STOCKTON SPRINGS, Maine - Visit the test kitchen of Barkwheats Dog Biscuits — one of Maine’ s newest and successful cottage industries — and it’ s impossible to ignore Chris Roberts’ motivation for his booming new business.
They’ ll bark at you, give you wet kisses and sniff you with very cold noses. They’ ll push open the kitchen door when you arrive and walk you to the car when you leave.
Baxter and Sabine — rescued mixed-breeds — are the two delightful inspirations behind Barkwheats.
“I love my dogs and dogs like to eat,” Roberts said simply.
The 27-year-old entrepreneur has unleashed that love, mixed it with a passion for baking, added a hefty affection for local agriculture, and created a full-time business in less than nine months.
From his first buckwheat dog biscuit — taste tested, of course, by Baxter and Sabine — Roberts knew he was on to something. Not only has he created an organic product that is in high demand, he also is satisfying his ethical desire to support Maine agriculture as well.
Barkwheats are crisp and delicious (yes, I tasted one it was sort of like a gingersnap without the sweetness), and the treats are made from mostly Maine ingredients: honey, eggs, parsley, buckwheat and seaweed.
“Wet nose. Muddy paws.,” an online pet business based in Bangor, has high praise on its Web site for Barkwheats.
“It is not an especially proud moment when you’ re contemplating stealing your pup’ s treats, but we do. And we have. And they’ re fabulous. We’ ve even thought of dipping them in chocolate and serving them to our two-legged guests. We wish we were kidding, but we’ re not,” the Web site exclaims.
Roberts began selling the biscuits last November at farmers markets and organic cooperatives in Belfast, Damariscotta and Blue Hill, thinking he could build a small, local market.
“What I didn’ t count on, however, were the tourists,” he said. “They bought the biscuits and then went home and found that their dogs loved them. They then asked their local pet stores to begin carrying them.”
The phone started ringing and it hasn’ t stopped.
Roberts never had to market his product. The markets came to him. He now makes 1,200 biscuits a day that are shipped to pet stores and boutiques from Hollywood to Cape Cod.
“We just picked up an account in Greenwich Village,” he said.
So many dogs are begging for Barkwheats that Roberts recently bought a machine that will allow him to make 23,000 biscuits an hour. At a retail cost of between $8 and $9 per 8-ounce bag, that’ s a lot of buckwheat.
“I love the thought of supporting the livelihood of farmers here in the beautiful state that we live in,” Roberts said, “seeing the ground used for food instead of developments, supporting a person instead of a corporation, and just being healthy, myself and my dogs. When you look outside on a summer day along the coast of Maine, it’ s impossible not to appreciate all of the great things this state has to offer.”
But running a thriving dog biscuit company is the last career path he thought he would be walking. “When I was a kid, I didn’ t even own a dog. I had a hamster once,” he said.
Roberts, who was raised in the Bangor area, created Barkwheats shortly after he and his partner, Renee Johnson, moved back to Maine from Indiana. Johnson is the development director at WERU, and Roberts and his family had always been involved with food production.
“My family once owned the New England Chowderhouse in Bangor, my dad was the chef at Pilots Grill, and I was a baker at Wells Commons at the University of Maine at Orono,” Roberts said. A graduate of Berklee College of Music, Roberts headed to Nashville at 21 as a recording engineer.
But after his mother died two years ago, Roberts decided to return to Maine.
“Once we moved back here, I began baking all the time,” Roberts said, and Johnson begged him to stop.
“We had no neighbors here and I just kept baking and baking — breads, cookies, brownies,” Roberts said. “She told me I had to stop.”
So, Roberts looked around for an alternative. He spotted his dogs and the light bulb went on. “I thought ‘ Dogs like to eat,’ and I began baking again.”
His search for the perfect dog biscuit resulted in two varieties: sea vegetables and chamomile, meant to detoxify and calm and ginger and parsley, for arthritic relief and fresh breath. Each disc-shaped biscuit is stamped with a spiral design, then packaged in 100 percent compostable materials.
It was purely accidental, he maintains, that the finished products also are incredibly good for dogs. “I was shocked when I found out the nutritional aspects,” he said. “I’ ve had veterinarians tell me these are really good for dogs.”
Roberts said buckwheat contains magnesium that relaxes the blood vessels and allows the absorption of vitamins and minerals, parsley contains vitamin K, which inhibits tumor growth, seaweed detoxifies, and chamomile soothes and calms.
“I also put the parsley in there because it freshens the breath. No one likes stinky kisses,” he said. “Ginger also calms Sabine down because she’ s a wreck in the car.”
Roberts sources 95 percent of his ingredients from Maine farmers.
The buckwheat he uses is ground in Union.
The eggs come from Pittston.
The honey comes from Swanville.
The parsley comes from Pittsfield.
The seaweed comes from off the coast of Machias.
In a converted basement kitchen, the dough is blended, kneaded, refrigerated overnight and then rolled out like pizza dough. The biscuits are cut out and stamped, baked and packaged — all by hand, all by Roberts.
“I know that I want Maine people supporting me and I want to be able to support them,” Roberts said. “I want to keep the money here in Maine. Maine is very important to me.”
Roberts already is looking toward expansion. “I’ d like to do some seasonal biscuits,” he said. “Like instead of honey maybe use maple syrup in the spring, apples in the fall.”
He also would like to grow beyond treats to dog food, using all Maine ingredients and farm apprentices.
“In the long term, we’ d like our own farm, a place to grow the things we need and what our apprentices would like to market,” he said.
A full list of stores carrying Roberts’ biscuits can be found at www.barkwheats.com.