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A Philadelphia Homeless Man's Path to Entrepreneurship

When people taste Jason Mercado's cookies, they often say the budding entrepreneur should have started selling them a long time ago.
That sentiment is not lost on Mercado, a Salem, N.J. native who baked his first batch of Toll House when he was 11 and never stopped cooking for his family. Before food blogs and Epicurious there was only The Food Network, and in the mid-to-late 1990s, Mercado watched all the time, learning as much as his mother's kitchen would allow. 

But something happened on the way to cookie paradise. Mercado eschewed culinary school – he got stuck on the more complex math – and followed some friends to Austin, TX, spending 17 years working the restaurant circuit and the party scene, developing a self-described functional drug addiction that saw him spend time in jail and drain his modest finances. 

It wasn't until Mercado returned north to Philadelphia, where he was laid off from Starbucks, that he was homeless, and at long last, an entrepreneur.

Mercado's circuitous path to Philadelphia and business ownership isn't a tale of entrepreneurship's power to overcome homelessness, as tempting as that might be. Rather, it's a testament to Mercado's fortitude and Philadelphia's entrepreneurial ecosystem, which he took advantage of at every opportunity to lift himself up the ladder of redemption.

He is almost at the top rung.

Mercado learned about business planning, among other relevant necessities, from Entrepreneur Works. He received customized guidance and help on branding from Philly Food Ventures at The Enterprise Center (TEC). He participated in Office Hours at the Corzo Center, getting advice on legal, product development and marketing. He attended programs offered through the Free Library of Philadelphia's Business Science and Industry Department, and also used computers at the library for research and correspondence. Mercado went to Meet the Lenders sessions in King of Prussia sponsored in part by SCORE Philadelphia.Those are only a few examples.

"Anything that was being offered and was free, I jumped on it," says Mercado, who turns 40 years old today. "Now I'm one big resource guide."

Now he has his business privilege license. He has his food safety certification from the City. All he needs is a kitchen inspection and certification at the Friends Center at 15th and Cherry  in Center City, where Mercado has perhaps made his biggest entrepreneurial move since latching on as a cook for Occupy Philly.

Choices to Burn
Since last Oct. 27, Mercado has lived at St. John's Hospice a transitional housing facility at 1221 Race Street that is part of Catholic Social Services. It's important to note that Mercado is homeless by choice. He says he does not suffer from any illness and his battle with addiction has come without a rockbottom moment. He could return to his family home in Salem, but it is not the same town he left more than 20 years ago. There aren't as many jobs in this historic, once clean-cut town, since the Heinz plant and other factories closed. Mercado knows all too well that many of the same temptations, including readily available cocaine, that captured him in Austin lurk in Salem's shadows. 
"I'm not going back to that vicious cycle," Mercado says. "I'm too focused on life now. I know what I want to do."

In Austin, it was Mercado's most intoxicating traits – gregarious, generous, life of the party – that led him down a path of near-destruction. There were lost paychecks, run-ins with the law, all-night raves, and missed opportunities. He was nearly broke when his family re-discovered him after a lengthy lapse in communications in 2000. In 2006, Mercado took a 34-hour bus ride back to New Jersey.

After realizing his hometown wasn't right for him, he began living at the Philadelphia Brotherhood Rescue Mission in Fishtown, where he also worked as a public relations coordinator. Meanwhile he was working at a Center City Starbucks and had an opportunity to transfer to Atlanta in 2009, which seemed like a golden opportunity at the time. He didn't know anybody in a competitive culinary town and sought a transfer back to Philadelphia, which came last June 26. He started working at the Starbucks at 12th and Chestnut on July 4 last year. Nine days later he was laid off.

"Now I'm real mad because I could have stayed in Atlanta," he says.

