cakes and pastries in PH

Cookies for a cause! How Overdoughs empowers PWD staff even in a pandemic

Steph Arnaldo
Cookies for a cause! How Overdoughs empowers PWD staff even in a pandemic

INCLUSIVE. Local bakeshop Overdoughs hires Persons with Disabilities (PWD) employees as part of their core value of inclusivity.

Photo from Caravan Food Group

Inclusivity is the goal of local cookie shop Overdoughs, where Persons with Disabilties (PWDs) and Deaf Partners make up their hardworking staff

MANILA, Philippines – The best way to help someone is to empower them, and when it comes to helping the Persons with Disabilities (PWD) community, empowerment doesn’t mean doing their jobs for them – it’s giving them the tools, guidance, and opportunities to help them help themselves.

This core belief is what local bakeshop Overdoughs stands by and works very hard for. Aside from serving delicious homemade cookies, Overdoughs is also known for donating to PWD scholars and employing PWD staff, driven by the team’s core values of inclusivity and diversity. 

OVERDOUGHS’ PWD STAFF. Photo from Caravan Food Group

When Overdoughs started in May 2017 under the Caravan Food Group, CEO Francis Reyes already knew that he didn’t just want to serve high-quality beignets, loukomades, cookies, doughnuts, crinkles, Spanish bread, and cold brew – Reyes was set on becoming the first food and beverage company to promote the abilities of their PWD partners by providing job opportunities to the deaf and special needs community.

‘Doing Good Through Good Food’

It’s cookies for a cause; a cause that many customers and fellow employees don’t hesitate to get behind, especially if the cookies make it really easy to.

“We want to do good by giving equal job opportunities for Deaf partners, while providing excellent quality of food to our valuable customers,” Reyes told Rappler. Aside from the relationship between PWD employee and employer, Reyes also wanted their customers to be a part of their mission; this way, everyone plays an important part. Every purchase by a customer allows Overdoughs to keep the livelihoods of their staff.

“We also want to inspire others with our cause,” Reyes said. And indeed they did – other organizations began reaching out to Overdoughs, which eventually lead to their first partnership with College of Saint Benilde’s (CSB) School of Deaf Education, the main beneficiary of “The Good Cookie Project.” With every cookie sold, a portion of its sales is donated to the scholarship fund of CSB SDEAS.

“The first batch of our Deaf partners also came from their graduates and we have continued to employ from them. In return, we provided financial support to their scholars to continue with their education,” Reyes said.

Lending a hand: Hiring and working with PWDs

Reyes said that they always intended to hire PWDs at the very beginning. He described the hiring process as “very similar to any company employing the Hearing” – this includes a CV review, in-person interview, job offer, and then contract signing afterwards. CSB SDEAS also helped their hiring process by recommending capable graduates from their program.

“The main difference with the way we hired is we focus on the personality of the applicant, as we believe skills can be developed later through proper training and experience,” Reyes said.

Once accepted into the company, each employee has to complete one month of training before being deployed on their own. Each Overdoughs store has an Area Manager and respective Team Leaders, who are all very “dedicated and hands-on” in guiding the newer staff and overseeing the operations.

HANDS-ON. Photo from Caravan Food Group

When they first started hiring PWD employees, the responses – both from the staff and from the customers – were overwhelmingly positive.

“Seeing our Deaf Partners at work inspired our customers as they interact with them. Even kids find it awesome. Meanwhile, our Deaf Partners are very happy that a company acknowledges them by putting the spotlight on them,” Reyes said.

“It gives them confidence, not only with their responsibilities at work, but also in their personal lives.”

However, it wasn’t easy at first, inevitably – communication was a major hurdle the team had to overcome before anything else. And so, the Overdoughs team had to adjust.

All Hearing employees and managers underwent Filipino Sign Language (FSL) courses and learned how to rely on visual cues and writing materials to communicate with each other. They also had to create tools and systems that could help their Deaf Partners perform their daily store tasks, such as menu talkers, LED TVs, and signages. They also make use of online group chats for immediate communication.

As difficult as these adjustments may be, at the end of the day, feeling that sense of fulfillment and embracing their “higher purpose” by helping others makes everything worth it, Reyes said. Nothing can compare.

