Yankee Doodle Deli is a social enterprise located in Covington, Kentucky, that specializes in “ZELS.” ZELS are gourmet pretzels created by Marilyn Baker. Yankee Doodle Deli hires second chance workers and Marilyn dedicates her spare time to mentoring others on how to run a social enterprise. We caught up with her at her ZEL making facility in Covington, to chat about life, the start of Yankee Doodle Deli, and how we can empower others through meaningful employment.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My story is a bit interesting as I started my career as a speech pathologist. I’m from Missouri originally, and I attended North Western for my bachelor’s degree and Boston University for my graduate work. I worked as a Speech Pathologist at Drake Center. In 2005, my sheltie, Yankee, passed away. As a means of dealing with my grief, I was really close to my sheltie, I started cooking. It was just a hobby at first and it was a means of dealing with the loss of Yankee.
People at the hospital started asking me to make certain things. They wanted me to bring in food and I kind of started just cooking for fun. I called it Yankee Doodle Deli, named after Yankee. The deli part I chose because I made healthy alternatives for fast food. I brought in healthy foods and people started buying them. But soon it got out of control and I realized I was cooking until 3 o’clock in the morning and then trying to go into work to be a speech pathologist. It was hard with my schedule and I decided to go to the hospital gift shop and ask if they would pick up the pretzels as a fundraiser for the auxiliary. That’s how my first account was born. I went from being a speech pathologist to a pretzel lady.
What is Yankee Doodle Deli?
We are a gourmet flavored pretzel business. It is just pretzels for now. We have six flavors and every pretzel shape is a different flavor. We try to have flavors that aren’t your typical flavors. We try to be unique. Our flavors, from spicy to sweet are fiery, spicy, honey, honey glazed, citrus, and cinnamon. We’ve also recently come out with a bourbon flavor! We sell pretzels to around three hundred stores and also sell to consumers directly.
What were the early days of Yankee Doodle Deli like?
During those first days, I’d never thought I’d get to this point. I never, EVER, meant to start a business. It just wasn’t on my radar. So in the beginning we had a lot of challenges. We had to find a commercial kitchen. I realized when I got the Drake account that I had to have official labels and an expiration date. I couldn’t seal the packages with my clothes iron anymore! I had to purchase an actual sealer and work with the health department. It was very overwhelming.
Where can I purchase “ZELS”?
The word “ZELS” comes from the word pretzel. If you say “ZEL” you’re referring to a Yankee Doodle Deli pretzel.
Our locations are listed on our website. We’re in a lot of stores in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, but I also go to shows in Louisville and Columbus. We have accounts in western Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pittsburg. We’re in many hospital gift shops as well such as Bethesda North, Bethesda Oak, Christ, and Good Sam. We’re also in a few liquor stores like Kremer’s Market, and I actually just picked up two new breweries in Dayton.
What makes Yankee Doodle Deli a Social Enterprise?
We are a social enterprise because of the people we choose to hire. I think that my background in speech pathology makes me interested in working with people and I really enjoy mentoring others. I believe that good people sometimes do bad things. These mistakes can mean that they have trouble getting a traditional job. If someone is willing to meet me halfway, I’m more than willing to be a mentor to him or her. I take interns from the Life Learning Center. I mentor them and work with them. It doesn’t always work out that they can stay on to be employed. Sometimes they need different hours than I can offer or for whatever reason. But I can be a reference for them and just having someone to use as a reference is a big deal. I’m outside of their past, but invested in their now. We’re a social enterprise in the fact that we hire second chance workers, people that traditionally would not be able to be employed.
Why did you decide to be a social enterprise?
I didn’t even know the word, “social enterprise” when I started. I was doing it, but I didn’t even know what it was. I didn’t know it was a movement. A friend of mine invited me to join the Greater Cincinnati Chapter of the Social Enterprise Alliance. I started by going to a few meetings and kept going back. It’s a group of kindred spirits. Everyone there is trying to help each other.
I’ve always hired second chance workers. I’ve hired autistic, or cognitively impaired workers. I partnered with The Point very early on. I rented kitchen space from them, so it was natural to hire their employees. One of our employees, Zac, just left after working for us for five years. Zac came to us from The Point. He was a fantastic employee. He was just awesome. He was never late in five years. He never missed a day. He was really an asset to us.
My love of helping and teaching, made becoming a social enterprise a natural fit. These people needed a job and I needed workers. Now I know what it’s called and it’s a great movement. I definitely would support anyone who wants to head down this road and give back. There are so many positive things about it.
What is it like being a part of the social enterprise community in Cincinnati?
It’s been great. Last Christmas, I had a number of orders for gifts. People wanted to give something socially responsible and the chapter bought some as well. On a financial note, the social enterprise community has been very helpful for sales. But then, it’s also connections, like Flywheel telling me about businesses or people that I haven’t heard of before. I just love these connections I make with and through others.
How do you measure your social impact?
I think it’s best measured by my employees themselves. Here’s what they have to say about the opportunity to work at Yankee Doodle Deli:
“Gets me out of the house. Allows me to talk with adults and not just myself!”
“I never thought I’d be overseeing other workers and managing as many tasks as I do.”
“I’ve increased my hours and the extra income has allowed us to improve our housing situation.”
“It’s built my self confidence because I’m in charge of a number of things and if I wasn’t doing this, I don’t know what I would be doing.”
“It’s allowed me to get back into the workforce; it’s a new beginning for me.”
How has Flywheel Social Enterprise Hub helped you with your social enterprise?
The Social Enterprise CINCY Summit last year at the Underground Railroad Freedom Center was great. I was one of the vendors that attended and made a lot of great contacts. I’ve donated pretzels to Flywheel meetings and they’ve just been so supportive so far. They’re great at connecting people.
If I want to become more involved in Yankee Doodle Deli, who do I talk to?
Anyone is welcome to call us! Call me personally. I’d love to chat. You’re also welcome to drop by. We’re not a storefront with set hours, so I do ask that you call first to make sure we’re here. But really, I’d love to have visitors. I love sharing our story and having them take home some pretzels.
Anything you’d like to add?
Yes! It’d like to talk more about the internship program through Life Learning Center. If others can benefit from that, I would encourage them to contact the Life Learning Center. I really see it as a win-win. For 12 weeks, I get interns and if they’re interested in staying, and I have a position available, I can hire them. Those workers have been so committed. They’re ready to start over. It’s always a good turning point in someone’s life. When someone gets a job, and they’re needed everyday, it’s just really cool.
If you’d like to learn more about Yankee Doodle Deli, visit their website.