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August 21, 2014, 11:54 pm

Homeless man turns cookie entrepreneur

For Jason Mercado, being laid off in the current recession couldn’t have come at a better time.

In less than a year, he has gone from laid off and homeless to a budding entrepreneur.

“I look at it as a blessing,” said Mercado, speaking of his erstwhile hard times and joblessness, as the big man towered over a Tribune reporter and photographer in his new cookie factory called “Just Cookies.” His new business is located at the Friend’s Meeting Center at 15th and Cherry streets in Philadelphia.

“Being laid off has given me a chance to focus on my dream,” said the 40-year-old former Jerseyite. He was once arrested and imprisoned for drug possession in Texas. Now, with those nine months behind him, he, at least, has been able move to a location near his family, though he is still down and out and homeless in Philadelphia at the city’s St. John’s Hospice, which provides temporary shelter for the city’s transients.

There is where the street chef landed after his layoff as a chef manager at Starbucks last July. Last week, with teens playing violins and other vendors selling their wares alongside his cookies, Mercado launched his new business. No longer just pie in the sky, “Just Cookies” from now on will be taking real orders from as many real clients as it can muster.

Even before the launch of his business on June 1, Mercado peddled his cookies on the streets to individuals and office clients. He has been known to receive orders of up to 24 dozen cookies at a time, reportedly delivering them on time and with satisfaction.

Mercado’s menu, though mostly straightforward, includes a range of flavors: chocolate chip, peanut butter, oatmeal raisin, etc. as well as some original varieties like cranberry-apple-walnut and lemon coconut.

Hustling to turn a nightmare into a longtime dream come true, Mercado is joining an army of men and women in inner cities and elsewhere these days who are fighting to heed Obama’s quote from Ghandi, urging people to “become the change you wish for.”

Young capitalist daredevils and warriors like Mercado seem to be heeding the call these days to lay their hopes and dreams on the line and turn them into opportunities to leverage their creativity to fill the vacuum in the wealthiest nation on the face of the earth.

Mercado isn’t the only one.

“I want to change the world,” said Jose Melendez recently as he peddled cold bottles of water to passing cars at the busy intersection of 34th and Grays Ferry. He was working with his two partners Marcus Johnson Anicet and the Rev. Damion Johnson to generate income for a small nonprofit business they have created to help the homeless.

Mercado eventually, once he gets a permanent location where he can set up a cookie business and coffee shop, wants to help train young individuals in how to do the same sort of thing for themselves.

“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,” he recently told Joe Petrucci of Flying Kite, an online publication. “Everything people said [what] 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.”

Melendez has a similar story. He and his friends are sharing the profits from their bottled water sales with a homeless shelter in the area.

They purchase a case of bottled water for $5 a case and resell it to passing drivers at $1 a bottle, leaving a profit of about $19 a case.

Melendez said he wants to teach drug dealers and other illegal go-getters on the street that there are other ways to hustle money or “get paid” without selling illegal goods or robbing those who have already made money. All that is needed is a little creativity, he said.

Mercado got his start by first ignoring the negative statistics that were everywhere, including homeless newspapers. He, instead, said he read and studied mostly positive stories like bios of fellow cookie entrepreneur Wally “Famous” Amos.

The budding capitalist discovered the availability of the Friend’s Meeting Center kitchen when he was volunteering with Occupy Philadelphia and realized that, much of the time, that kitchen remained unused.

Mercado is currently negotiating with the Friends Meeting Center to share/lease the kitchen, which was showcased last week at his launch ceremony.

Shortly after the discovery of the Friend’s kitchen to help propel his foray into the world of cookie street sales, Mercado found the spark of magic on Philadelphia streets. Ryan Mack, a charismatic speaker, who has established something called the Optimum Institute of Economic Empowerment, Inc. through which he is trying to spread his business gospel. “I go from city to city,” said Mack, an advocate of positive thinking.

“No more negative focus. We focus on what is being done. How to create more Jason Mercados. … We’re trying to find different people to inspire.”

The night he met Mercado, Mack had just been to the ATM machine to withdraw money. When he saw Mercado on the street and tasted his product he realized that the 40-year-old might be a good example of the kind of enterprising spirit about which Mack often

preached. Mack decided to make an investment in his own vision by offering the big man $40 to make a batch of cookies to bring to one of Mack’s forums.

For Mack it was a gamble. For Mercado it was one small step for himself and one large step for human enterprise.

“He took the money, the flier with event details, and my cell number and we parted ways. What he didn’t know was that already in my mind I had decided that if he did show up I would do everything in my power to help support his efforts even beyond my event.”

Mercado showed up at the event that following week with cookies in hand and a business plan to boot.

“He was a hit,” said Mack.