Every Thursday morning Roy Francies goes to his garage freezer, where he keeps nothing but cookie dough, 28 pounds of it.
Counting out 68 pre-shaped cookies, the exact number he can cram onto four baking sheets, he wraps them in newspaper, puts the package in a tote bag and jumps on BART in Pleasanton. His destination is Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco, where he goes straight to the oven in back and sets to baking triple chocolate, oatmeal raisin and white-chocolate macadamia nut cookies.
After the cookies come out and cool down, Francies puts them on a plate and distributes them to the at-risk youths who are there for a free lunch or a free couch to sleep on. The motto of Larkin Street is “Helping kids get off the street for good,” and fresh-baked cookies are as good an enticement as any.
“They don’t last long at all,” says Francies, 79, while standing at the kitchen counter in his baking smock with the Larkin Street logo. Kids are kids, homeless or otherwise. “They eat as many as they can.”
Twenty years of this routine will set you to thinking, and the kitchen volunteers started doing their math. Counting on fingers, they came up with 40,000 cookies that the Cookie Man, as the runaways call him, will have bought, transported, baked and served by the middle of 2012.
‘A huge part’
“Roy is a huge part of this place,” says fellow Thursday lunch volunteer Blake Hallanan, who knows a good story when she sees it, having been a staff reporter at Time magazine in New York. “He’s the most nonjudgmental person I know and an inspiration because of the length of time he’s been doing it and his connection to the kids.”
A retired aircraft mechanic who had never baked a cookie before starting here, Francies uses Otis Spunkmeyer dough, but does not follow Otis Spunkmeyer directions. “That makes them too soft,” he says. Experience has taught him to bake each sheet of 17 for 17 minutes at 280 degrees. “I like a little brown around the edges and a little crunch. That makes them just right.”
The Cookie Man started as soon as he retired in 1992. An article titled “Throwaway Kids Who Sell Sex” had caught his eye. He read about the Larkin Street program to help at-risk youths and “liked the sound of it,” he says. “It’s about a safe place for kids that got no place else to go.”
He walked into the storefront on Sutter Street, at Polk, and volunteered. Because there is not much use for the skills of an aircraft maintenance man, he was looking for a niche. Acting on his own initiative, he walked around the corner to a grocery store and bought frozen cookie dough that he brought back and baked.
He did this sporadically until a girl came in and “she really liked that fresh-baked cookie,” he says. “She said it had been years since she had one. So I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ “
He started the Thursday routine and there was no stopping it. Soon enough he was driving to the Otis Spunkmeyer Factory Store in San Leandro for his supply, working his way into a discount.
Good day for cookies
Thursday is a good day for cookies because that is “overage day,” when “kids” as old as 24 can drop in. They usually come in later, so Francies saves them two batches.
“When the meals are served on a plate,” he says, “they get a cookie on it, too.”
No other volunteer at Larkin Street bakes cookies. That is Francies’ domain, and along the way he has developed pride in his work. Cookies that he deemed overcooked and unsuitable for service he dumped into the garbage. A guy saw him and went straight to the garbage and fished them out.
That taught Francies a lesson: There is no such thing as a burnt cookie. Somebody will eat it, and that will go for cookie No. 40,000 too. When it comes out of the oven, he plans to present it to Sherilyn Adams, executive director of Larkin Street. Then he expects it to be eaten. If Adams doesn’t, somebody else will. Ceremony goes only so far.
Francies doesn’t plan to stop at 40,000 cookies, and he won’t stop at 50,000, either. He is shooting for 55,000 cookies, which will be in his 25th year as a Larkin Street volunteer, and also his 85th birthday. He won’t stop there either. If his health holds up, he’ll keep working indefinitely in that cramped, hot kitchen.
“I love the people, I love the staff,” he says. “We’re family. We really are.”
E-mail Sam Whiting at [email protected]
This article appeared on page E – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle