(SEATTLE) — While most Seattle residents are fast asleep under their 800-thread count comforters during the wee hours of Saturday morning, Dawn Ford is crawling out of bed.
By 3:30 a.m., Dawn has showered, brushed her teach, thrown her reddish-brown hair into a messy bun and painted her face with makeup. Wearing sweats and comfortable sneakers, she pulls out of her driveway and makes the five-minute commute to her office. The streets are quiet and empty of people, save for a few homeless residents and those drunk souls who couldn’t find Ubers after the local dive bars closed.
Arriving to work, she turns off the alarm and starts making a to-do list on the dry erase board hanging on the wall. She ties an apron around her waist and fires up the oven before grabbing her ingredients from around the kitchen.
Time to start baking.
It’s a true labor of love for this 38-year-old dog lover, who owns and operates the dog treat company “The Seattle Barkery” with her husband, Ben.
The couple, who spend their weekends baking and decorating treats for their business, came up with the idea for the upscale dog treat company after discovering a hole in the marketplace.
Several years ago, Dawn and Ben had owned their own dog walking service, and at the end of each walk, would give their doggy clients what they had thought were “natural, organic” treats. But when they discovered those treats were poor quality or had been recalled, they were horrified.
Then Dawn had a thought.
“How hard could it be to make our own?”
Turns out: hard.
“We had all the taste testers we could want with our business,” said Dawn. “[But] dog treat recipes can be really complicated and have a lot of ingredients that you don’t necessarily have on hand… like bone broth or brewer’s yeast.”
Dawn wrestled with the various online recipes and couldn’t understand why the dogs weren’t enjoying the expensive and hard-to-make treats, so she started researching what human foods dogs were allowed to eat.
“Dogs love human food,” began Dawn, “so how can we make this more appealing for them and simple for me?”
Cheese, peanut butter and apple were high on the list.
The Fords took their new recipes – cheesy donuts with grain free flour and peanut butter apple bites – to the local farmers market and sold out every weekend.
But the long set-up and tear-down hours of the farmers market started to take their toll on Dawn and Ben. The Seattle rain certainly didn’t help either. That’s when Dawn noticed the food trucks at the farmers market and became green with envy. Those food trucks would be the last ones in and the first ones out, according to Dawn, and all they had to do was open their windows. She realized maybe they too could capitalize on the ease of a food truck… albeit for dogs.
The Fords starting combing through Craigslist’s ads, finally settling on a well-used, dark turquoise former maintenance truck that lovingly came with the name “Buster.”
$20,000 later and the retrofitted dog treat truck was ready to hit the road.
It’s been five years since the truck opened it’s window for the first time, but it’s still causing a bit of confusion. Some people even think it’s a hot dog truck, explained Dawn.
“Some other [humans] just come up and start ordering and you can just tell that there’s some confusion. So we’ll say ‘Where’s your dog at today?’” Dawn continued.
“People then exclaim ‘Ohmygosh!’ And then they are so embarrassed. And they’ll say ‘I thought the chicken feet were weird but everything else looks good,’” added Dawn with a laugh.
Sometimes though, people will still try to order the dog treats for themselves.
“What I found if that pretty much every culture eats the whole chicken except for America,” explained Ben, a 40-year-old King County resident hailing from Colorado.
“A lot of Brazilians will try to order the chicken hearts themselves because it’s a common street food there.” And while all of the company’s ingredients are human-grade, Ben noted that the food still isn’t licensed for human consumption.
“If I don’t see a leash attached to them, I start asking some questions,” said Ben, chuckling to himself.
For the most part, Dawn said there’s some level of familiarity with new customers, who may have heard about the truck’s other locations through dog park friends.
With the foundation of their truck’s success, The Fords also opened a “treat bar” at Dogwood (an indoor dog park where dog owners can drink alcohol while watching their pets) and staioned a permanent vintage trailer named “Hammy” stationed near Lake Washington at the Magnuson Off-leash dog park.
According to Ben, the truck serves between 3,500-5,500 loyal fans a year, including Molly Oberndorf’s two Goldendoodles, Moose and Nellie.
“Everyone thinks I’m nuts,” said Oberndorf, laughing, “But in a good way,” she added quickly. Whenever they visit the Barkery truck, her dogs run nose first up to the aptly named “treat tunnel,” a device that drops a free treat down a shoot and into the waiting, drooling mouths of her dogs.
Oberndorf said her dogs, who are partial to the truck’s “beefy sticks” and “bacon birthday cakes” have sensitive stomachs – something that Dawn said is one reason owners trust their treats.
“[Our foods] do have a shelf life and that’s what’s appealing to people. They’re not all hard and they won’t stay fresh on your shelf for two years and be ‘edible,’” said Dawn, a mom of her own three pups.
Those treats include peanut butter cookies, pumpkin pretzels, bacon cupcakes and doggie icew cream sundaes with edible bowls.
For the pups’ owners, the truck sells a special brand of local coffee, called the “Leg Lifter Blend.”
The truck’s number-one selling dog product are always the chicken hearts that have been air fried in coconut oil – think popcorn for dogs, as it were.
“A lot of people have been burned by treats at the pet store or the rock hard treats. You don’t want to be duped into spending $15 on a bag of treats [your dogs] don’t like,” continued Dawn.
“Maybe they just want something less processed,” she said.
Keeping up with that less-processed workload has proven a lot harder than the Fords were expecting.
“It’s not a dream scenario. We don’t have any social life. When we go out with other friends and family, I’m like, ‘You want to go out at 7:30pm? I go to bed at 8 o’clock,’” said Dawn, laughing.
The couple considered franchising, but quickly agreed that wasn’t a business model that worked for them.
“To even become a franchise is about $40,000, and then you got to hope that somebody is going to be crazy enough as you to do what you do,” said Dawn.
Almost every day, the Fords receive a phone call or email asking for advice on how to start a dog food truck in another city. And while they fully encourage others to try it, they warn the process may turn most folks off.
Between the licensing and permitting processes, registering recipes with the Department of Agrucultue, random health inspections and the daily grind of the baking business, the Fords admitted they may not have gone into the dog food truck business had they known five years ago what they know now.
“Five years in, you know, we know our health inspector by name,” said Dawn. “We have a good relationship with the city,” she continued, “But it’s very daunting and it’s a lot of money right up front. If you just want to do it on the weekend, you’re never going to make a return. You really gotta hustle.”
Currently, the Fords said are putting every penny they earn directly back into the business – they are preparing to open their first official brick-and-mortar store in January within a new Amazon building.
In the meantime, the Fords continue to stock their various locations and take orders for specialty cakes – they’ve made bakery items for “Gender Reveal” parties and celebrated a dog’s “Bark Mitzvah,” amongst others.
On the whole, the company gets a ton of positive feedback.
“There are a few older generations that kind of roll their eyes that say ‘Only in Seattle’” eplained Ben. “And I laugh and say ‘You’re right, only in Seattle!’”
But regardless of what anyone thinks, Ben said he knows how lucky they are. The company just celebrated it’s five-year anniversary last week.
“I tell my employees: It’s such a great job because your customer is already walking up to you and smiling,” said Ben, “So that’s very rewarding.”
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