Originally published April 8, 2014
Alone in back, he silently stares at the shelves. Behind fixed eyes, his mind works through the list. Marshmallows, peanut butter, candy canes and candy corn. Bananas, chocolate, ginger and jelly. With a spontaneous jerk that would startle any observer, he launches his hand toward the top shelf. The decision has been made.
He works in the ingredients, carefully calculating just the right amount. Once he is satisfied, he throws the batch into the oven and when they're ready sets them on the shelf in the window to cool.
"What are those?" the customer asks, leaning down to peer into the glass case. "That's our Cookie of the Week, strawberry-mint. Would you like to try?" he offers, picking up the peculiar pink creation. Reaching into her wallet, she responds, "I'll just take a chocolate chip..."
It's not the first time a customer has passed up his original for one of the classics. Twenty-three-year-old Oxford resident and Baked Sweets employee, Ben Marks, hands over the warm treat with an even warmer smile. Undiscouraged, he heads back to the shelves to contemplate next week's ingredients.
"I don't actually eat sweets; I ate so many as a kid I just can't stand them now," Marks says with a guilty grin of a kid who got into the cookie jar. "Now I just make them. It makes me happy."
Marks attended the Miami Valley Career Technology Center, a two-year public joint vocational school founded in 1971 and located in Clayton, Ohio. He then came across the job opportunity through his sister, who first began working at Baked Sweets. Though she has since moved on, Marks remains, mixing masterpieces, baking batches and welcoming walk-ins at the local cookie shop since its doors opened last August.
Jennifer Ward, one of Baked Sweets' two owners, along with her fiancÃ© Jason Cramie, explained the motivation behind the shop's unexpected location.
"We just wanted to start out small and see how people received it, so [my fiancÃ© and I] were looking when we were sitting in Quiznos and we just said, 'You know, why don't we just do it in here?'"
It was less than a month later the chain bakery, Insomnia Cookies, moved in right down the street. Insomnia Cookies came to be when Seth Berkowitz, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, began delivering freshly baked cookies from his dorm in 2003. Its 32 locations can be found scattered around the United States.
Despite the competition, Ward says the community's support, along with the time and creativity put in by staff members like Marks, has kept Baked Sweets going strong.
"People in Oxford just seem to like to support smaller local businesses over chains," Ward says. "We make our products from scratch so we hope that makes a difference in the quality."
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The care Marks puts into his baking comes with years of experience. With an absentee father and a working mother, he and his siblings learned to cook for themselves at a young age. Marks has been experimenting with recipes and testing them out on friends and family since he was just seven.
"I particularly like to make food when I have company, otherwise I just do a frozen pizza for myself," he says. "I'm not so sure if it's their reaction or just the simple fact I know they like my food."
After proving his passion and ability, Ward says Marks was designated to come up with recipes for the Cookie of the Week, which comes out each Monday and is featured on the store website.
"He's kind of our lead guy on the Cookie of the Week, and then our other staff just give him suggestions," she explains. "Sometimes we combine our double-chocolate and our peanut butter. Those are probably my top two cookies and when they're combined together it's my personal favorite."
Marks says the freedom that comes with creating the Cookie of the Week makes up for having to follow the rules on all the other menu items.
"Really, you don't want to follow any recipe. That's my basic guideline," he offers his advice. "I still have my one Cookie of the Week I get to play around with ... I go with whatever I think sounds good and I think will taste good and pray for the best."
His face leaks excitement as he asks, "Would you like a sneak peak of my best one yet?"
He turns on his heal and hurries to the fridge. Spinning back around, he reveals a bowl the color of something the Cookie Monster would enjoy. A rainbow of M&M's peak out of the deep purple dough, but according to him, the one-of-a-kind flavor is the real surprise.
Unable to resist, Marks flips on the oven. Its delightful ding announces the sweet treat that even he will enjoy.
As he leans back and nibbles on the cartoon cookie, he reveals one last surprise.
"I love doing this..." he begins hesitantly, "But my actual dream job is to write children's books."
His childhood hobby of creative writing has carried over to his adult life, along with his love for anime and video games. Marks surrounds himself with kids every chance he gets, often babysitting for his sister.
"If I got my children's books published I'd probably still work here," Marks says, recalling the enjoyment he got passing out his creative cookies to kids last Halloween. "Kids are so goofy that they give me my best ideas for my books."
Not only do they provide him with story ideas, Marks says the happy spontaneity of children give him inspiration in all of his pursuits.
"They are just so happy and silly and random," Marks says with a childish chuckle. "I try to take their creativity and use it in my books and cookie recipes."
In doing what he loves, Marks aims to give back by putting meaning into everything he creates, whether it be cookies or literature.
"I want kids to take a point away from my stories," he explains. "If you like something just do it. That's pretty much the story I like to stick with"