There's just a few more days until Dog Tag Bakery makes its formal debut in Georgetown, and general manger Justin Ford is busy with last minute preparations before their grand opening event, which is Saturday, December 6th.
At first glance, Dog Tag has the look and feel of any other bakery. But it's actually a nonprofit as well as a classroom. And the work Ford's team is doing goes way beyond baking bread and pastries from scratch.
"We’re quite different from any other bakery in the District or quite possible in the United States," Ford said. That's because Dog Tag is a bakery where students (or fellows as he calls them) are learning the business of food. The cohort is made up of returning veterans from the military, looking for job skills training in small business and the restaurant industry.
In the last six months, an introductory class of fellows helped to launch and open Dog Tag. Their first class assignment: to serve the Georgetown neighborhood with fresh pastries, sandwiches and soups, plus their own unique brand of coffee, roasted by another veteran-led business, Compass Coffee in Shaw.
While all the pieces are finally coming together, Ford says it hasn't been without a lot of "learning as you go." Eater talked with Ford to learn more about the Dog Tag concept and to see what's ahead for the bakery's grand opening.
First, what’s your role in all of this? How did you get to Dog Tag, and what do you do day-to-day?
I’m the general manager of Dog Tag Bakery. Before I came here, I led a leadership development program for veterans. Essentially, I run the day-to-day [operations] of the bakery. I’m working on product development and business strategy. We have a really good team behind us. We have a really phenomenal baker. It shows in our product. We spent a lot of time focusing on quality. Not only are we a nonprofit with a mission, we also provide a phenomenal product. We want Georgetown neighbors to feel like this is their home away from home.
So where are you guys right now in the process? You open on December 6th, right?
We’ve been open and working out the kinks, but we quietly opened our doors to the public in the last couple of weeks. Our grand opening is on December 6th. We haven’t advertised it yet, but we're open to the neighborhood now. That’s been it so far.
Do you have any big plans for the grand opening?
We’re working on it. All of that is to be determined. It’s going to be a big affair, and it should be a fun event for the community.
What’s been the hardest part so far to getting your doors open?
Sure. I would say the construction process certainly took some time. We were very diligent about making our building ADA accessible, so we spent a lot of time and money making sure we had that built in. Everything from making sure aisles were wide enough, to the elevator that runs from the first to second floor and the basic operating procedures within the bakery. There was a lot of time spent actually constructing the building. And, we certainly had all the challenges of any restaurant or bakery would have in opening.
What makes this bakery unique from others?
We’re quite different from any other bakery in the District or quite possible in the United States. The first floor is a fully functioning bakery. We have a large kitchen and seating in the front. We’re a true bakery. We bake almost everything from scratch...What really sets us apart is the ability to make this an accessible space. If you’re in a wheelchair, you can roll yourself right up to the counter to order, and the same thing with our tables. If someone is on a wheelchair or crutches they can take the elevator to the second floor... On the second floor is a second kitchen, storage, and also a classroom where our professors from Georgetown University will be teaching our next cohort of fellows. They’re learning the business of it all from Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies. The students get the academic foundation, you know: accounting, finance, marketing, communications, and then they get to apply within the bakery for work.
How long will the fellows be learning?
Right now, each fellowship is six months long. The newest fellows will come on board shortly. We’re going to evaluate the program before we bring on the second group...But, I would say one of the advantages of this program so far has been that it gives students direct experience into opening and running a business.
Tell me about the students. Where are they coming from in-terms of their backgrounds?
We have a really diverse group of people that did a lot of different things. They’re all within the military, whether it be the Army, Navy, Marines, whatever the case may be. Some have been in for 20 plus years and within high ranks. Some of them served their initial term and decided to get out and transition to the civilian workforce. Some of them have jobs like infantry. One had a job as a communications [worker]. There really isn't a specific skill set that we look for. We’re more looking to provide resources to veterans. But the majority of our program has recently transitioned out of the military.
Talk about your partnerships. You have set-up a few so far with Georgetown University and Compass Coffee in Shaw.
We have terrific partnerships. The Georgetown University partnership allows us to provide top-notch classroom learning in the bakery. The students are getting the fundamentals of business there. Then, on the business-front partnerships like Compass Coffee help us to achieve our mission in a couple of different ways. Number one, they provide top-of-the-line, excellent coffee, which we very much want to promote to our customers. They also have a special tie-in to the veteran community too. It’s a really unique partnership because they’re veteran entrepreneurs actually. We’re very much excited to give back to the community and allow these partnerships to prosper.
What are some of the menu items at Dog Tag?
We do have a menu. People can find it online. We have a variety of baked goods. Our head baker is Rebecca Clerget [formerly the pastry chef at The Fairmont hotel in Washington D.C.] and we have some amazing items, including sandwiches, bagels, breads, croissants, scones, plus vegan and gluten-free options. It’s a pretty wide and diverse menu.
Photo courtesy Dog Tag Bakery