“We see them excel at work and gain confidence in themselves that they can do whatever they put their minds to, despite their disabilities. We are somehow blurring the lines of the Hearing and Deaf, as they are just as capable as anyone,” Reyes said.

Empower-ful! A day in the life

If giving PWD staff the opportunity to earn a livelihood on their own isn’t empowering enough, Overdoughs doesn’t stop there – at one point, many of their employees are even trusted to handle a branch on their own. This includes doing stock inventory, cashiering, store maintenance, and sales reporting, among others.

FRESHLY-BAKED DAILY. Photo from Caravan Food Group

It’s all about showing the Deaf and the Hearing that the former are just as capable to manage the day-to-day operations of a busy branch, Reyes said, by giving them the space to learn how to be independent and the freedom to embrace their personal agency.

“We teach them to have entrepreneurial mindsets for independence. Should they need any assistance, they can always freely communicate to all departments and levels of management via group chats,” Reyes said.

A typical day in the life for Overdoughs’ PWD staff starts with them opening the branch. They bake the goodies from scratch first thing in the morning, while also interacting with customers. On top of that, they also manage several food merchant apps like GrabFood and FoodPanda for delivery orders. At the end of the day, they close the branch and send in reports on daily sales to the head office.

Photo from Caravan Food Group

It’s basically a win-win situation for everyone involved, Reyes said, starting from the employee to the employer, and even for the customer. Every day, there is always something new to be learned and genuine moments to appreciate.

“One of the benefits of having PWD staff is that we also get to learn how to be patient and understanding with one another. Even our customers will show compassion to our staff,” Reyes said. Of course, the staff are just very grateful to have a job that helps provide for themselves and their families.

Navigating the lockdown

When the lockdown hit in March 2020, Overdoughs had to close all 12 of their Metro Manila mall-based stores, jeopardizing not only the staff’s livelihoods, but also Overdoughs’ PWD scholars. Because of this, the Good Cookie Project had to unfortunately close down, so that the management could focus on sustaining operations and keeping the jobs of their current Deaf Partners.

As a way to keep the business afloat and cater to direct delivery orders, Overdoughs launched their very first website in the pandemic. Instead of at the malls, Overdoughs was freshly baking their cookies from their Makati commissary. They also aggressively looked for additional sales channels, invested in social media marketing, and more “efficient logistics” by partnering with delivery partners.

DELIVERY-FRIENDLY. The Caravan Food Group converted their ice cream into pints for delivery orders. Photo from Caravan Food Group

While this was going on, Overdough’s PWD employees were anxiously waiting from home, eager to return to work. When lockdown restrictions began to loosen, the opportunity thankfully presented itself once again.

“As we gradually opened our stores, we made sure to put them on a skeletal basis to maintain physical distancing in our stores. We also provided cleaning and sanitation agents to keep our stores clean for the safety of staff and customers,” Reyes said.

Many of them were excited to go back to work, he said, since that was their main livelihood, and they needed the work as their source of income. “Most believed it is much better to work than staying at home and doing nothing,” he said.

They tried to support their staff as much as possible, but the pandemic was merciless – foot traffic was dwindling, and income was difficult. They even used up the company savings just to keep the company and their staff’s heads above water. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to keep everyone on board.

“Unfortunately, we had to let go of some of our staff, with the proper remuneration. For those who stayed, we gave them our full support to continue with the operations of the remaining branches, and to sustain the company,” Reyes said. Depending on the lockdown restrictions, they are assigned back to the branches. They are also granted incentives whenever the sales performance of the branch is positive.

SOFT OPENING. Overdoughs opened their first cafe in Promenade, Greenhills in February 2022. Photo from Caravan Food Group

With all their heart, Overdoughs’ staff is driven to bring in sales and do their best to manage the stores, Reyes said. And luckily for Overdoughs, their staff is just as committed to support and work hard for the company that has become a second family to them, thankful for the opportunity to prove themselves as capable as anyone else, and empowered by the admiration and trust shown to them by employers and customers alike. – Rappler.com

Overdoughs’ kiosks can be found in Alabang Town Center, Century City Mall, Eastwood, Robinson’s Galleria, Robinson’s Magnolia, Robinson’s Place Manila, S Maison, SM BF Paranaque, SM Fairview, SM Sucat, and Lucky Chinatown Mall. You can also find them on Instagram.

Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.