As Captain Cookie and the Milkman prepares to open a store at 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. next month, owner Kirk Francis is taking a bet that the GW community’s sweet tooth will be enough to cover the costs of a permanent shop.
Francis’ franchise will move into the small space in the Shops at 2000 Penn that couldn’t support its ice cream and cookie predecessor, longtime tenant Cone E. Island. Captain Cookie will face the same challenge that forced the campus staple to close last spring: competition from a growing crop of big-name business in the area.
Still, Francis has seen his business rapidly expand since he first took his food truck to D.C.’s streets two years ago, and the force behind that growth has been a loyal base of customers hungry for homemade ice cream sandwiches.
“Cone E. Island was here for 27 years. If I get even close to that I’ll consider it a job well done,” Francis said. “So we really want to become the kind of campus hangout, the nostalgic but also trendy place that Cone E. Island was in its heyday.”
Since he announced the venture last week, Francis has moved quickly. By the end of this week, he expects to clear out the remnants of the former GW landmark.
Standing in the middle of the now empty space, Francis said he envisions stations where students can customize their orders and counter-style seating in the upstairs loft.
“We want to be somewhere that students can come in and get an ice cream sandwich in about 30 seconds or they could come in and spend like eight hours here hanging out upstairs,” he said.
A business plan centered on cookie sales
Captain Cookie has a five-year lease at 2000 Pennsylvania Ave., with the option to extend the lease for another five years. Although Francis declined to give exact figures, rent will cost “multiple thousands a month,” and the small business expects about 80 percent of its customers to be GW students.
“The plan is to sell a lot of cookies,” he joked.
He will also expand his menu to include milkshakes, hot beverages and home-brewed sodas. The store’s staff will be made up of GW students, who will deliver cookies late at night to residence halls.
Francis, who said he sometimes works more than 100 hours a week, said his work ethic will keep the business afloat.
He had to beat out more than 20 other establishments for the spot. The University eventually chose him, Francis said, because his popularity within the GW community will ensure the store’s longevity.
University spokesman Kurtis Hiatt declined to provide the names of other businesses that had applied for the space. The University chooses tenants with the intent of “improving the retail experience for building tenants, the GW community and the community at large while enhancing the overall value of the property,” Hiatt said in an email.
Reviving a sleepy shopping center
The cookie-crazed store will move into the indoor shopping center as it plots even greater expansion along the East Coast: In addition to its two food trucks that circle the District and deal with Dupont Circle bar Thomas Foolery, Francis plans to operate a truck near his alma mater, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and another in a to-be-determined location this year.
Some of Captain Cookie’s neighbors hope the thriving business will increase foot traffic in the complex, which has not added any small businesses since Wasabi in 2008. The Japanese sushi restaurant has since closed its doors.
Chateau Florist owner Monte Gidew said new chain restaurants, such as Chipotle, have been most successful at drawing in customers.
“New businesses help bring people in,” he said. “People want to discover it and the surrounding area. There are a lot of big name companies bringing in business.”
Some worry that the small-scale cookie shop won’t attract enough customers to offset the loss of seafood house Kinkead’s. The restaurant’s 10,000-square foot space has sat vacant for the past two years.
“If it’s a big restaurant like that you see the difference because it brings in people from different walks of life, not local people,” said Steven Momoh, owner of Watch & Band Clinic. “When they come in the business they come from Kinkead’s.”
A campus icon
Francis said he baked his first cookie when he was 4 years old. Before he pursued a career in baking, he took a detour: The Oklahoma native studied Mandarin and English in college, and he moved to D.C. to work as a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security.
On the side, he started selling his cookies to D.C. coffee and cupcake stores. Four years later, using his own savings and a loan from his mother for a combined $30,000, he bought his first truck, “Cookie 1.”
Painted smurf blue, Cookie 1 was originally a Washington Post delivery truck. It took a year to renovate the truck to accommodate a full kitchen, and Francis started driving across the District in 2012. Cookie 2, the yellow incarnation of the original truck, made its way to the streets last year.
Since Captain Cookie started to visit campus, it has quickly become a campus icon. Francis took note and started hiring GW students to work in the truck, and when students approached him to work as de-facto campus ambassadors in exchange for free cookies, he agreed.
Armed with free T-shirts, several students help spread the word about the captain across Foggy Bottom. Students find the truck outside of its normal 2:45 to 6:30 p.m. hours at Greek philanthropy events and student organization fundraisers.
After frequenting the truck and befriending Francis, senior Ari Massefski soon found himself on the other side of the counter, rolling and baking cookies. Though not a paid employee, he said he enjoyed lending a hand to a brand he thought had seamlessly integrated into the GW community.
“The business, it’s his life,” Massefski said. “He cares about it a lot, but he also cares a lot about the students or customers or whoever it is that’s coming up to the truck, and he will ask how your day is going and he will listen to the answer because he’s a really good guy.”
Kristen Barnes and Allison Kowalski contributed reporting.