an ongoing process.

“I think if you ask any veteran, we’re all still transitioning,” he says. “No matter how long you’ve been out, it’s a process, because you go from having a checklist for everything and not having to think too deeply about deviated plans to suddenly entering a space where your perspective is vastly different from the majority of the world.”

Underlining the trauma that many service members carry when exiting the military, Domingue says “we get exposed to a lot of things that we otherwise would never see and some things we wish we hadn’t seen, but the appreciation and perspective gained is something we can apply to our civilian lives.”

employee in mask frosting cake

Pivoting during the Pandemic

As confirmed cases of the coronavirus steadily climbed in D.C and across the country, businesses of all sizes were pushed to scale back, shut down, and swap normal layouts and procedures for plexiglass partitions and prominent signage encouraging customers to practice social distancing. Dog Tag Bakery was no exception, having to reduce hours of operation and remove the majority of their seating options. With citywide public health mandates in place indefinitely, the restaurant’s team had to operate under tremendous uncertainty.

“We were applying for any kind of aid and doing whatever possible to ensure we could continue to pay our employees,” says Rebecca Clerget, director of operations at the bakery. “When the mayor shut down indoor dining, we converted to curbside pickup. When the decision was made for only essential workers to be in the city, we did our best to gauge our employees’ comfort levels.”

From coordinating the schedules of the bakery’s more than 20 employees to accommodate capacity limits to rebuilding revenue streams in the wake of interruptions to the business, bakery management and staff have continuously adapted—all while working to ensure that the team stays connected as much as possible.

“There was a lot of isolation, so even if it wasn’t all business-related, we tried to connect on Zoom for weekly game nights just so we could check in and see one another,” Clerget says.

“Typically we feature and sell products from veteran-owned businesses [such as Veteran Roasters Coffee] but this is the first time we’ve been able to support and collaborate with a Dog Tag alumni-owned business [Semper Sanitize].”

drawing of coffee

Unfortunately, during the pandemic, two people from the team contracted the virus, but Clerget says they’ve thankfully made a full recovery. Wade’s cleaning business also suffered a financial hit during the pandemic, as he worked to balance life at home as a husband and father while managing Semper Sanitize and keeping operations afloat.

“My wife and I have experienced a seismic shift since lockdown,” describes Wade, whose spouse is also a military veteran of the Air Force. “Between having to change homeschooling plans for our children and bouncing back after losing revenue, it’s been a challenge.” Nonetheless, Wade says he saw a prime opportunity to meet the needs of clients and expand his business offerings to include disinfecting and sanitizing services. One of Semper Sanitize’s first outreaches during the pandemic was Dog Tag Bakery; Wade and his company have since helped the eatery maintain cleaning, disinfection, and sanitation standards.

“Typically, we feature and sell products from veteran-owned businesses inside the bakery, but this is the first time we’ve been able to support and collaborate with a Dog Tag alumni-owned business, so that’s really exciting,” Clerget says.

Domingue, who moved to the D.C. metro area with his wife just one month into the pandemic, participated in the fellowship in a full virtual environment and says experiencing the lockdown through the lens of a businessperson has led him to weigh the risks and rewards of starting his own business.

“My goal has always been to start small and grow, so in some ways, I’ve had the luxury to think through that approach more meticulously” during the pandemic, Domingue says. “I am taking this moment to at least learn from those who have been forced to pivot, make changes, and really scale down their businesses so they can keep their doors open and look out for their employees.”

One year into the pandemic, Clerget says she’s appreciative for how skillfully the bakery staff and team have been in rolling with the unexpected punches.

“The thoughtfulness, support, and intentionality they give one another in checking in and making sure everyone is safe—while on or off the clock—has been really touching; I couldn’t ask for a better team.”

 

picture of sign on the ground telling you to stay 6 feet apart

The support of a community

Despite operational cutbacks due to the pandemic, Dog Tag Bakery is still a fixture in its Georgetown neighborhood. Morning bakers continue to come in before the doors open to prep the eatery’s notable pastry items, and in lieu of dine-in service restrictions, the bakery has begun offering takeout, contactless delivery, and gift package online ordering.

Clerget credits the familiar faces that pop by the bakery for keeping the business and morale of the team boosted during these tough times.

“They’re all very supportive of the small businesses in the area,” she says. “We have a group of cyclists who stop here after their bike rides. Before the pandemic hit, many times they would meet our fellows when they were in the classroom adjacent to the cafe.” While the biking group doesn’t get a chance to enjoy a fresh brew inside the bakery these days, Clerget says they still drop in to competitively rack up reward points to support the bakery and our mission. “When they first heard we closed they went online to make a charitable donation, their support means the world to us.”

As the dust settles from the pandemic and the public adjusts to the new normal set in place, Witko says she believes that keeping the fellowship alumni community and bakery staff connected is just as crucial as ensuring the success of the bakery in the short and long term.

“Even during this rough year, we’ve been thinking about ways in which we can support them and each other, not only in the craziness that has been 2020 and 2021, but beyond that as well… because our core is community in all aspects of who we are and what we do.”

View video of Vice President Kamala Harris at Dog Tag Bakery >

graphic of a diploma

Designated as a Military Friendly School, Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies (SCS) has 524 enrolled “military-affiliated” students as of 2020. Beyond its offering of a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts for veterans to start or complete their undergraduate education, SCS also carries a range of graduate degree programs for military-affiliated and veteran students that tie directly with the expertise they gained while in service. The most popular programs among military-affiliated students are:

  • Applied Intelligence
  • Emergency and Disaster Management
  • Technology Management
  • Cybersecurity Risk Management

In addition, in promoting financially accessible education options for veterans, SCS provides tuition and fee benefits to eligible military students through the Post 9/11 GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon Program.

honey thyme biscuits

Honey Thyme Biscuit Recipe

Ingredients (Yield: 6 biscuits):

  • 2 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1⁄2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/8 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp and 1⁄2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 1⁄2 tsp salt
  • 1⁄4 tsp thyme
  • 2 1⁄2 cups heavy cream
  • honey

Directions: 

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Mix both flours, sugar, baking powder, salt, and thyme into a large bowl. Use a whisk to mix it all together.
  3. Add the cream to the same large bowl. Mix until just combined.
  4. Pour dough out onto a floured surface and roll out till 9″ x 6.”
  5. Cut into six 3″ x 3″ biscuits.
  6. Place onto a sheet pan lined with parchment paper.
  7. Brush the tops with heavy cream and bake for 24 minutes, rotating the tray halfway through.
  8. When cooled, brush with honey and enjoy.
  9. Any scraps from when you cut the biscuits can be baked into biscuit squiggles

Reprinted with permission of Dog Tag Bakery

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