Christine Johnson's white Labrador is a real sweetheart, but he isn't exactly svelte. Three years ago Aztec, now five, started plumping up and showing signs of food allergies. So Johnson consulted with her dad, a veterinarian in San Luis Obispo, about what to feed her hound. The two whipped up a couple of recipes for biscuits that Johnson could bake herself. Then other dog owners began asking for samples. Within two wags of a tail, Johnson had turned the kitchen of her El Sobrante house into Barks Bakery.
These days, Johnson bakes batches of all-natural dog treats -- cheesy stars, molasses-oat hearts, rosemary-carrot biscotti, oatmeal patties -- several times a month. Prices for a half-dozen to a dozen range from $2.95 to $3.75, depending upon variety. Her dad helps her come up with new products, and Aztec remains the top taste tester.
Strict regulations regarding storage and supply prevent Johnson from claiming that Barks' biscuits are organic, but they're vegetarian, low in fat, and in Johnson's words, "human-grade." Since she sticks to natural preservatives such as lecithin and rosemary, the biscuits don't have much of a shelf life outside the fridge, which is why she primarily sells small batches through BarksBakery.com.
I watched Johnson mix up a batch of peanut-butter bones, measuring things like whole wheat and soy flour, fresh-ground peanut butter, and baking powder into the bowl of her KitchenAid. But no salt -- high-sodium diets can cause kidney failure in older dogs. She rolled out the dough, which has the consistency of shortbread, then stamped out three-inch bones and baked them for fifteen minutes.
How did they taste? Not bad, actually. The cooked biscuits have the consistency of a crisp cookie, and their whole-grain, no-sodium flavor would taste familiar to anyone who belonged to a food co-op at the height of the brown-rice era. My favorite turned out to be the cheesy bars (similar to the cheesy stars), which are made with oat flour. I much preferred them to the tripe-y, bonemeal-and-powdered milk flavor of the Milk Bone brand biscuit I nibbled on for a comparison.
My friend Amy's dog, Babe, seemed to love all three varieties of biscuits I fed her. Then again, Amy noted, "Babe's not the most finicky dog. She'll eat chicken bones off the street." So much for the blind taste test.
Subscribers to Barks Bakery's Whine Club receive bimonthly shipments of mixed snacks and a letter signed by Aztec. "Members tell me that the FedEx guy has become their dog's best friend," Johnson says.
The next phase for Barks: Catering for canine birthdays and even puppy showers. At present Johnson is working out the formula for the frosting -- cream cheese seems to be the right direction -- on her applesauce doggie cake. "People love their animals, I'm telling you," she laughs.