Company Turns Dog Treats Into Jobs, Futures For Young People With Special Needs
MINNEAPOLIS — Finley’s Barkery, like many thoroughly 21st century businesses, started with a social mission: employing adults with special needs.
Named after the owners’ dog, Finley’s — which manufactures dog treats — grew through social media, gaining a huge boost when actor-entrepreneur Ashton Kutcher shared one of the company’s posts.
Along the way, owners Angie and Kyle Gallus got married, figuring building the venture was a good test for building a marriage.
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Still, Angie said, the original idea “kind of came out of nowhere. We said, ‘Let’s do this.'”
Back in 2010, Angie Gallus started making dog treats with her special education students at Chaska High School, mixing oats and other ingredients together.
It was a fun activity that also taught the students how to follow directions and develop life and social skills. The treats were shared at events and with friends.
The baking became a favorite lesson for her students from year to year.
In 2016, two of Angie’s former students reached out on social media, asking her when they could bake the treats again. On Valentine’s Day 2016, Angie and her then-boyfriend Kyle, also a special education teacher, gathered with former students and baked.
“When they left that day, I realized this was like getting back on a bike, but also that (the former students) had lost some skills,” Angie said.
Some of the students also shared how, having aged out of the education system, they were having trouble finding jobs.
“They had so much potential,” she said. “So we decided we needed to do something about it.”
The plan was to find a commercial kitchen that June. After a post in March drew many requests for the dog treats, they moved the date up.
They started meeting a few evenings a week with six former students to make the dog biscuits. They started calling the treats Finley’s and marketing them at farmers markets and brewery events.
After sharing a video about the venture on social media — the post that actor Kutcher picked up and shared — they saw an immediate spike in orders. From baking two days a week, they began working 4 to 8 p.m. every day, then 4 to 10 p.m., then 4 to midnight, throughout the next year.
“It was not sustainable,” said Kyle, who left teaching in 2018 to concentrate full-time on the business.
The couple decided to outsource manufacturing of the dog biscuits to meet demand, said Angie, who continued both teaching and working at the business until 2019.
“So we had to think, ‘How are we going to pivot and still provide jobs for our ambassadors?'” she said of the young adults with disabilities.
They didn’t want the jobs to be in the warehouse. They wanted their workers to be out in the community at events and store demos, improving their social skills and confidence with jobs that could support them or at least contribute toward their independence.
A huge boost came when Lunds & Byerlys and Chuck & Don’s offered them contracts.
“They took a chance on us,” Kyle said, noting that the employees and managers at the two companies started to know the Finley’s ambassadors by name.
With all the time the Galluses were spending together, Angie’s two children from a previous marriage pointed out that the two might as well get married, which they did in 2018.
The company grew as their relationship did. They developed a curriculum for training employees, much like they did when they were teaching. They continued to reach out to merchants, farmers markets and other places where they could sell the dog treats.
As the company has grown, so have job opportunities.
Camille Nelson, who has autism, started with basic tasks for Finley’s and was then promoted to a sales job. Earlier in October, she and Angie made several Chuck & Don’s calls, getting feedback, checking on product placement and suggesting display options.
Nelson, 20, loves animals. But she was having a hard time finding steady work after aging out of the Minnetonka schools. Her stepmother and sister suggested applying at Finley’s.
“I did not think I would get this job,” Nelson said. “These two are like family to me.”
Most people take for granted that they have to work, said Katey Nelson, Camille’s sister and development director at Best Buddies in Minnesota, an organization that pairs adults with disabilities with employers and provides support networks.
But about 80% of people 18 or older with developmental disabilities are not employed in the traditional job market, she said.
“That’s an untapped talent pool wanting to be included,” she said.
Best Buddies and others help employers modify training — much like the Galluses did with Finley’s — so that more firms will take a chance on people with disabilities.
“Progress is being made,” Katey Nelson said. “To continue growing in this space, it’s really important to shift the narrative.”
She noted that Best Buddies has a slew of statistics on how people with disabilities can help a business, from inclusion to loyalty.
Company sales at Finley’s this year will be double last year’s, with over 100,000 bags of treats sold, Kyle Gallus said.
The company currently employs 20 ambassadors full- or part-time. The founders would like that number to triple eventually and increase the number of stores where Finley’s treats are sold from the current 400 to more than 1,200 over the next few years.
They had two interns from the Bethel University BUILD program, which is an inclusive college certificate program for young adults with disabilities. With that success, Finley’s hopes to partner with similar programs in other cities as it builds geographic reach, Angie Gallus said.
Like many small businesses, Finley’s hit a wall in March with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home restrictions. With no in-store or event demonstrations to do, the Galluses quickly developed presentations for online retailers. Some ambassadors put personal touches on orders through ideas such as thank-you notes.
The efforts have paid off. In the spring, they added Chewy.com to their client list. In September, Target signed on as an online vendor.
The Galluses are awaiting word from another national pet chain. One of their ambassadors took a big role in that pitch, the first time a person with disabilities had ever presented to the company, Kyle said.
“It is really humbling to be able to sit here and say that,” he said. “We hope there can be many, many more opportunities like that.”
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