A new Memphis bakery dishing out made-to-order iced cookies has a mission that goes beyond satisfying taste buds; it's changing lives, helping to free adolescents from lives of crime.
Sweet LaLas Bakery owners Lauren Young and her husband Tommy contract with Juvenile Intervention & Faith Based Follow-up (JIFF) to manage the production side of the business. JIFF is a non-profit intervention service for court-referred youth that offers juvenile mentoring, culinary training, career readiness, and GED training to kids in the juvenile court justice system.
Sweet LaLas Bakery began taking orders online through its website — sweetlalas.com — on December 1st and as of last week has 500 cookies in the pipeline for delivery. Cookies are made to order, so the bakery requires orders to be placed three days in advance.
Young is in JIFF's commercial kitchen with the kids training them to create the cookies, through the mixing, baking, icing, and drying process.
But Young's first interaction with Memphis youth was not a pleasant encounter. When she was seven months pregnant with her firstborn, her car was stolen at gunpoint. It was 2001, and she had just moved to Memphis from Nashville and taken a job at Youth Villages.
"After wrestling with some of the emotions after that particular incident, I just decided to pour myself back into a positive space," Young said.
- Kids from JIFF bake cookies for Sweet LaLas Bakery.
She jumped into philanthropy work with the Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation, founded in 1961 by her grandfather Kemmons Wilson to improve the community and inspire youth, and is now executive director.
Before she had children and worked as a schoolteacher, she baked cookies for friends and family over the holidays in Nashville. When she came to Memphis, her cookie recipe became a hit. She's been baking and selling them from her home since 2002.
"I have a lot of responsibility to the foundation but wanted to take the cookie to a bigger market, at least be able to fill orders for friends and people who had been asking for them," she said.
When Young discovered JIFF six years ago, she immediately embraced its mission and asked to be on its board.
"I started to see what these kids are up against and how difficult it is to get a second chance when you have a criminal record," she said. "We wrestled that we've not been able to offer a true meaningful way to employ the kids. We know one of the biggest realities they face is they need money to support either their families or to support the things going on in their homes and finding that other ways aren't always successful for them."
Since its start, culinary training has been a fundamental element of JIFF's Learn to Earn program. At one point the organization had a full-time culinary director, but the position was cut for lack of funding. JIFF still offers culinary training certification, which gives kids an edge for restaurant employment, but Young says it's not operating in the full-blown scale it once was.
"We know we can bring it back to life with this type of partnership with the bakery," Young said.
JIFF invoices Young for all time spent in the kitchen by the food manager and hours the kids put in.
"We offer the kids a fair rate," Young says. "We want it to be a successful company that gets the cookies out the door, but I want to do it in a way that means a lot to me personally."
Sweet LaLas Bakery is starting small, offering four different cookies: Original LaLa (an almond flavor), ChocoLaLa, SnickaLaLa, and RedLaLa. They are brushed with icing, imperfectly drizzled over the edges. Young says the goal is to add a new flavor each month.
"We're offering free delivery since we don't have a storefront," she said. "People can also come to JIFF. We hope that people will get interested in the concept."
As far as the future, "A storefront is absolutely my next goal. The hope is to develop a steady source of customers and interest in people who love the product," Young said.