Where: the Rochelle Center
It's one of those steamy late-summer mornings when the humidity is so severe, you could take a shower just standing outside with a bar of soap. It's not an ideal time to be in a cramped kitchen, surrounded by dozens of racks of cooling cookies. I position myself as far from the oven as possible and try to stay out of the way of the workers, who are prepping the goodies for packaging and shipping.
Nobody in the room is complaining about the heat, however. Or about the chocolate-chip smell that permeates everything, like the air-sprayed essence of comfort food and warmth. We're in the production area of Cookie Works at The Rochelle Center, a facility for adults with developmental and physical disabilities.
The Rochelle Center, located off 12th Avenue near the Gulch, was established by W.R. Rochelle, who served as the principal of Cohn High School from 1939 until his retirement in 1965. Rochelle had a child with a disability, and he created the center in 1968 to provide adults like his son the necessary skills to join the workforce.
For many years, The Rochelle Center accomplished that primarily through its production center, where residents would perform tasks such as shrink-wrapping, stuffing and collating. You wanted 500 blankets shipped? You took them to the Rochelle Center, where the residents would pack and ship every last comforter.
But while the Rochelle Center still performs those services, they're the kind of work that has largely fallen victim to outsourcing. The center needed a new plan. Thus was born the Maryland Farms-based deli Bagel Works & Perks in 2006. The food service industry was a natural place for expansion, providing more hands-on experience for the residents and outreach opportunities in the Nashville area. It proved to be such a comfortable fit that the following year, the center moved into the item on today's agenda, cookie production.
I missed the part where the cookie dough is shaped into balls, and with it my best chance to sneak a sample (or five). That was yesterday. When I arrive, the dough has already been rolled into golfball-sized lumps weighed to get the proper amount. They're then cooled in the refrigerator, which lets the flavors coalesce and produces a browner, crunchier cookie.
Overseeing this process is Charles Chadwick, a retiree and volunteer known as "Mr. Charles" to the center's workers. His staff today consists of two Rochelle Center residents, Abby and Shawn, along with Amanda, an employee of the production center. The heat in the beige institutional kitchen is stifling, a cookie-scented fog. I can't see how Abby and Shawn can wear their poofy chef's hats without fainting, let alone complaining.
"You think I'm sweating now?" Shawn says, laughing, as he removes a tray of cookies from an oven radiating heat waves. "You should see me at Christmas!" Charles nods in agreement.
"Year round, we make everything in here," Charles explains, motioning around the room. "We expand during the holidays. It's challenging, because everybody wants cookies within a 14-day window."
Perhaps you've seen Charles sitting behind a table at a Vanderbilt game — he sells cookies at home basketball, baseball and football games, where his incongruous presence among the beer vendors and program hawkers inevitably turns heads. Rochelle Center residents typically accompany him to the games, and once the cookies have been sold they stay and watch the action.
"We make a lot of contacts," Charles says. Those are important. While the sale of an individual cookie may not seem like much, it paves the way for larger corporate orders. Each individually packaged cookie has a sticker on the back that explains the Rochelle Center credo of "self-determination." The center exemplifies this, providing the residents with the tools to make choices on how they want to contribute to society, by giving them meaningful work and the opportunity to produce quality goods and services.
They have to be selective how that message gets out. After all, as Charles points out, somewhat jokingly, "Each sticker costs eight cents. We can't put them on everything."
The best vehicle they've found is coming out of Cookie Works' ovens, tray after tray.
Once you've had a Cookie Works cookie, other cookies you encounter will pale in comparison. This is due to Charles' tinkering in the kitchen. He's the first to tell you he does everything differently, and that he only uses the finest ingredients: Chinese ginger, Madagascar vanilla, Ghirardelli chocolate and Jack Daniel's whiskey.
Yes, whiskey. I'm momentarily distracted as Charles waves a bowl in front of my face. The bowl contains a dark chocolate cookie soaked in whiskey. "Can't sell those!" he jokes, before sealing the cookie and putting it in a box for me. He gives these to his CPA, he cracks, "but I tell him to do my books first."
Seriously, he doesn't sell these 100-proof cookies — but he does like to bake with alcohol. He says that he likes to "guess" what ingredients will taste good, which is how he started rolling white chocolate chips in margarita mix, milk chocolate chips in stout beer, and raisins in whiskey.
"The alcohol bakes out," he says.
"What if you eat the raw dough?" I ask.
Charles' eyes widen in amusement. "Didn't anyone tell you that you're not supposed to eat raw cookie dough?" he responds — before admitting that he eats it too.
"I used to eat my grandma's brownie dough, whatever was left in the bowl," he muses. During an otherwise gregarious afternoon, it is the rare moment that he falls silent. It was Charles' grandmother who taught him how to make cookies, and how to mix each ingredient separately.
"Grandma taught me the basics," Charles says. "She taught me to mix each step separately, to make sure that each part is mixed evenly, and to fold in the flour. She tested a lot of things like I do."
Once the cookies have cooled sufficiently, Shawn runs them one by one through a vacuum sealer, a breadbox-sized contraption. With a clacking sound like a labelmaker spitting out labels, it shoots out a cellophane-wrapped cookie. Abby tells me that she moved from Michigan in April, and that it's her first day working at Cookie Works. I ask her what she likes to do in her spare time.
"I like to watch TV, listen to music and hang out with the other girls," Abby says, referring to the eight other women she lives with in the community-based living area. She loves Christian music, she says. Her favorite band is Point of Grace.
I ask her which cookie is her favorite. Shyly, Abby tells me she hasn't had one yet.
We leave the production area so Abby and Shawn can get the cookies ready for the Vanderbilt game that evening. On the way out, I meet the president of the Rochelle Center, Debbie Chadwick — yes, Charles is her husband. Debbie says that while Cookie Works and Bagel Works have both raised awareness for what the Rochelle Center does, the most important thing is to get disabled individuals working throughout the community.
"They're excellent workers," Debbie says. "They just want an opportunity. Our goal is to get as many people employed in the community as we can."
The shift's over. As I leave the Rochelle Center with my whiskey cookie, I turn around and see Shawn leaving the production area. As he walks with Amanda to the other production center, he chats excitedly with Abby. At the end of her first day she's smiling, seems happy.
In her hand, she holds a cookie.