Jason Mercado is the picture of resilience. At 18 years old, he left his home in Salem, New Jersey, for Austin, Texas, without a plan. He ended up falling in with the wrong crowd, and over the next 20 years would live on the streets, get addicted to drugs, go to rehab, spend time in jail, move to Dallas, back to Salem, Atlanta and eventually Philadelphia.
It wasn’t until a few years ago when he was living with Occupy Philadelphia that he seriously considered starting a business. By that time he was sober and taking classes for entrepreneurship at a local community center. Those classes gave him the tools and confidence to go after his dream of baking cookies for the public.
Today, 41-year-old Mercado is founder and owner of Just Cookies, a cookie catering service operating out of Carmelo Restaurant & Bakery on Cottman Avenue in Philadelphia. His business consists of himself and one employee, and he plans to expand in the near future.
“Never count yourself out,” he says. “I had to believe that this company would come into existence. I got a lot of no's starting out and it would have been easy for me to cave, but I always believed in myself. Every 'no' prepared me for that 'yes' when the door to Carmelo's opened up.”
How did you get your company into Carmelo Restaurant & Bakery?
It was April 27, 2012, and I was just finishing my entrepreneurship course. I didn’t have any money and I just walked by Carmelo’s and noticed that the restaurant was thriving, but there weren’t any pastries in the bakery window.
I took the owner cookie samples the next day and we worked out an agreement where they would allow me to use their fully equipped bakery to make my cookies if I split cookie sales at the shop 50/50. I still operate my own catering business out of the bakery and they let me do that. It is an amazing opportunity.
How did you get interested in baking in the first place?
I always liked to bake as a kid and thought it was my passion. I enrolled in culinary school when I was 21 and living in Texas, but dropped out after six months. Starting a bakery has always been in the back of my mind.
It sounds like it’s been a long road to get to where you are. Why did you go to jail when you were younger?
When I lived in Texas, I hung out a lot with the club crowd. I thought about going back to school but never did. I lived near the University of Texas, so I would sneak into psychology classes just to learn, but never enrolled.
I went to rehab for drugs when I was 25 and lived at my church for a few years after that, but by the time I was 28, I was back into drugs. I had an apartment and a roommate and we had an after-hours party at our place that got busted by the cops. Everyone in the apartment went to jail for drugs, including me. I was in for three months.
How did you end up in Philly?
A few years after my jail time, I got a letter from my sister in New Jersey. She wanted me to come home because she hadn’t seen me in more than 13 years. I went back to Salem in 2006 and everything was different, I was doing well and didn't want to jeopardize that. So with just $9 from my brother for train fare, I went to Philly.
In Philly, I found an amazing church that put me up, and for whom I worked in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. In October 2011, after working at Starbucks, I took up with the Occupy Movement. That's where I met someone taking entrepreneurial classes and I thought it was my chance to learn about business, and start the bakery I always wanted.
How is business going?
It's going well. We have catering orders come through online and over the phone. We have an event coming up where we need to make enough cookies for about 80 people. It is really exciting.
What does the future hold for Just Cookies?
Well, when I started out, I wanted to just make money, but now everything has changed. Now, I want to use my company as a way to teach entrepreneurship to youths. We are working on raising capital and we want to hire young people and teach them the basics of business.
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Photos from top: Getty Images, Courtesy of Just Cookies