There were only a limited amount of rejections a determined young woman like Collette Divitto would take before doing something about it.
Speaking from the now-vacant kitchen at the RSM offices in City Square on Monday, she said she got tired of being told ‘no,’ and so the 31-year-old – who has Down Syndrome – took her work-life by the reins and started her own company. That company – Collettey’s Cookies – took the world by storm in 2016 as Divitto took her life-long love for baking and turned that into the job she had been searching for in vain since moving to Boston in 2012.
“I had 13 job interviews and it was rejection, rejection and rejection,” she said on Monday morning in between taking batches of cookies out of the oven. “That’s why I decided to start my own business. I didn’t know how to start my own business, but I learned about it from my mom and my whole family. My family has a lot of entrepreneurs and now I’m one too…My mission is to create more and more jobs for people with any kind of disability. That’s my mission.”
And she was doing it quite well for six years in the North End, where she lives independently, and where her mother Rosemary Alfredo, lives not far away in that neighborhood also. They had their own space in a commercial kitchen and had a handful of employees and orders constantly coming in from all over the country. However, the kitchen space was being impacted by COVID-19. Employees didn’t feel safe, and even Collette didn’t feel safe as other users of the kitchen were sick with COVID and still coming into the space – and protocols weren’t being followed either. It was a make or break moment for the cookie company that had already sold nearly 200,000 cookies worldwide.
“We were at a very critical point in time because Collette had employees that didn’t feel safe going in,” said Rosemary. “I didn’t feel safe having Collette go in there…COVID was running rampant in there and there were no protocols. We only had four people working and it was our busiest time of year.”
Said Collette, “It wasn’t safe. There were people who were sick and they were there and said they had to because they needed the money. It was getting scary.”
That’s when a move to Charlestown came into the picture.
A long-time supporter of Collettey’s, RSM in City Square had featured her cookies in their lunch room. However, their lunch room had been vacant for months as workers had been sent home, and RSM’s orders were much smaller as well. It was at the same moment that the cookie business was in crisis mode that RSM’s Chris MacKenzie picked up the phone to check on Collette and to simply say ‘hello.’
Quickly, though, he learned about the issues, and he said his mind began thinking about a solution – which ended up being on the first floor of his office space.
“I had an idle kitchen sitting here at the office – an unused resource,” he said. “I said, ‘Why can’t we bake cookies here?’ We don’t know when we’ll bring people back and if we do, we wanted to see how we could co-exist. We could have our lunch room and Collette could have her business operating out of here…I mentioned it to our CEO and he said he loved the idea. He wanted to do it and we just had to think through how to do it legally and the right way. Everyone came together on it and said it was the right thing to do.”
Collette toured the kitchen, and an empty meeting room next to the kitchen area, and determined it was perfect.
Naturally, a new idea such as this wasn’t going to happen easily, and MacKenzie said they had to reach out to State Rep. Dan Ryan to help guide them through the permitting process.
“RSM has been a great community partner and not-for-profit champion,” said Ryan. “When Chris MacKenzie first reached out to me about Collettey’s Cookies, I thought, ‘there has to be an easy fix to this potentially great story.’ It was a matter of finding the right people in the City’s health permitting department to walk us through the unique circumstances presented because of COVID. I just want to thank Mayor Walsh’s office and the diligent professionals at 1010 Mass Ave. for taking the time to work this through. And of course, Collette Divitto for inspiring us all.”
Now, Divitto finds herself each day running back and forth in RSM, going from the kitchen to the conference room, baking cookies full-time Monday through Friday. On Monday morning, she was supervising four employees, as well as her mother, as they prepared cookie dough on the cookie sheets. She also watched over the processing of her newest line of baked goods, which are snicker-doodle types of dog treats.
Other employees were bagging cookies, tying on the labels and getting them ready for shipping.
“We have about 100 orders in a day,” said Collette. “We ship all over the U.S. now. Everyone likes the cinnamon chocolate chip. They are so addictive to have. It’s my best seller. We call it the ‘Amazing Cookie.’”
Indeed, orders were stacked up Monday headed all over Massachusetts, but also to California, Maryland, Florida and Virginia – to name a few. And if things go through in a further partnership with RSM, she might be the beneficiary of about 13,000 orders from the company’s employees around the nation. That would be about 170,000 cookies and would take up to 45 days to fulfill. That’s still in the works, but it means a whole lot of baking ahead for Collette.
That doesn’t faze her though. It’s a job she loves, and one she can do with people she loves as well.
“I always baked since I was four years old,” she said.
“Well, back then it was more about making a mess in the kitchen and throwing flour on her brother,” joked her mom, Rosemary.
Collette laughed, and said she often has to “fire” her mother on the job, but also said she looks up to her.
“My mom is my hero also,” she said.
Beyond the work and the joking, Collette and her mother have made a great combination throughout their lives. Collette was born with Down Syndrome and grew up in Connecticut. She went to school there, and her mother was always out front with her to push her to do things that required taking a chance. She attended Clemson University after high school, graduating from its three-year LIFE program in just two years. Beyond her cookies, she also has a non-profit that teaches classes like ‘Pathways to Independence’ and ‘How to become an entrepreneur.’ She has also been on numerous national news shows, and is waiting to hear if she’ll be featured again on the next season of ‘Born for Business.’ That show was just picked up by a major network, and Collette is waiting to hear if her City Square company will be the focus of that show’s next season.
As for the days ahead, MacKenzie and Divitto feel like they’ve found a future in Charlestown for both companies – RSM and Collettey’s.
“I think there’s a lot to be said for something like this now and when we all come back,” said MacKenzie. “Businesses like ours can help other businesses like Collettey’s, and even organizations like Junior Achievement, and in doing so create a synergy of co-existence in the same spaces. I think it’s really something to move forward with.”