A brunette woman in a light yellow t-shirt sits on a folding chair under a Katz Cookies sign at an Evanston farmers market. She’s smiling as visitors approach her for a tiny cube-shaped sample of a chocolate chip, espresso mocha or her original creation – a frosted bananas foster cookie. She offers samples with small wooden tongs into her customers’ hands. Maybe they’ll buy a bag of three cookies for $2.
This is where Andrea Katz, 55, spends each Wednesday afternoon in the summer through early autumn. If it’s a good day, she’ll make $100. Quite the change for a woman who, two years and two months ago, made $100,000 a year.
Katz had a 20-year career as a kitchen design consultant. After two years and two weeks without a job, she’s found one. She’s working in the natural living section of Wilde & Green, a new food court and market at Westfield Old Orchard Shopping Mall in Skokie. To make some extra cash, she started selling cookies at the Ridgeville Farmers’ Market in Evanston, conveniently two blocks from her home.
She quit her 20-year job at Canac Kitchens in December 2007, looking for something new. Four months later, she was offered a job at AYA, another – but this time higher end – kitchen outfitter. One month into that job, business was slow and it was inevitable the company was on its way out. She worked out an amicable agreement with her boss to be laid off. This was April 2009. And thus began her two-year, two-month odyssey of unemployment.
Her quest has been to earn a regular paycheck.
“I’m the kind of person that just says, ‘I just need to work,’” said Katz, who grew up in Rogers Park in Chicago. “I had always felt confident in my work life. When I was 11 years old, I was babysitting. I was in demand.”
During the first year she applied for jobs, she went nowhere.
“I felt like everything I was doing was going into a black hole.”
After the first year of unemployment, Katz said she started to feel hopeless, but was determined to be as positive as she could.
When she sent in resumes, she said she initially felt hopeful. “My true despair did not really set in until probably the last few months, because the unemployment stopped and I was continuing to get no responses.”
In the last 10 years she was at Canac, she made $80,000 to $100,000 a year. At Wild & Greene, she’s making $9.50 an hour. She will earn less at her current job than she was getting in unemployment benefits.
The Cookie Lady
A mother with a tiny newborn, a father and a grandmother approach the hunter green-topped tent. Katz sits up and greets them with a wide grin.
“We haven’t seen you in a few weeks!”
“We call you the cookie lady,” the woman said, somewhat apologetically.
“That’s OK. Everybody does,” said Katz.
For the past year, Katz has been selling homemade cookies under the name Katz Cookies at the Ridgeville Farmers’ Market in Ridgeville Park in Evanston. The market is open from 3:30 to 7 p.m. each Wednesday from June to mid-October. She averages $100 a week.
In winter 2009, in an effort to save some money, she sent cookies to friends for the holidays. Some of them told her, “You missed your calling.” She decided to go for it, knowing she needed to have some kind of extra income. She spent months researching supplies, tweaking recipes in her home kitchen and working out a trade with the Beth Emet synagogue in Evanston to use its kitchen two days a week in exchange for three dozen cookies each week. In July of last year, she signed up for the Ridgeville Farmers’ Market to sell her wares.
Katz has a mortgage on her South Evanston condo, where she’s lived since 1995, but she said she has no other debt. A self-described rule follower, she has always been good at saving – as her son, Ian Katz, attests.
“At first I think she wasn’t too-too stressed about it. She had always been really good with money,” he said.
Ian Katz, 24, lives in Long Beach, Calif. As Andrea Katz’s only child, he graduated from high school and moved to California for college before his mother lost her job.
“She was going from six figures to trying to get a minimum wage job. I can only imagine her frustration levels. She seems to be happy now,” he said.
Jeff Hoerter, 54, is Andrea Katz’s “roadie” for the farmers market and live-in boyfriend. They’ve been dating for three-and-a-half years, and Hoerter saw her unemployment from start to finish.
“Neither of us expected it to be so long,” he said.
“I was telling her to treat her job search like a job.” Together, he helped Katz find a daily routine to look for jobs during her own “business hours” and to be done at a certain time of the day.
It wasn’t until Katz added her Katz Cookies experience on her resume that she started getting interviews.
But nothing panned out until she visited a career fair at Westfield Old Orchard Shopping Mall in Skokie. She said it was a random decision on a rainy day. She dropped off her resume at a new restaurant and market called Wild & Greene and didn’t hear anything for a month. Then she got the call.
“I was stunned,” she said. Her unemployment was over.
Katz will be working in the natural living section of the store that sells nutritional supplements. She will be working unpredictable hours, on her feet, making $9.50 an hour. She hopes to eventually get health benefits.
Both Hoerter and Katz have a positive outlook on her new job, regardless of the wage. Hoerter said he believes that “this is the new normal” – to have career, lose it and find anything to pay the bills.
“I would think, ‘Why not me?’” said Katz. “It doesn’t matter that I’ve always paid my bills and everything has been going alright, because that’s happened to a lot of people.”
Sitting in front of Katz, though she relaxes while talks, she said she felt a deep fear and desperation while she was unemployed.
“That’s really how I felt – ‘the world is coming to an end.’ Everything is awful, none of my friends are getting jobs, everyone is struggling, we only have each other,” she said. “But that’s a key thing. We have each other.”