WRITER | LISA BECKER CAMPBELL
PHOTO | BEER CITY DOG BISCUITS
“We have eaten hundreds of dog biscuits,” states Suzanne Wilcox, who founded Beer City Dog Biscuits with lifelong friend Leslie Hooker. “Flavors vary from a stout to an IPA and beyond.”
Her statement may sound surprising until you learn that the biscuits are made with all-natural ingredients. Also surprising, according to Wilcox, is how generous people have been. “We have seen so much generosity with purchasing and donating. Our experience has been the exact opposite of what appears to be widespread division among people. We feel very blessed.”
The community and retailers support Beer City Dog Biscuits (BCDB) because, in addition to creating nutritious, delicious dog treats, the nonprofit provides vocational training to adults with developmental disabilities.
The disabled adult volunteers – known as brew bakers – are involved in every step of the biscuit baking process, from mixing dough to packaging the final products. Some even gain a little sales experience when they staff booths at trade shows and farmer’s markets.
“The brew bakers are the best salespeople. They love to talk about the biscuits,” Wilcox stated. Empowering disabled adults is at the core of the nonprofit’s culture and business process. The mission is to support them in their personal and professional growth and help everyone reach their full potential as a community.
Wilcox and Hooker were inspired to establish the nonprofit because each has a child with special needs. They decided as families to create something meaningful, purposeful, and fun for their children’s futures, noting that, as with all kids, the disabled need a purpose and should have pride in what they are doing.
The idea began at the kitchen table with an internet search, where the two discovered recipes for dog biscuits made from nonalcoholic spent beer grains. As dog owners who live in Grand Rapids (aka Beer City, USA), the women envisioned a perfect fit, but it took a year and a half to get biscuits in the oven. They had a steep learning curve in trademarks, nonprofits, agriculture, and more. The first step? Find the grains.
“We decided to start at the top,” stated Wilcox, and they headed to Founders Brewery in Grand Rapids. Among the largest craft breweries in the world, Founder’s was quick to participate and agreed to donate the spent grains from their Grand Rapids Tap Room.
The women baked the first batches at home and quickly realized the need for commercial ovens and more space. Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, where Hooker is a member, allowed them access to its commercial kitchen. BCDB grew into a bustling operation with about 80 brew bakers and a waiting list for participating. But, as with everything else, the Coronavirus caused them to close, and Wilcox and Hooker went back to the drawing board.
The two transformed the operation. Instead of making biscuits in a central kitchen, they began delivering dough, molds, biscuits, and bags to several group homes, adult work programs, county transition programs, and other volunteers throughout West Michigan. Surprisingly, production grew amid COVID-19. The silver lining is that the nonprofit vocational training now involves nearly 125 brew bakers, and online sales have grown by over 200%. The success does not surprise Wilcox, who attests to the strength of disabled adults.
“We’re so proud of all the brew bakers, who have had to adjust to the world around them their entire lives,” she said.
Wilcox and Hooker hope the brew bakers can one day return to a central kitchen, but the new outsourcing model will also continue. They hope to have as many brew bakers as possible since the nonprofit thrives with everyone pulling together. While all of the brew bakers are folks with disabilities, there are also two part-time staffers, a few volunteers, and Wilcox and Hooker themselves, who take no salary; 100% of sales are reinvested in the organization.
The two have exciting plans for the future as well. On tap is the establishment of Brew Baker Academy, where Wilcox and Hooker will offer vocational training so that adults with disabilities can attain additional employment with BCDB or other community businesses. They also hope to purchase a van to improve distribution of biscuit-making supplies, make finished product delivery more efficient, and assist with trade show travel. However, of greatest import to their canine consumers is the promise of a new flavorful biscuit introduction in April!
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations are accepted.
Beer City Dog Biscuits are now available through Amazon and at 69 retailers across the States, including Pet Supplies Plus, the largest locally owned pet store in Grand Rapids. Beer bottle openers are included with some purchases.