Where Are They Now? - Q&A's With Notable Jenks Grads
Kirk Francis - Captain Cookie
Photo by Nicholas DonnerJenks grad Kirk Francis has turned his hobby into a tasty business in the Washington D.C. metro area.
Imagine loving something so much you want to see it perfected. The passion turns into perfection and the perfection becomes profitable. So the story goes for Kirk Francis, a 2004 grad of Jenks High School, who is better known in the Washington D.C. area as Captain Cookie. What began with a single oven and dream has turned into a fully mobile cookie empire with the ability to serve, cater, deliver, and keep the customers coming back for more! Read below to learn how Francis turned his dream into delicious dollars, and look for his tip to making your own cookies even tastier!
What are your fondest memories of attending Jenks High School?
Francis: I had so many great friends, some of whom I’d known for over 10 years! We’d hang out at Java Dave’s on Friday nights, or go to local concerts. I also remember participating in fun school activities like the Perfect Man competition and the Homecoming parade. I always had fun reading my friends’ work in the Trojan Torch, seeing Jenks student art shows, comparing our cars in the parking lot, and watching the football/swim/gymnastics/etc teams kick butt. Jenks was full of fascinating students and teachers and it was exciting just to interact with such an active, interesting group every day.
Which teachers, coaches, or principals made a lasting impact on your life?
Francis: All of them! But especially:
Mag (aka Evelyn Williams), who taught me four years of Latin
Joy Edwards-Arneecher (AP Lang) managed to put a lot of fun into some serious literature!
Lisa Lawrence (AP Lit), who didn’t let me coast.
Barbara Zamets (AP World History), who was an adventurous guide on the Chinese Exchange Program.
Cheryl Coll-Gallup (AP Calc AB), who made everything seem logical (and once drew a perfect circle)!
What were some of your favorite classes or activities at Jenks High School?
Francis: Latin Class with Mag really became a second family at Jenks – there were several of us who took Latin the first year it was offered at Jenks in 1999 and stuck with it all four years. By the time we got to AP Vergil we were all pretty close. Plus, each summer a contingent of us would spend a week attending and competing in the national Latin convention. It was a great (nerdy) competition, but great fun.
Another first at Jenks in 2003/2004 was the Jenks-Chengdu #7 exchange program, which sponsored ten students and two teachers from Chengdu #7 school in Sichuan, China to stay with ten Jenks students and two Jenks teachers for a month, living in our homes and going to school with us. A few months later, in March, we went over and stayed with them in Chengdu and attended classes at their school! It was an extraordinary experience and many of us have stayed in touch. It led to my majoring in Chinese, and in a funny twist, my exchange “brother” Zhang Weihao moved to America and attended OU for college. My wife and I recently went back to visit China for two weeks and we spent a day with my former host family.
I loved every English and History class I took. Robyn Paliotta’s Algebra II, Shirley Collins’ AP Psych, and Paulette Ramsey’s AP Bio are others that I remember being very well-taught.
Did you always have a dream of owning a cookie business or was there another career path you wanted to follow?
Francis: I wanted to open a bakery for years, but I knew it took a lot of money. I was also interested in intelligence work, or farming, or a job overseas. And now I sell cookies! That’s close enough for me.
Everyone likes cookies but you seem to be particularly passionate. How did you become obsessed with cookies?
Francis: I have loved chocolate chip cookies for as long as I can remember. I made my first cookie when I was four. It wasn’t that great, but the nice thing about cookies is that even when they’re bad, they’re good. So naturally my friends and family encouraged the habit and I’ve kept it up ever since. I started to zero in on the chocolate chip cookie in middle/high school because I like the idea of focusing on one thing and trying to do it the best in the world. I’ve made hundreds of different recipes, and my personal recipe has changed slightly every few years. Once I knew how to make a great chocolate chip cookie, it was easy to figure out the chemistry and techniques behind other cookie recipes, and that’s how I added the other flavors on the menu at Captain Cookie.
Photo by: Nicholas Donner
How did you decide to quit your job and become Captain Cookie?
