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Sweet Sales: Baking Natural Pet Treats In House

Baking natural treats in house gives a store an added identity and gets customers in the door.
By Maggie M. Shein

Natural Pet Product MerchandiserFor retailers looking to set themselves apart, baking natural pet treats in house can be a great way to bring customers into the store. The flexibility of choosing ingredients—ensuring the recipe’s integrity—and adapting to special occasions or trendy flavors quickly can all help retailers carve their local niche.

While the benefits of making in-house treats are clear, retailers must be aware of the many regulations, investments and supplies involved when getting started in the treat-making business.

“Making treats creates brand loyalty and it’s exclusive to your shop,” said Melanie Dallas, owner of Sloppy Kisses in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who opened her second location two years ago. “It’s one of the reasons people will come back to you.”

Baked pet treats
In addition to exclusivity, making treats allows storeowners to adopt new flavors and ingredients. For example, Beth Staley, co-owner of Happy Dog Barkery in Downers Grove, Ill., made a last-minute decision in March to participate in Pàczki Day, a Polish celebration, after the human bakery in her neighborhood began marketing the occasion.

“We came up with a modified bagel bone with a filling. The great thing is we can react to things like that and say, ‘Hey, let’s do it,’” Staley said.

The Fine Print
Before store owners can begin thinking about creating their signature treats, a lot of time needs to go into the planning and government approvals needed to open such a business.

“The first piece of advice is to stay strong in setting up your business and understand the regulations of your state,” said Vicki Jansen, owner of Everything Dog Treats in Ocean City, Md. “That’s the most frustrating part—it can be very challenging.”

Jansen sells a line of all-natural icing mixes and recently launched a line of dog treat mixes to help ease the time involved in making in-house treats.

Each state has specific regulations and guidelines, said Jansen, and potential bakers may have to contact their state’s agriculture department, which may govern the manufacture of fresh pet treats.

Jackie Oakes, president of Coastal K-9 Bakery Inc. in Wilmington, N.C., had to navigate state laws as well as county regulations and zoning issues.

“At the time, the location I chose was set on a septic tank system,” recalled Oakes. “When the county saw I was a bakery they were worried I would put grease in the septic tank.

At first they said I had to put a $10,000 grease trap in the septic tank, even though I explained to them that my treats were natural and nothing goes to waste,” Oakes continued. “Five months after I tried to open, they let me open. It’s great now, but it was almost like a three-ring circus for a while.”

As for the actual food, many states require the registration of recipes, third-party lab verification of ingredients and contents, and renewal fees. The fees stipulations vary by state.

“Every state is different. In Texas, you have to pay to get your recipes approved and then have the guaranteed analysis on every one of your cookies, along with feeding guidelines,” said Paul Allen, owner of Woof Gang Bakery in Orlando, Fla., a franchise company with more than 21 stores in the United States.

Baked pet treats
Baking in-house natural pet treats gives pet store owners the ability to experiment with new flavors and accommodate customers' needs. Courtesy of Woof Gang Bakery
Allen said the Lone Star State is one of the most difficult states to navigate regulation-wise. The company made it easier on itself and its franchisees by following the Texas rules at all stores.

“We checked with the health department when we started and they referred us to the Department of Agriculture and we found out what we had to do,” said Staley of Happy Dog Barkery. “Once we have our cookies made, we have to send for analysis with a testing lab and then register each one with the state of Illinois.”

For Staley, the routine applies to each of its 20-plus types of cookies.

She also has to follow certain guidelines when naming her treats.

“It is a certain type of naming formula that you have to use,” Staley reported. “You can’t just say ‘beef dog treat’ unless a certain percentage of the ingredients are actually beef. You might have to say, ‘dog treats with beef.’ Often, we have to go back and forth a few times.”

Investment and Supplies
Once the fees for registration, certifications and ingredient analysis have been paid, storeowners have to think about the unique investment that bakeries require—above and beyond a typical retail location.

“If you want to produce your own treats, that’s a good expense, because more or less you have a commercial bakery on your hands,” Oakes said. “Be prepared for unexpected expenses. When I started, I was rolling everything out by hand, and now I’ve graduated to automation.”

Retailers must be prepared for long hours of baking regardless of whether they are making treats by hand or with the help of automation. Oakes’ kitchen is equipped with an industrial-grade convection oven, a 20-quart mixer, stainless-steel tables, a restaurant-grade refrigerator, bakery racks and pans, and a dough shooter to calibrate the thickness of the treats.

Tail-Wagging Treats
Sloppy Kisses in upstate New York sells a wide range of fresh-made pet treats that may be mistaken for human food. Some examples and their ingredients:

Big Boy Donut: oat flour, spelt, rye flour, peanut butter
Bob Bon: oatmeal, peanut butter, yogurt
Snickerdoodle: organic oat flour, organic brown rice flour, natural wildflower honey, organic eggs, pure vanilla extract

Other considerations include displaying the products—jars or bakery cases?—and packaging and labeling. Sloppy Kisses offers a tasting bar for customers and houses its treats in jars, from which dogs and humans can choose their treats.

“It’s a penny candy kind of concept,” said Sloppy Kisses owner Dallas. “Customers can mix and match what they want, and the treats go in paper bakery bags with our logo sticker.”

For special occasions or gifts, Dallas said, the store will package treats in paw print cellophane bags for a finished look.

An Appealing Taste
After storeowners get past the red tape, the marketing opportunities are endless. Retailers not only set themselves apart from a store that only sells prepackaged treats, but they have greater control—and final say—over the ingredients.

“By baking our own treats, we are able to know exactly what goes into our cookies,” said Jen Voelker, store manager at Millie & Bo’s Barkery in Decatur, Ill. “When a customer comes into our store, it’s great to be able to assure them that what we are selling is healthy, natural and preservative-free. Because of the variety of recipes and flavors we offer, we’re also able to cater to dogs with special needs—anything from a wheat allergy to diabetes or low-protein, low-fat diets.”

And that flexibility, said Jansen of Everything Dog Treats, appeals to an aging population that sees its pets as true family members.

“There is a trend that’s continuing, and that’s why there is an appeal for homemade treats,” she commented. “The volume is always going to be in the giant commercial treats, but commercial producers don’t have the equipment to do a lot of these hand-crafted, decorated treats. Those products that are not mass produced really appeal to the consumer.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Natural Pet Product Merchandiser.



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