University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Alumni Stories

A Recipe for Hope

Alumna is building a national cookie business that sparks conversations around intimate partner violence.

Photo credit: Ackerman + Gruber

As one of eight children in a close-knit family, Junita Flowers (B.I.S. ’96) spent the best times of her childhood in St. Paul baking in the kitchen alongside her mother. As she grew up, Flowers envisioned the type of marriage her parents had—loving, supportive, and steadfast. Instead, she spent years in a toxic relationship.

“In abusive environments, nothing is yours,” she says. “You walk on eggshells all the time. Baking was my own mental escape to relive my childhood. I began baking cookies for friends’ baby showers. Baking became this thing that was just mine.”

Flowers registered Junita’s Jar as a business in December 2006, selling her cookies at area farmers markets and slowly building a clientele. But with her marriage unraveling and her safety in danger, she found herself walking away from the business every time she filed an order of protection against her husband.

“It was hard starting and stopping,” Flowers says. “I wanted to hold on to the business because it was all I had left. When I finally got divorced in 2015, it was the lowest point in my life. I lost my marriage. I walked away from my house. I thought, ‘Well, I can’t lose anything else.’ That’s really what made me decide to take a chance on my business.”

Following the divorce, Flowers went through a nine-month period of depression, where she would wake up to put her two kids on the bus and then crawl back in bed to lay there all day.

“I was so broken,” she says. “There were times where I wished I could just cut out my heart and put it on my nightstand to separate myself from my feelings.”

While lying in bed one day, she thought “What if there is something more to life than this for you?” Flowers realized the cookies that represented her best childhood memories had offered her an escape during the toughest years of her married life. She wanted to build on that to create a mission-driven company that starts conversations to educate and eliminate relationship violence against women.

A 2018 fellowship through the Finnovation Lab, which offers support for early-stage social enterprise entrepreneurs, helped Flowers develop a business plan. In it, Flowers outlined the foundation of the company—an opportunity to use food as a tool to connect people and spread a message of hope—which became the social mission that is part and parcel of her business.

In addition to Target, Junita’s Jar cookies are available at the Alumni Association’s Minnesota Alumni Market,

Junita’s Jar partnered with the Alpha Chi Omega sorority at the U of M to hold its first Cookies ’n Conversation event in February 2019, where students gathered to hear from a panel consisting of a domestic violence survivor, a therapist, and a nurse practitioner, addressing relationship violence against women. (In addition to hosting additional Cookies ‘n Conversation events in the future, the company is committed to giving back 5 percent of its profits to support education and awareness initiatives dedicated to ending relationship violence.)

“Young women ages 18 to 24 are three times more likely to be in an abusive relationship,” Flowers says. “We want to normalize the conversation around domestic violence so when women recognize they are in abusive relationships, they can get help sooner.”

Junita’s Jar started to pick up momentum—holding more conversation events and selling cookies in volume for corporate gift boxes. Then, when the Covid-19 pandemic led to sheltering-in-place in March 2020, the company lost 75 percent of its revenue overnight. Two months later, George Floyd was murdered across the street from the Junita’s Jar production facility.

“I didn’t know what to do as a Black woman, as the mother of a Black son,” Flowers says. “Nobody tells you what to do. The next day, I drove to a local nonprofit and spent the day filling bags of groceries for the owners of vandalized businesses. Seeing the community come together was another little dose of hope.”

In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, people sought out Black-owned Minneapolis businesses to support and sales poured in. It was the boost Flowers needed to keep going. Soon, Junita’s Jar cookies were available at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. On June 5, the company launched in 320 Target stores nationwide. The company sold 90,000 units last year— which translates to over a million cookies, and employs five people, still at the same production facility in George Floyd Square.

“Our sweet spot is the gifting industry,” Flowers says. “To go from zero grocery stores to Target shelves, that is not the norm. It’s been a wild ride.”

Through the ups and downs of that wild ride, Flowers has remained commited to uniting others through food.

“I have a responsibility to share my story because someone else’s life depends on it,” she says. “I owe it to the other women within our community. They need to know there’s hope for them as well.”

Kat Braz is a freelance writer based in Lafayette, Indiana.

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