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Cookies for a good cause

Smithfield-based bakery The Cake House is answering a call to service in a big way by baking thousands of cookies that will be provided to military members and first responders throughout Virginia.

Bakery owner Karen Collier is participating in the Military Spouses’ Society of Virginia’s annual cookie drive. One of the organization’s signature initiatives is rallying local bakeries to make the treats during the holiday season. It’s a big ask, but one she couldn’t turn down, Collier said.

The military spouses’ organization emailed Collier out of the blue.

“I get asked for donations all the time,” she said. “Schools, sports teams — they just say it’ll be good advertising for your business,” but the reality is “it’s not possible to donate to every business or organization. But I love donating to the military, to hospitals, and to first responders,” she said. “That is just right up my alley.”

Initially, the Cake House planned to do 1,000 cookies, but Collier wanted to make a bigger commitment. So with help from family, they’ve started baking and committed to making 5,000 cookies.

Collier’s son, Brien, a member of Sigma Chi fraternity at the College of William & Mary, has also lent its support through providing labor to run a kitchen assembly line to expedite the exceptionally big order. The business normally employs about five, including Collier.

“We were very happy to help,” said Garrett Curtis, who is president of the frat’s local chapter. “As a chapter, we thought it was a great cause and a good way to become more involved in the community.”

“I don’t know what other bakeries would consider big,” Collier said. “But we’re a small batch, scratch bakery, so that is a lot of batches of cookies. We don’t just pour out a mix and add some oil and throw it in the oven. These are fresh, homemade cookies.”

Recipients of the Cake House’s cookies will enjoy chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin or molasses cookies.

The nonprofit spouses’ society plans to pick up the cookies in about a week. “This year we have had to alter the way we collect and process the donations due to COVID,” said society president Diane Schwab.

“We have extended the time frame from three days to five days, so we have time to incorporate additional cleaning protocols and have less people involved each shift,” Schwab said. “The volunteers are trained in food handling and have always been proactive in maintaining the highest standards, so adding the additional COVID protocols has not been seen as a burden. As far as the recipients, all of them have been grateful that we are able to continue this tradition in such trying times.”

The cookie drive has been a tradition for decades, and “we feel that it is more important this year, than ever, that our first responders and military feel the love and gratitude from the community,” Schwab said. “Even though this is spearheaded by the Military Spouses’ Society of Virginia, it would not be possible if it were not for community involvement. Without individuals, bakeries and those with professional kitchens stepping up, this event would not be possible.”

The Cake House, located at 1604 S. Church St., opened in March 2019 and was in the midst of celebrating its first anniversary when COVID-19 forced most businesses to shut down this spring. The coronavirus pandemic canceled or postponed quite a few weddings and celebrations of all types, so bakery business was down, too.

Collier said she “did not grow up baking with my mother or grandmother” and got into the baking business from a different angle — cake decorating. She has a bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s in history and thought her retirement career might involve writing. But when her first niece was born, she got into cake decorating and the creative aspect. She took lessons, practiced and kept working on the craft for years using off-the-shelf cake mix. She realized baking was her passion and decided to go with it.

“I started learning how to scratch bake because I thought to myself ‘I can’t own a bakery and use Duncan Hines cake mixes.’ So I started to experiment with recipes, I bought a million books, I began baking and looked at a million recipes and blogs and all of that. And I’ve got to tell you, I’m now torn between which I love more — the baking or the cake artistry.”

Collier has been married to her husband, Tim, for 25 years. He was in the Navy, and his post-military career also kept the family traveling. “I’ve lived in Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Philly, Rhode Island, South Carolina and South Korea and China,” she said. “We were living in Philly when he took an early retirement from his job. Our son went off to college and we said, ‘OK, now it’s time. I’m going to open this bakery.’”

After looking around, they settled on a location in the Philadelphia suburbs. But it was obvious her husband wasn’t enthused about the new chapter in life they were about to start. He confided that he didn’t really want to live in Philly, and opening the business would mean a long-term commitment. They decided to come back to Hampton Roads.

“I love it here,” Collier said.

Scotty Olmack, the spouses’ society’s fundraising liaison, called Collier an amazing business owner and expert in her craft. He said working with her has been an incredibly positive experience and the large commitment during the holidays is sincerely and deeply appreciated.

“We are excited to be receiving such a huge donation from a local business, especially from one that is as big a supporter of first responders and the military as we are,” Olmack said. “Her donation of 5,000 cookies, the largest single business donation to date, will help our cookie drive immensely this year. We cannot wait for everyone to taste her treats!”