By Jim Lee
Dover Post, Del.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Inspired by her love of dogs, entrepreneur Lisa St. Clair has built one of the largest dog treat bakeries in the country.
Dover Post, Del.
Like any business owner, Lisa St. Clair is laser focused on making her customers happy.
Their wagging tails validate her success.
“Everything Tail Bangers is about is celebrating your relationship with your dog,” said St. Clair, whose Millsboro company saw 32 percent growth last year and whose products today are shipped to about 2,000 stores.
St. Clair didn’t start out with a plan to grow one of the largest dog treat bakeries in the U.S., but a love of dogs, an eye for opportunity and a commitment to delivering a quality product have combined to make Tail Bangers a success.
St. Clair’s journey began when her dog got sick and needed to be on an all-natural-food diet.
“I started researching dog food,” she said. “At the time a pet manufacturer could put whatever they wanted into their food. So I started making dog food for my dog.”
She told her veterinarian about the food she was making and canning for her dog, and the veterinarian started giving it to sick dogs.
“It’s hard to get sick dogs to eat,” St. Clair said.
Word spread quickly, and soon she was making food for more customers.
“I was like the milkman delivering food to sick dogs,” she said.
Her dog food was so good that Whole Dog Journal did a story on it.
“I placed in the top dog foods in the country,” she said.
But she was still just making it in her kitchen, and she wasn’t getting much of a return on her investment.
“I wasn’t good at asking people for money, especially if their dog was sick or dying,” she said.
Soon people started asking her about making dog treats, but she was leery.
“I didn’t want to be bored cutting out little dog bones every day,” she said.
But Cheryl Myers, who joined her as a partner, liked the idea, and on Oct. 1, 2003, Tail Bangers was born.
Choosing the company name, it turns out, was pretty much the result of her first customer satisfaction survey.
“My dogs would bang their tails on my island when we were making treats,” she said.
The two bought an RV and began attending craft fairs and shows, selling their custom-made, all-natural-ingredient dog treats.
“That’s pretty much how we did our demographics study,” she said.
Others were making dog treats, and dog treat boutiques were springing up, but St. Clair thought her business would have a better chance of success if she could just get her product into existing stores.
She came up with the idea of a bakery case to display her treats, but selling store owners and the chain stores on her idea took some time.
It took her a year to get a meeting with the decision makers at Pet Supplies Plus. But after driving to Ohio with a bakery case and samples of their treats, they arrived to find only one of the two people she was scheduled to meet was there. The other attended via conference call.
“There was going to be no decision that day,” she said.
Undaunted, she asked where the person calling in was.
“He was five hours away in Michigan,” she said. “So we drove to Michigan, and we left there with a commitment to test them in 60 stores.
“I didn’t have anything to lose,” she said of her determination that day. “I knew if I could get them to give it a try it would work.”
From there she landed a deal with Pet Valu, which in July announced a merger with Pet Supermarket. Combined, the two companies have more than 900 stores.
Tail Bangers can also be found at Bed Bath and Beyond and at Kandy Kitchen.
The growth has meant lots of expansion for the small company that still hand-makes and hand-dips all the treats.
Over the years they moved from St. Clair’s kitchen to a shed, then to a strip mall in Long Neck. Every couple years at the strip mall the business expanded more, until it took over just about all the space. In January 2014 she bought the current building. She also bought bigger, industrial-sized ovens, expanding capacity from 8,000 a day to 26,000 in eight hours.
Last year the company expanded again to a second building, which is now their shipping department, and St. Clair already has her eye on another property for the next expansion because she is already running out of room.
Over that period her business has grown to 50 employees, and gets additional help from Chimes Delaware.
“It’s good for the community because they have room and they need jobs,” she said.
Chimes Delaware is one of the largest providers in Delaware of community services for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and co-occurring disabilities.
St. Clair said she takes pride in using all human-grade ingredients. She does so because she knows the special relationship people have with their pets.
“People will buy their pet a Valentine’s Day gift a month in advance, and buy their spouse a gift the day before,” she said.
Her commitment to quality, dedication and drive offer proof to entrepreneurs that success is within reach.
“I am the American dream,” she said. “This is what the American dream is about.”