Jul 11, 2022

St. John’s Program for Real Change Raises Yeast to Raise Funds

Its cookie-making enterprise is far from a half-baked idea

By Ed Goldman

If you ever go to the website for St. John’s Shelter for Real Change, and you’re given the standard cyber option, by all means, ACCEPT ALL COOKIES!

That’s because the Sacramento-based program—which provides shelter services and job training for homeless women and their young children who have been the victims of domestic and drug abuse—has come up with a fully-baked idea to simultaneously raise funds and teach real-life skills.

Julie Hirota at The Sutter Club. Photo by Edgy.

Red Door Desserts bakes and ships some of the tastiest, downright meatiest cookies this side of Mrs. Claus’s kitchen. Its “signature box” includes a salted chocolate chunk cookie, a s’mores cookie (half chocolate/half chocolate-chip) and a lemon crinkle cookie that may just convert you from being a chocoholic.

Under the clever tagline “Indulge and Empower,” St. John’s executive director Julie Hirota—whom I’ve written about here and for other publications because of her preternatural ability to improve damn near every organization she alights in—has created a business that’s COVID- and probably recession-proof. Each bright-red box complements the facility’s Red Door branding graphic (developed by designer/ad maven David Flannagan, a former St. John’s board member and co-founder of the Misfit Studio).

“Our capacity at the moment is limited to 250 to 350 boxes a month,” she says over lunch at The Sutter Club. The group charges from $30-35, depending on the requested goodies. Two staff members at St. John’s are in charge of production but a number of the shelter’s residents, who stay at the facility for a maximum of 18 months, take turns learning to bake the cookies.

“You’d think baking cookies would be a simple skill,” Hirota says, “but it’s not if your background didn’t include mom-and-daughter moments, or even the wherewithal to buy the ingredients when you’re living on a fixed-income—or no income at all. In that situation, when you want to give your kids cookies you scrape together the money and hit your local AM-PM mini-market.”

I’m really not surprised that Hirota has turned her formidable skills to consumer entrepreneurialism. 

In her career she’s been a chief operations officer at UC Davis, a development director for the Leukemia Society, an engineer who’d been a program manager for Hewlett Packard, the CEO of the nationally recognized gallery Blue Line Arts, an appointed planning commissioner for the City of Roseville, an artist/designer/manufacturer with her own retail business and for the past few years, an elected trustee of the Roseville Joint Union High School District. 

When I first entered Hirota’s orbit, it was like entering a theater halfway through the movie. She was at Blue Line Arts, whose volunteer president I became about a year later. In the time she remained there and I stayed on the board, she: (a) found a way for us to acquire a struggling nonprofit (the Arts and Business Council of Sacramento of which I’d also been president—yes, I’m what you might call easily board); (b) developed a relationship with the aforementioned Sutter Club in downtown Sacramento to display (and sell) some of our gallery’s artists;, and (c) most significantly, got Blue Line to become a regular venue for the Crocker-Kingsley Art Show, a biennial international showcase of paintings and sculptures.

I’m sure Hirota has a lot of adventures ahead of her—she’s only 51—but I have to say that St. John’s seems the perfect fit for her Renaissance-like skill set as an engineer, artist, businessperson and now, cookie vendor. She says she’d like Red Door Desserts to go national, which could happen immediately if some of you in the 30+ states who receive this column start placing online orders at sjpreddoordesserts.com. This nonprofit needs the dough to help its clients knead the dough. And yeah, I deeply apologize for the pun—but not for the message.

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).