Sweet Escapes: How One Homeless Entrepreneur Baked His Way Off the Streets

Sweet Escapes: How One Homeless Entrepreneur Baked His Way Off the Streets

Time, work, energy...there are a million reasons to put off starting a business.

But Jason Mercado doesn’t believe in excuses. He started his business, Sweet Mission Cookies, while he was homeless and living in a shelter.

We caught up with him to learn more about how he turned his life around.

In this TGIM short, you'll...

  • Learn why persistence is the key to making it as an entrepreneur
  • Discover the value of negotiation and finding compromise
  • Find out the importance of helping other entrepreneurs on the same path

Check out the full short below:

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Jason: "We’re getting the oven turned on so we can prepare some cookies for our orders for today. We make it's at 375."

Speaker 1: "Today is just another ordinary day for Jason Mercado, owner of Sweet Mission Cookie Co in Santa Ana, California. He has special to fill and regular deliveries to make. That means baking dozens and dozens of warm, moist, sweet, gooey, chewy cookies. What can I say? I love cookies. For now, Jason is renting space by the hour in a shared incubator kitchen but he’s looking forward to getting his own space in the near future. Opening a cafe then expanding. It’s a sunny outlook full of promise but 5 years ago, Jason’s outlook was anything but promising. In 2011, Jason was living on the mean streets of Philadelphia completely homeless after losing his job at a coffee shop."

Jason: "Yeah. I think, you know, as far as being homeless, for me the big question was why and how? How did I end up in this position with having a job? How did I get to this point in my life? Now, I had to almost be like this survival of the fittest. I have to figure out what am I going to do? Where am I going to eat today? How do I get myself out of this situation?"

Speaker 1: "For some reason, that was exactly when Jason decided to start a business while living in a men’s shelter. I mean why would you start a business when you’re homeless?"

Jason: "I think at that point with being homeless my whole idea, my whole mindset was, you know, I know how to bake. It’s my passion. It’s something that I always like to do. Maybe I can make that work in my favor because at that point, I was already at my lowest. A lot of people said, “You’re crazy. You don’t have a place to stay. You don’t have any money. Who’s going to believe you? Who’s going to believe that someone that’s homeless wants to start a business?” At that point, I heard enough people say that. I’ve finally figured out as long as I believe in myself, that’s what’s most important."

Speaker 1: "How do you start a business while you’re homeless? Well, Jason convinced a local entrepreneur incubator to give him a scholarship. He took classes there while scouring the city for other free resources. As he sought out the help he needed, he actively looked to help others and this is key to his story. While homeless himself, he helped feed other homeless. The kitchen where he volunteered allowed him to start baking batches of cookies. This helped others to help yourself eat those has been cemented in Jason by the drug and alcohol recovery program he’d been attending since before becoming homeless."

Jason: "That’s always been through helping others that this cookie business is even possible. One thing that I’ve learned in my recovery is always giving back. What it is that I can give back? How can I teach somebody else that it works for me, it can work for you? What does that look like? This is another way how the cookie business developed because I know that there’s other people that know that suffered, that had the same deficiencies that I had. Now, I’m able to say, “Okay. Here’s the business that I started to being sober. If you just take just that extra minute to get your life together, here’s something that you can do. Well, it’s not necessarily be baking. Maybe not. Maybe you want to open up a car shop or maybe you wanted to be a barber or whatever you want to do. Now, you can learn that. I can teach you some of that."

Speaker 1: "Unfortunately, not everyone around Jason was as charitable as him. Someone he had entrusted the finances to took advantage of the situation and overnight the business was busted. Jason was back at square 1 but it wasn’t an unfamiliar place. Remember he’d been homeless. Jason hopped a bus for California and tried again."

Jason: "I get to California. I ended up finding a kitchen in downtown Huntington Beach at the time that wasn’t even completely ready yet. I explained to the guy there was some charge and I said, “Hey. I’m trying to start this cookie business again.” We kind of hit it off pretty well. He liked the idea of the business and what I was trying to do. We kind of did that we ... At that point, I bargained with him. He lived in Northern California. Kitchen is in Southern California. What he wanted me to do was help keep the kitchen clean. Kind of got the other tenants and in turn that I would be able to kind of bake for free or bake at a discounted rate. That worked out perfectly."

Speaker 1: "Once again, people we’re attracted to Jason’s mission to help others, his sweet mission. It led to catering orders from an after party for the Oscar’s and one for the BET Awards as well as standing orders from local cafes. As the business grows, Jason is still focused on helping those in need."

Jason: "It’s a way for me to teach people but it’s also is therapeutic. That's how a lot of people know with cookies. There’s a very clear message that I have and that’s the reason why I do. I started with cookies because cookies are round and also I want to do with this cookie business and with life is to teach people how to be complete because if you’re looking at a cookie, it’s a circle. For me, it represents completeness. Now, I want to teach someone else how to become complete in life. How you can do a total turnaround in your life despite whatever your situation."

Speaker 1: "This has led to various recent initiatives to feed the homeless in Santa Ana and the formation of a charitable arm of Sweet Mission Cookies which if you think about it, it’s pretty amazing since most companies usually wait until they’re on more solid footing before turning to philanthropy. I mean he’s still using a shared kitchen to bake. In the kitchen today are guys he’s mentoring. Many who are living in a sober living house he manages and who are also coming from the streets."

Speaker 2: "I think it’s amazing. I have a similar background. Me and my parents both lived together. We’re all addicts together. We got evicted from our house. I was kind of bouncing from family member to family member. My dad ended up living on the streets. He lives on a bridge right now. I can related a lot to that. I can see ... I understand how hard it is to go from that situation to where he is now so I just really, really aspire to be like him one day."

Speaker 1: "If you ever get to Santa Ana, have one of Jason’s cookies. It could be a life changing for someone."

Jason: "My most popular cookie is my award-winning Hawaiian Cooler Cookie. It’s a lemon, coconut, white chocolate and macadamia nuts. I think my second one would be my Pecan Snicker Doodle Delight. It’s kind of a Snicker Doodle cookie, a cinnamon cookie ..."

Speaker 1: "Man, did he just stay Snicker Doodles? You’re killing me."

Jason: "You might do the chocolate chip cookie first. Get the flour."

Show notes:

About TGIM: TGIM is a podcast for people who can’t wait for the week to start. In each episode we’ll be bringing you inspirational stories about entrepreneurs who have overcome obstacles, built incredible businesses, and are now living the life they want.