Anger soon morphed into action. Getting laid off was exactly the push Mercado needed to aggressively pursue his dream of starting a cookie business.
Occupied with Entrepreneurship
Someone gave Mercado a flyer for Entrepreneur Works, a nonprofit microenterprise development that aims to grow small businesses and create jobs. He could not afford the $200 for a class there, so Earl Boyd suggested he write an essay to earn a scholarship for the 11-week class that began last August. 
"He made an impression on me as a guy who was serious about making something happen in his life," says Boyd, the director of entrepreneurial services. "He was also persistent. Whatever I requested of him as steps along the way, he did his part and put it back in my lap."
Mercado nailed the essay and took the class, in which he learned about business development, marketing strategy, budgeting and most importantly, that he was supremely confident he could make his cookie business work.  He also engaged in multiple one-on-one sessions with Boyd on strategy and goal-setting.
It wasn't long before Mercado found TEC, which has helped 70 food-based entrepreneurs on a variety of topics through periodic workshops and individual consultation. Steve Horton, the business support services manager at TEC, guided Mercado through a checklist of tasks intended for microfood producers and beyond – how to secure business registration, trademarks, food liability insurance and how to navigate kitchen inspections and other City requirements. Horton also tried to connect Mercado with financial resources.
"Our role was to take his energy and funnel it into getting the regulatory stuff done," says Horton, himself a food entrepreneur – he and his wife are the team behind Fifth of a Farm Creations, which makes jams and jellies.
By October, Occupy Philly started bringing hundreds of protesters to Dilworth Plaza at City Hall. Mercado was among many homeless who attached themselves to the movement. Mercado took it a step further. Since he was certified to handle food and needed work, he wound up becoming a cook for Occupy Philly.
"I got caught up in the movement a little bit," says Mercado, who fed 500 people three meals a day, including many vegan or vegetarian dishes. 
A Little Help From His Friends
Mercado stood out among the Occupiers who were in and out of the Friends Center last fall – not because he's around 6-foot-2 and usually smiling, but because he seemed "more together" than others, according to center director Pat McBee. She oversees 100,000 square feet of newly renovated space, some of which is underutilized, including its modest kitchen on the west side of the building, a busy hub for Quakers and like-minded organizations working for peace and justice.
That's where Mercado came in. He asked McBee if he could use the kitchen to make his cookies, and she asked him to draft a lease. Not only did Mercado, who enlisted free legal help from an attorney, crack one of the most difficult barriers for food entrepreneurs – finding an affordable commercial kitchen – but he also helped the Friends Center develop a new, ongoing revenue source.
Mercado has catered a few jobs for some of the many events held at the Friends Center. Some were paid, others were unpaid. Mercado's biggest order has been for 24 dozen cookies, a sizable one for his small-batch setup. McBee notes that the food was delivered on time and the kitchen was clean when Mercado left. For both parties, things have evened out nicely.
"He's focused, makes a plan and follows through on it," says McBee. "He's really sweet to be around. He's easy to work with. He's cooperative. He's friendly. He's generous. 
"We've been earning each other's trust."
Mercado has become something of a fixture at the center, and the staff there are among his biggest fans and supporters. He held a "cookie happy hour" for the center, a model he'd like to replicate for other offices throughout Center City. As soon as he is able to nail down the kitchen inspection, his business, known as Just Cookies will officially launch.
"They've been instrumental," says Mercado of the folks at the Friends Center. "They're excited to help and have been very supportive."
While Mercado's cookie offerings are fairly straightforward, they seem universally well-received. There are the traditionals, like Chocolate Chip, Peanut Butter and Oatmeal Raisin, in addition to more original varieties like Cranberry-Apple-Walnut and Lemon Coconut. Mercado shares his secret, a little oatmeal in every batch, that helps the finished product maintain a winning balance of crunch on the outside, chewy on the inside and just enough sweetness.
"His cookies have been a hit around here," says McBee. "We have a running joke from when he was late for an appointment and he said to me ‘I need an office manager.' I asked what the pay was. He said ‘What's your favorite cookie?'"
Adding It All Up
Most everyone who Mercado has encountered has helped him gain insight and access to resources, while holding up his end of the bargain, whatever it might be. Mercado believes anyone can follow his path and acquire whatever skills, knowledge and connections necessary to fulfill their own entrepreneurial dream in Philadelphia.
While those providing help admit that Philadelphia doesn't necessarily have more or better services for a wide range of entrepreneurs, they agree that with a little effort, countless others can do what Mercado has done.
"If you're an entrepreneur, there are resources available around here," says Boyd. "All of them are not coordinated, and you'll probably find other cities with more resources.
"With that said, if you've got a goal in mind and you're willing to put in the work to find what you need, there are things here to make it work. Jason had that attitude. Entrepreneurs identify opportunities but also take action."
Success to Mercado means more than just selling enough cookies to pay overhead and to cover rent for an apartment. His bigger goal is to teach kids and young adults about entrepreneurship.
"I want to teach people that just because you're down on your luck at the time doesn't mean you can't do your own thing," he says. 
"I'm doing this with literally no money. Everything people said you need to have I don't have. What I have is people who believe in me, who say ‘let's help you get from Step A to Step B and see what that looks like."
For Mercado, it looks like home.

JOE PETRUCCI is managing editor of Flying Kite. Send feedback here.

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