Dog Tag Bakery hasn’t been open for coffee or brownies for weeks now, but the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t stopped the Georgetown shop from serving another purpose. Since it opened six years ago, the bakery has partnered with Georgetown University to operate a nonprofit fellowship that acts as a hands-on business school for veterans with service-related disabilities, military spouses, and caretakers.
While production on the bakery side shut down March 30, the program has continued as scheduled — albeit virtually — offering fellows a window into what it looks like to run a business during a public health crisis.
Each fellow is still receiving their monthly, $1,400 stipend, and the bakery’s full-time employees are still on payroll, even if their roles have changed or diminished. The latest class, or “cohort,” in the fellowship has 14 members. That includes Kiafa Grigsby, who spent 21 years as a combat medic before retiring last year.
“When I applied, I wanted the skills for how to build a business from scratch,” Grigsby says.
Dog Tag’s fellowship teaches accounting, finance, strategy, business management, and baking. At the end of every five-month program, fellows that pass their exams and Capstone requirements graduate with a Certificate of Business Administration from Georgetown. This year, the COVID-19 outbreak forced the program into the same decision as all food service businesses: adapt or close.
“We went through phases depending on what was happening with the government to make sure everyone was healthy and safe,” says Claire Witko, director of programs at the bakery. “The [fellows] we work with joined this program for a reason. They’re speaking a greater purpose for themselves. They want to be connected to a community. They’re looking for that next step. We decided we can still deliver that with a virtual model.”
“These people are trying to transition into normal society, but society doesn’t seem so normal,” Witko adds.
Witko and her crew solicited input from staff, fellows, and alumni, restructuring the program to incorporate a mix of group and individualized work. The cohort now breaks into smaller groups that meet for conversations and then split off for solo or paired assignments.
“A straight lecture on Zoom is not the way to go. It can be deflating,” Witko says. “It’s not how we do it in person so we had to get creative and involve our entire team.”
The program was already set to go on spring break before the outbreak, so the staff had time to shift the curriculum online. Chef Chris Licciardi, who worked for a James Beard Award winning baker at Bread Furst, leads the kitchen rotation for fellows. He’s had to transition away from teaching recipe testing, pricing, and management skills face-to-face. Now, he’s even teaching knife skills remotely.
All guest speakers, including Georgetown professors and representatives from companies like Hilton and Boeing, have gone virtual, too. Witko says the virtual curriculum also lets family members join brainstorming sessions. Breaks encouraging people to get outside for “mindfulness sessions” are now regularly scheduled.
Fellow Kimberly Stahl, who discovered Dog Tag Bakery’s program at a Navy Officer’s Spouses Fundraiser, is grateful for this familial consideration. Her husband has been helping with the childcare, but it still presents a daily challenge.
“On Zoom, I can actually see some of my other fellows and their kids are jumping all over them, but everybody understands,” Stahl says. “We’re all in the same boat. You just kind of have to look at it and accept the situation we’re in.”
On the business side, Dog Tag has also had to adapt quickly. In mid-March, when D.C. first restricted restaurants to takeout and delivery, the bakery started selling care packages online. For a couple weeks, it partnered with neighboring avant garde restaurant Reverie, giving customers the option of adding brownies and blondie’s to to-go boxes of chef Johnny Spero’s cheeseburgers. There was a swell in online orders, with customers sending treats to friends and family as a way to lift spirits.
Despite the success, Dog Tag made the decision to close its online store to prioritize the safety of its staff. The business is still offering gift cards and taking donations while exploring how loans and grants can help it avoid short-term layoffs. The program fellows are on track to graduate as planned.
“They’ve been really great with giving us time to talk about frustrations and how things have changed or pivoted because of the current situation,” Stahl says. “We’re all so thankful they continued the program, because they didn’t have to.”