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McClatchy-Tribune  07/04/2014 9:51 AM ET
Naples woman bakes dog treats, finds independence from corporate world [Naples Daily News, Fla. :: ]

July 04--Kathleen Menchero left the dog-eat-dog corporate world on July 4, trading it for a career making and baking healthy, natural dog treats.

Today marks her Naples company's eighth anniversary, selling online, supplying 26 retailers in Florida and four other states and hawking Top Dog Kitchen natural baked treats and jerky at local farmers' markets.

"I wanted the official opening date of my company to be the Fourth of July to signify the beginning of my independence from the corporate world," Menchero said of the company she and her husband Frank have operated online and out of their East Naples home for 3 1/2 years. They also work out of a friend's home and have a commercial facility in Lakeland.

Now, they are preparing to open a store in East Naples, selling their USDA-grade jerky and low-fat baked goods, which don't contain corn, soy, wheat or the chemicals, dyes, fillers, salts, sugars, preservatives and toxins many treats contain. The 800-square-foot shop, at Del Mar Retail Center on Davis Boulevard, is expected to open Aug. 1.

"It's overwhelming," Menchero, 57, said of the company's growth. "We'll be very happy to get that bakery space."

Menchero's journey into the dog treat world began while she worked for a now-defunct skin care and cosmetics company, where she rose to vice president of production. "I learned all facets of getting a product out," she said.

But 2 1/2 years into her four-year career there, she began getting "uneasy" about the industry's competitive tactics. She began researching pet treats, interested in the success of Three Dog Bakery, a multimillion-dollar business two Kansas City men started in their homes in 1989

"If they could do something like that, why couldn't I?" said Menchero, who was then living in Aventura, near Miami. "I was born with dog fur in my blood and I learned to cook and bake as a child with my father and mother. People told me, 'Try it. What do you have to lose?' You have to take the giant leap, so I did it."

Her husband searched the Internet for ideas, techniques and recipes and she began baking every night after long days at the office.

"I worked 10 straight hours on weekends -- baking, bagging, tagging," she said.

Through word-of-mouth, networking with dog owners, Humane Society volunteers, groomers and others, she began selling baked treats and hosting dog pawties.

"Little by little, things started growing," she said. "It was really, really taking off and we were doing a lot of special events and networking. We were actually approached by a private investor who wanted to help us grow the business."

But that never happened because her husband, a director of a Miami business got a "phenomenal job offer" in California and she was forced to start again. While there, she learned to work with retail accounts and private clients. When the economy soured, however, her husband lost his job and they decided to move to Naples after visiting several Florida cities.

"She just kept getting busier and busier and I helped her more and more," Frank Menchero, 57, said. He decided to leave the corporate world and join her, providing his skills in logistics, merchandising, inventories and margins.

After recalls due to health scares and deaths involving dog jerky from China, a friend offered to experiment with chicken jerky in his dehydrator 3 1/2 years ago.

"It was amazing. The response was unbelievable," she said. "That's where it all started."

They found a Lakeland processing plant to make small batches of jerky and registered with the Florida Department of Agriculture and the Feed Master Registry.

Now Top Dog Kitchen sells chicken breast jerky, thicker Chicken Crunch Strips, chicken liver jerky, turkey breast jerky, Lamb Crunchers (lung jerky), beef jerky and sweet potato chips. Bags of jerky sell for $8 to $18, while baked goods go for $5 to $10.

Sales took off and they recently hired a social media expert who set them up on Facebook, Twitter and Linked-In, and a website designer who revamped the Web page -- www.topdogkitchen.com -- and labels.

"We've had to hire people and will move into the new shop," she said. "It's a great location, great exposure and just the right size. We're not biting off more than we can chew."

On Tuesday, a peanut-oat aroma wafted through their home as Kathleen Menchero baked their most popular treat, Peanut Butter Pookie Bites and Bars, made from oats and ground dry roasted, unsalted peanuts. She ground the oats, added low-fat milk and reverse-osmosis water and blended it in an Oster mixer before flattening a large mound with a rolling pin and cutting it into small squares with a pizza cutter.

Other baked treats include Pure PB Bones, Lil' Chicky Cheesers and Salad Bars.

"Everything is super fresh and wholesome," she said.

Top Dog Kitchen will soon add a spa line, the Clean Canine Collection -- body washes, bars and shampoos created by a Naples soap maker -- and TDK Gourmet, a high-end line of jerky that will feature U.S. grass-fed beef, lamb, bison and duck, all processed in their USDA-inspected Lakeland commercial processing plant.

"We're really going to be upping the ante for dogs that want something more special," Menchero said.

To celebrate their eighth anniversary, Top Dog Kitchen will hold an "Eighth Pawty" at Fido's Gym, 3673 Exchange Ave., off Airport-Pulling Road, from noon to 4 p.m. July 12.

 

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