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Story by Alexandria Lindstrom | Photography Courtesy of Dog Tag Bakery
The unmistakable aroma of fresh cookies and brownies baking, the tantalizing sight of colorful cakes and delicate pastries, the burr of coffee machines as artisan coffees are handcrafted throughout the day… These are the expected sights, sounds, and smells of a bakery, the anticipated norm of what you’ll find when you venture into these meccas of confectionary creations. And when you walk through the doors of Dog Tag Bakery in Georgetown, you’ll certainly find no shortage of such temptations. But venture a little further in and you’ll find so much more to this wonderful bakery than meets the eye; inside, these soldiers of sugar are carrying out a mission much greater than themselves – and their victory is sweet.
Initially the brainchild of the late Father Richard Curry and Connie Milstein, Dog Tag Bakery is a venture as layered as a Napoleon cake, with the complexities of a mille-feuille. It sounds strange to say about a bakery, but they didn’t intend to simply to serve confections to those craving something sweet. Yes, that was part of the plan, as Milstein had previously run a bakery, and Curry was a baker and cookbook author. To be more accurate, however, the bakery was a vehicle for a larger purpose for the pair. Deeper than their love of butter and sugar was their shared passion for giving transitioning veterans with service-connected disabilities, military spouses, and caregivers the tools they needed to find their purpose. So together they launched Dog Tag Bakery in 2014, creating a bakery as well as a nonprofit organization offering a fellowship program designed to work with these individuals and set them up for success.
The reason for their mission was simple, as both Curry and Milstein had personal connections to the military community – particularly military spouses and veterans with service-related injuries. Born missing his right forearm, Curry was uniquely familiar with the challenges faced by people with disabilities; as a Jesuit priest, he had been called to counsel amputees after 9/11 and had seen the challenges they faced transitioning into civilian life. Because of this, Curry was inspired to help veterans with service-connected disabilities find meaning and gainful employment post-service. For Milstein, the impetus came from the experience she had in running a New York bakery that employed low-income women, helping them get back on their feet and learn important life skills. Much like Curry, the effects of 9/11 changed her vision for her own purpose, as many of the women who worked in her bakery were military spouses who gave Milstein a greater awareness of the unique challenges and barriers to employment they faced.
The two could easily have stopped at opening a bakery. After all, with their backgrounds in business and talents in the kitchen, they surely could have succeeded in creating a shop selling sweets and other assorted eats. But when the meeting of their minds conceived of the greater vision, Curry and Milstein could hardly ignore the mission that was tugging at their souls.
After securing nonprofit status for Dog Tag Bakery Inc. in 2012, the cofounding partners purchased their building in the heart of Georgetown in 2013. The pilot fellowship cohort was launched in June 2014 while Dog Tag Bakery was still under construction, and the bakery opened its doors to the public in December 2014.
Since then, Dog Tag Bakery has established itself as a great presence in the community, offering scratch-made baked goods including cakes, pies, cookies, Milstein’s ever-popular brownie, and a chocolate chip cookie recipe hailed as one of the best in the D.C. area. Dog Tag Bakery was also notably the chosen lunch spot for former President Barack Obama’s and former Vice President Joe Biden’s first sighting together after the Obama presidency in July 2018, and Obama has also purchased their cookies to share with veterans and their families living in the Bethesda Fisher House.
"Truly, there is no other veteran service organization doing exactly what Dog Tag does. Our program goes beyond entrepreneurship and job training... We work with humans, not just data points."
But those cookies are only half the story. Downstairs is, of course, the bakery. But the second floor is where the real work happens, and that work is what makes them proudest. “Truly, there is no other veteran service organization doing exactly what Dog Tag does,” said Milstein, who has carried on the legacy and the dream after the loss of Curry in 2015. “We run a high-touch, high-impact program that focuses on meeting the needs of the whole person. Our program goes beyond entrepreneurship and job training to provide individualized attention to each fellow’s needs and personalized assistance with identifying and reaching their goals. We work with humans, not just data points. Our five-month fellowship program gives our fellows the time and space to explore, learn, and ultimately make informed decisions as they identify and work towards their goals.”
The fellowship program is unique in that it offers five months of a full-time, in-residence training held twice a year with business education, hands-on learning, skills development—called learning labs—as well as career exploration, the creation of a business plan, and the learning of wellness practices. Upon completion of the fellowship, each participant earns a Certificate of Business Administration from Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies and has learned the realities of entrepreneurship by rotating through Dog Tag Bakery’s departments. They also have the opportunity to explore a wide variety of civilian career paths and hone skills through partner-led sessions. For their capstone projects, the fellows create a business plan for their planned enterprises using the concepts they have learned. And throughout the course of the program, they practice various self-care disciplines to manage stress and build their resiliency.
"From funding our program to leading learning labs for our fellows, catering with Dog Tag Bakery, to spreading awareness of Dog Tag’s programming, our partners’ generous contributions of time, talent, and treasure make our mission possible."
Clearly, Curry and Milstein’s vision for Dog Tag Bakery was immense, and the significance of their “why” is one that truly resonates. So much so, in fact, that various organizations have seen the value in their work and have created supportive partnerships that have been pivotal in making the dream a reality. “Partnerships are one of the cornerstones of Dog Tag’s innovative programming,” said Meghan Ogilvie, CEO of Dog Tag. Dog Tag’s first employee, Ogilvie left her job in finance in 2012 to help Curry start what would later become Dog Tag Bakery. As their COO, Ogilvie helped bring Milstein and Curry’s vision to life and continues to serve today as CEO. “From funding our program to leading learning labs for our fellows, catering with Dog Tag Bakery, to spreading awareness of Dog Tag’s programming, our partners’ generous contributions of time, talent, and treasure make our mission possible. While we do rely on corporations, foundations, and individuals’ philanthropic support, we strive to build partnerships that go way beyond just a check,” she continued. “A great example is our longtime relationship with Armed Forces Financial Network (AFFN). Along with the great training they provide, AFFN connected Dog Tag with their long-term partners at Fisher House. As a result, Dog Tag was invited to participate at this year’s Warrior Games, which proved to be a fantastic opportunity to make connections with organizations supporting our nation’s wounded warriors and build our recruiting pipeline.”
The work that Dog Tag Bakery does to support veteran-owned businesses is inspiring, as well. “When possible, we try to use veteran-made products in our recipes,” said Milstein. “For example, we source the sausage we use in our breakfast sandwiches from a veteran-run farm in Virginia and feature G-Dubbs hot sauces, which are made by an active duty member of the U.S. Navy. We brew Compass Coffee, which was founded by two Marine veterans. We were one of their first big accounts, and they speak to our fellows and share the story of how they transitioned from service to founding and growing a local coffee company. We also sell a variety of products made by local veteran and active-duty entrepreneurs such as Harper McCaw Chocolates, which are made by a Marine Corps veteran.”
The significance of all that they do is, perhaps, the reason for Dog Tag’s success. They have a deeper purpose, and that purpose is not only what continues to drive them as a company, but also what so greatly impacts those who know their story. “Fr. Curry and I were kindred spirits; and in Rick, I found someone who shared not only my spirit of service, but also my passion for empowering others to build meaningful and purposeful lives,” said Milstein. “While he is no longer here in person, I’m committed to ensuring that his legacy and our shared spirit of service lives on every day at Dog Tag, in everything from our life-changing fellowship program to our efforts to give back to our local community through regular food donations.” They work with intention and heart, and that is the most important ingredient of all.
Dog Tag Bakery is located at 3206 Grace Street NW, Washington, DC 20007
For more information, call 202-407-9609 or visit www.dogtagbakery.com