Francis: I had been selling cookies on the side for four years before I quit my day job as a consultant to Homeland Security. Selling part-time helped me get practice on setting the right prices, see which recipes sold well, where to buy my ingredients, and get used to the work involved. Having the day job let me pay for my wedding, save up some money, and stock my 401(k) in advance, since I figured most bakers don’t have a retirement plan. Although I had always wanted to open a bakery, in 2010 I had still only saved up $15k...not nearly enough. When the food truck phenomenon came to DC, I decided to take the plunge and build a cookie truck. I stayed at my day job until it was finished, and fortunately my mom loaned me another $15k when I ran out of money halfway through. Although $30,000 is still a huge amount of money, it’s far less than a brick-and-mortar bakery would have cost, and it got me out on the road to test the cookie business. I left my job (on good terms) in February 2012 and began trucking. At the time I was 26. I figured the best time to try it was when I was young – if it all went badly, I could sell the truck and crawl back to the corporate world.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in trying to build your business from the ground up?
Francis: The challenges have been changed as the business grows. The first year I had to pick up a lot of mechanical skills in order to keep all the moving parts (generator, truck engine, oven, etc) running well. After that, the biggest challenge was the sheer workload – I put in about 100-110 hours a week for the first three years. Those kind of hours can really grind you down if you don’t keep your heart in it and know what you’re working toward.
Once we got to four cookie trucks, the logistics of moving people and trucks around was difficult to keep organized. Then navigating the paperwork of permits, licenses, sales tax and withholding in multiple states grew to be the most onerous part of the job. Right now, with 50 employees, the personnel is the biggest challenge – making sure that staff are working well, are happy, are paid the right amount, are a good fit for their position, have enough training, etc.
From one man and oven, how have you been able to successfully grow your business?
Francis: Mostly through sheer persistence. Being willing to put in a 15-hour day, 7 days a week, generally makes the difference between restaurants that fail or succeed. Treating other people well – customers, fellow food truckers, and staff – has paid tremendous dividends through keeping loyal customers, having a network of fellow business owners who help each other, and having low staff turnover. Also – this is hard to sum up concisely – trying to do everything. It is simply amazing how many different tasks you are capable of, if you just try them. This applies to blue collar things like plumbing and electrical work, but also white collar stuff like filing taxes, registering permits, real estate, and web design. Just try it! It’s not as hard as it looks!
Without divulging too many secrets about your recipes, what do you think all great cookies have in common?
Francis: Texture is important. For me, the ideal cookie has a crispy edge, chewy interior, and possibly a soft/gooey center. The proper balance of ingredients – sweet to salt, fat to starch, acid to base – helps as well. One pro tip – try making your chocolate chip dough two days early, and store it (tightly covered) in the fridge before baking. Your cookies will be thicker and that golden-brown crust will look and taste better.
No matter what you’re selling, the food industry and the food truck industry can be extremely competitive. How do stay ahead of the competition and what are some of the important business lessons you’ve learned in the last few years?
Francis: We stay ahead of the competition by growing whenever we can, keeping our commitments to customers, and not taking anything for granted. There are so many food businesses that start out great and get careless over time. We want to get better over time and stay well-known for our friendliness and great cookies. As far as important business lessons, the Golden Rule applies to customers, staff, and business partners – treat them as you’d like to be treated. This will make your customers and staff loyal, and grow a network of business partners that are looking out for your best interests. I try to lead staff by example and work honestly and diligently.
Photo by: Nicholas Donner
Any plans to bring Captain Cookie back to Oklahoma?
Francis: I’d love to bring it to Tulsa. I’ve been keeping an eye on the food truck market here, but haven’t pulled the trigger yet. If anyone sees a little 500 square-foot storefront or potential cookie truck for sale/lease, let me know!
What are the most rewarding and fulfilling aspects of your job?
Francis: Handing someone a cookie and seeing their eyes light up (or close) when they take a bite. We also cater many special events, and it’s always an honor when the bride or groom comes to thank us for making their wedding so special. Lastly but not least, employing people who enjoy their work and make a decent wage.
What is next for you both personally and professionally?
Francis: Personally, my wife and I welcomed a baby boy on 2/16/16, so that’s pretty cool! Professionally, we’re planning to build a large kitchen/warehouse to serve as our base of operations and truck depot.