Food wagon helps put shelter residents back on their feet

'Social enterprises' get attention as economy stresses traditional philanthropy

December 25, 2009|By Andrea F. Siegel

Inside the Doughy Dog truck, workers are preparing more than hot dogs, breakfast sandwiches and mini-doughnuts. They're preparing themselves for more stable lives, working toward increased self-sufficiency one chubby hot dog at a time.

This is food with a social mission: The big red Doughy Dog truck is a business venture of the Arundel House of Hope, a 17-year-old nonprofit organization in Glen Burnie that helps homeless people.

The organization's clients get paid job experience and growing self-confidence. In turn, the food service - with all those Glen Burnie Dogs (chili, cheese, onion, yellow mustard) and "hope coolers" (half lemonade, half sweet tea) - is designed to bring revenue to the nonprofit.

"I feel good about myself. I see the smiles and the politeness that come, and I give it back to them," Oliver Sellman said during his shift at the Doughy Dog recently. At the window, he filled out order blanks, noting the kind of mustard customers wanted, popped open the cash register to accept payment - "$5.30, out of $10" - and thanked all comers for their business.

After spending several years incarcerated for various crimes, Sellman, 53, decided he needed a change when he got out last year. With no transportation, no place to live and no money, he reluctantly turned down a job offer on the Eastern Shore.

Homeless, he landed at the Arundel House of Hope's emergency shelter, and since then has become a resident manager of one of the organization's houses, has begun working at the Doughy Dog, saved to buy a used 1998 Honda Civic and is studying to operate trucks.

"I get to interact with people. I get to learn more about society and get back into society," he said.

The workday starts by 6 a.m., but at 10, Susan Bagley, 48, cried as she chopped onions that would soon top the beef hot dogs.

Divorced, partly disabled and out of work, she moved into Arundel House of Hope permanent housing last summer.

The nonprofit's workers said that as Bagley's confidence has increased, they've seen her assume more of a supervisory role in the three-person truck. They can envision her in charge of a Doughy Dog truck or managing a casual-dining restaurant.

"If the opportunity is there for me to go out on my own, I would love that," Bagley said. Meanwhile, she said, she's satisfied to be working and useful.

The Doughy Dog is what's known as a social enterprise, a term that refers to the combination of business and social aims. Social enterprise has gained renewed interest and visibility, especially during a troubled economy, as nonprofits seek revenue sources beyond traditional philanthropy.

"It's a concept that's not necessarily new, but it hasn't had a lot of visibility," said J.C. Weiss, who has been teaching a hands-on course in social enterprise at the University of Baltimore's Merrick School of Business since 2004 and whose class spawned the Doughy Dog.

More recently, the sour economy has played a role.

"Philanthropic dollars are down. These nonprofits are at greater need. So why not start a business?" Weiss said.

Besides, he added, business income offers them an edge: "Unrestricted revenue is like manna from heaven because they can spend it any way they want. It's not like a grant, where the money is restricted."

One recent weekday, Rolinda McIlwain, with puppy in tow, visited the Doughy Dog, which sat in its weekday spot in the parking lot of the Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer in Glen Burnie.

"Can I get three Connecticut dogs?" she said, asking for a hot dog that has bacon and sweet relish among the toppings.

"Some people are finding themselves in situations they can't help," said McIlwain, a regular who runs home-based day care a block from the truck. "They can give them help to get back on their feet so people can try to fend for themselves again."

Arundel House of Hope's clients start with a 16-week class in life and work.

"We teach them what they need to know about getting and keeping a job, getting to work on time, managing time, [food service] cleanliness," said House of Hope program director Phil Bailey.

"This is a way for us to place our clients before they are ready to go out but ready to do something," said Brianne Adams, a case manager.

The part-time job lets them continue to address personal issues and attend counseling and other shelter programs.

Organization workers hope that being bonded and building resumes will boost clients' chances of landing other jobs or furthering their education or pursuing training elsewhere. Already, Adams said, the Doughy Dog has piqued one employee's interest in culinary studies.

The goal is for the Doughy Dog to employ 10 clients. So far, they say, six people have completed the program. A three-year plan has it operating at a small loss initially but netting more than $20,000 in the third year.

Doughy Dog was in the making for more than a year before serving up its first Under Dog (any two toppings) in September.

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