Organic dog biscuits are boon for Woodbridge baker

Lee Shonyo bakes hundreds of dog biscuits a day in her Woodbridge home.

Her cat, Mr. Peeka, keeps close watch.

“He supervises the whole operation,” said Shonyo, 65. “He sits in a high chair and watches me bake.”

Shonyo began making dog biscuits two years ago after she had a hard time finding nutritious snacks for her daughter’s rescue dog, Sam. She experimented with peanut butter and different types of flour.

“There was a lot of trial error, but I kept to the basics,” she said.

In the end, Shonyo settled on four ingredients for her most popular flavor: organic peanut butter, beef broth, unbleached white flour and rice flour. The biscuits also come in a pumpkin seed variety.

“I always try my recipes on Sam first,” Shonyo said. “The other dogs in the neighborhood — they’re all very finnicky eaters, but they love the biscuits, too.”

The treats— called Healthy & Organic Dog Biscuits — are sold at 25 area stores, including Wylie Wagg and Mom’s Organic Market. Shonyo still runs a one-woman operation out of her home, baking up to 300 biscuits per day. She says sales have tripled in the past year.

But that’s not to say there isn’t a growing pool of competition. A spate of similar businesses have cropped up in recent years, and large companies like Purina and Iams have also introduced lines of organic pet food.

Sales of natural pet care products — already a $4.1 billion industry — are projected to grow another 32 percent this year, according to market research firm Packaged Facts. By 2017, that figure is slated to more than double to $9.4 billion.

“Every time I go to the store, I see new bags on the shelves,” Shonyo said. “There are competitors popping up all the time.”

It took about seven months for Shonyo to start her business. Once she perfected her recipe, she drew up a series of labels and packages and sent them out for approval from the state of Virginia. She shipped her biscuits to a lab in New York where they were tested for nutritional value.

“The most important thing for me is that the peanut butter be creamy, organic and safe,” Shonyo said. “The last thing I ever want is to have a product recall.”

Today, Shonyo produces between 300 and 500 bags of biscuits every month. Each package of 20 treats sells for $6.49.

Nature’s Nibbles in Del Ray was the first shop to stock Healthy & Organic Dog Biscuits.

“Of all the biscuits I sell, it’s one of the most popular,” owner Chris Gabriel said.

Shonyo would not share revenue figures but said the business, which she started using her savings, is profitable.

In recent months, Shonyo has begun adding “Made in Virginia” stickers to each bag of biscuits.

Packaging, she said, can be pricey. Bags and stickers comprise about 75 percent of total expenses.

The next step, she said, is expanding nationally and being picked up by large retailers like Whole Foods.

”But for now,” she added, “I’m sticking to my recipe — the dogs love it and actually, people do too.”

But not Mr. Peeka.

“He wants nothing to do with them,” Shonyo said of her 14-year-old cat. “He eats sardines instead.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
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