Royce Matthews is a pro at dealing with military deployments. In 15 years of marriage, she and husband, Alfred, have endured five, the first back in the late 1990s when he was sent to South Korea for the first time. “He deployed right after we got married so I got used to military life quickly,” says Matthews, 41, the mother of four kids.
How does she handle these painful separations? With tons of love, an abiding faith that everything will be all right, and of course, for this professional baker, with cookies.
Born into a middle-class southern California family—her dad, the owner of a trucking company and her mom, a nurse—Matthews graduated from high school in Riverside County, and married Alfred in 1997.
After his first deployment to Korea, Alfred was sent to Iraq in 2003, and he returned for a second tour in 2006. The first deployment was especially difficult because the war was just heating up and communications were almost nonexistent. Sometimes weeks passed without a phone call, and when they did speak, Matthews could hear the tremendous stress in her husband’s voice.
“We lost a lot of soldiers early in the war and that was hard on him,” she says. “Alfred would talk to a soldier one day and the next day, they were having a memorial ceremony for him.”
Understanding the unique pressures of living in a war zone, Matthews tries to keep home-front issues from complicating Alfred’s tours. If she feels overwhelmed, she leans on friend Jill Marshall, whose now-retired husband was deployed frequently, as well. Marshall also knows all about having to shoulder the child-rearing burden during a husband’s absence. “Jill talks to me, shares her stories and most importantly, prays for me,” says Matthews. “Without a relationship with God, I don’t know where I’d be. God helps me keep it together by surrounding me with people of like faith who support me and my children.”
Alfred’s most recent deployment was to Afghanistan. Before departing last November, Matthews threw a party, a double celebration for Alfred’s birthday and Thanksgiving, both of which he’d miss. “I want to make sure he knows how much we love and appreciate him,” she says.
Naturally enough, Royce’s famous homemade cookies were a centerpiece of that family celebration. She is the founder of Tastee Cookie Company in Columbus, Georgia, the family’s home since 2005. Matthews learned to bake as a child by watching her mother and godmother. It became a lifelong joy to make cookies for friends and family, as well as for members of the choir and dance team at her church, Faith Worship Center International in Columbus.
The company started almost by accident. In January 2008, needing to raise $500 to send eldest daughter, LaRae, to band camp, Matthews sold cookies at the church. The money came quickly and the orders didn’t stop.
For months, she worked at home to keep up with the word-of-mouth demand. In June 2009, tired of staying up late baking, Matthews opened her first store. “It got to the point where we had to open the bakery,” she says. The company is named for its signature TCC cookie, made with toffee, chocolate and caramel.
Matthews relied on previous job experience in finance and customer service, among other skills, to put the business on solid footing. Alfred, an Army cook, helped by teaching her how to use commercial kitchen equipment. She also applied what she learned while studying for her bachelor’s degree in business administration at University of Phoenix.
She completed the degree in 2009—the end of a long haul. Matthews remembers doing schoolwork from her hospital room the day after her last child was born. She also completed assignments at 4 a.m. aboard a vacation cruise ship headed to the Bahamas. She found the area of the ship with Wi-Fi access and sat in the pre-dawn quiet, typing away on her laptop.
“The convenience of the online program is terrific,” Matthews says. “It’s the way to go, because as long as you have Internet access, you’re in class.”
The cookie company continues to be very much a family enterprise. LaRae, now 19, does most of the baking and runs the store when mom is at her day job. Matthews continues to work 40 hours a week as a scheduler at Martin Army Community Hospital at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Two of Matthew’s other children, Alexis, 12, and Erique, 11, help clean the bakery and run errands to buy ingredients. The couple’s youngest child is 5-year-old Kenadee.
Although her schedule is hectic, Matthews believes staying busy is a blessing. “Without church, work, and running the cookie shop, loneliness would be a bigger issue than it already is with Alfred so far away,” she says. “Time would pass extremely slowly.”
In December, the store relocated and now has twice the square footage in a more heavily trafficked area, right down the street from Peachtree Mall, a major retail center in the area. It offers customers a place to sit and talk, watch TV or use Wi-Fi—a kind of coffee bar—of course, with cookies on the side. Matthews hopes to someday build her business into a national franchise.