By Laura Layden Naples Daily News, Fla.
Forget the bacon.
There's kale -- and yes dogs love it, too.
Just ask two local entrepreneurs whose kale treats are, well, going to the dogs -- but in a good way.
Best friends and business partners Paula Savarese and Dawn Ward, who live in North Naples, are the creators of Dogs Love Kale treats, sold in thousands of stores in the U.S. and Canada, including Petco's boutique Unleashed stores. The duo is currently in talks with a big pet food distributor, Phillips, that could take them on, landing them in larger pet store chains. They are in discussions with the second largest pet company in the United Kingdom to sell their treats there too.
How did they know dogs loved kale? Their own dogs told them so.
While living in New York, the two health nuts, now 51, cooked up some homemade kale chips to share at home. All the crunching had their dogs standing at attention.
"Of course, they heard the crunching. So we gave them some. They wanted more, and more, and more," said Savarese, a serial entrepreneur.
After a quick Google search to confirm that the leafy green, power-packed trendy superfood for humans, was OK for dogs, a business was born. Soon the two business-savvy women were cooking up kale-based dog treats in their own kitchen in Long Island. Once they found the right recipe, they used a rented commercial kitchen to start making them to sell at a local pet store in late 2013.
Before they knew it, Savarese and Ward were scrambling to fill an order for 30,000 bags for BarkBox, a subscription-based service that delivers dog treats and toys to pet owners monthly. At the end of last year, they got a second order for 50,000.
The kale-based business started with one flavor, peanut butter, but that didn't last long.
"A relative said to us one flavor doesn't make a treat business. So we added two flavors," Savarese said.
Now, there are eight flavors of the heart-shaped, wheat-free treats, including apple crisp and pumpkin.
"It is a lot," Ward said of the choices.
"Yeah it is a lot when you say it out loud," Savarese added.
They recently introduced three new organic grain-free varieties at an industry trade show Super Zoo in Las Vegas -- chicken with blueberry, beef with carrot, and turkey with sweet potato.
"The test kitchen is our house," said Savarese, admitting that she and Ward do the taste testing, along with their three dogs, Mossimo, KC and Bake, of course.
The all-natural treats have only a few ingredients. All of them include flaxseed and kale.
The first three flavors were wheat-free, made with rice flour and rolled oats. Then came two grain-free varieties, made with chickpea flour.
"We just kind of went back to the basics with this and the dogs love it," Savarese said. "It's crack for dogs -- kale crack."
Much of their business has come from their visits to trade shows, which put them in the face of pet retailers. At their booths, Ward said the two of them spend much of their time snacking on the dog treats to show just how good they taste.
They had some experience going into their dog treat venture, having started a healthy cupcake business, Twiggy's, about five years ago. The cupcakes made it on QVC, the home shopping network, and quickly sold out.
The cupcake business has temporarily been shelved, said Ward, who vows to revive it one day.
"People will spend money on their dogs before themselves," Savarese said matter-of-factly.
The story behind why the New Yorkers relocated here is a familiar one.
"Snow," Savarese said. "We didn't want to be cold anymore."
"We love it here," Ward added. "It's like vacation every day here for us."
Luckily, they agreed, they have a business they can do from almost anywhere.
Their treats are manufactured and packaged in Tennessee. They aren't carried by any retailers in Naples -- yet.
"We're working on it," Savarese said.
On average, a 7-ounce bag, with 60 treats, sells for $6.99.
Many of their sales are made online through their website, dogslovekale.com. Besides trade shows, they've used LinkedIn and ads in industry magazines to spread the word about their unusual treats.
"It has been a great outlet for communication with people you would never be able to get a hold of," Ward said of LinkedIn. The two women recently hired The Pet Firm, a national sales, marketing and merchandising company with accounts like Whole Foods and Sprouts, to help them get their treats into more stores.
Last year, Dogs Love Kale had about $330,000 in sales. This year, those sales are expected to more than double. Savarese and Ward -- who worked as a personal trainer in New York for 25 years -- have sunk their own money into the business and have one outside investor.
"It takes a lot of money to keep this going," Ward said. "But it's worth it. We are getting such great reviews." She added they could use another investor and another round of funding to continue growing the business.
Their mission is big. They want to put kale in every dog's mouth across the country.
"The goal is to make Dogs Love Kale a household name," Savarese said.
Friend Deborah Taylor, from Long Island, said she was there from the start, when the two women unleashed their idea to sell kale dog treats. At first, she said, her response was "uh." She's not a health food nut herself, but she was quickly sold on the kale treats when her dog Ollie, a golden retriever, tried one.
"He ate it all," she said of her dog. "He will walk away from something he doesn't like."
Now, she gives them to Ollie all the time. His mouth trembles when he knows he's getting one.
"When he loves something his mouth quivers," Taylor said. "He puts his tongue on my legs, like give me more, give me more. If he could talk that's what he would say. Cute."
When other dogs come to her house, Taylor shares the treats with them.
"I have granddogs and they eat them too," she said.