The St. Jacobs farmers market is a wonderful place where we used to bring our young family to shop for great local produce, meats, fish and sundries.
It was also where we set up a table to sell the very first Northern Dog Biscuits. In 1991, we couldn’t find a dog biscuit that we believed was healthy enough for our very picky American Eskimo puppy, Tasha. As I was making homemade baby food, and all of our meals from scratch, I decided to create something for Tasha as well. Many months in that year were spent on animal nutrition in order to come up with the perfect biscuit for Tasha. I knew that I found a winning recipe when Tasha began sitting in front of the “cookie cupboard” waiting for me to give her a treat. My neighbour’s dog Max seemed very eager to try as well, so I baked extra and sent a small bag over. Days later I heard a knock at my door and my neighbor, who seemed very excited, asked me for the recipe and explained to me that Max was sitting in front of her own “cookie cupboard” and wouldn’t move until she gave him a liver cookie and that just the crinkling of the bag would send him into a frenzy. Feeling that I may have stumbled upon something, I told her that I would make Max another batch and she said that she would be more than happy to pay me. And that is how it started.
I began giving out biscuits to friends, family and my husband’s colleagues. These cookies were becoming very popular and now I was baking to order. The most economical packages in which I could transport the biscuits were brown paper lunch bags. Growth came quickly and I had to figure out ways to bake faster without compromising the quality. Nick, my husband began working by my side at night not only to help with the baking but also in converting the recipe to a larger scale in order to source ingredients in larger quantities. Together, we transformed our apartment into a small bakery. With a hand-held mixer, a small meat grinder, extra oven racks in our small electric oven, my young son’s bedroom converted into a walk-in cooler (leaving the window open for cold air to come in), midnight jaunts from the underground parking lot secretly carrying bags of flour, liver and other supplies into our small two bedroom apartment hoping to be unnoticed, we began our small dog biscuit bakery operation. Endless hours of baking, toddlers at our feet, eating meals standing (our apartment had drying racks instead of a dining table and a living room) were the most challenging yet rewarding times.
Baking became an essential part of our lives and thankfully with the help of some family members in providing extra hands, we were able to keep up with the growing demand. Northern Dog Biscuits became our name; we were proud to be living in the “Great White North”!
It was our goal to have every dog try our biscuits! To me, the most logical way was to set out at 4 am every Saturday morning, with my husband and two toddlers in tow to set up a table at the St. Jacobs Farmers Market. There we introduced our special all natural dog biscuits in the brown paper bag. A few vendors were amused but being laughed at and ridiculed was no deterrent for us; we carried on week after week and people started to come back to buy more. On the way home from the market we would stop at surrounding country stores with hopes of getting them on their shelves. Our first wholesale customer was The Apple Factory who agreed to buy 12 bags of Northern Biscuits on consignment. The Apple Factory is a small, family-run market specializing in organic, natural baked goods, fruits and vegetables. Soon after, we began receiving calls from pet food stores claiming that people were asking for the new Northern Biscuits. And so…with an undying passion, tenacity and whole lot of patience, one store at a time, we started to become a household staple. Things started to run smoothly… for a while. One thing we learned quickly about being in business is that things never run smoothly and always expect the unexpected!
An unexpected turn of events did come upon us and immediate decisions had to be made. Decisions that would affect everything that we were working towards. Nick was to be transferred to Halifax to work at a regional office of The Bank of Nova Scotia. Within that same week, they sent us with the children to look for a new residence on the east coast, only one week before Christmas! While we were there, we tried to focus on the possibility of leaving everything behind in Toronto; my business, my independence, my passion, but a persistent feeling in my head and in my heart kept guiding us back to our apartment dog biscuit bakery in Toronto. We flew home working out the pros and cons but in retrospect, I think my mind was pretty well made up. Upon our return home, we arrived to an answering machine with many inquiries such as , “where are my cookies? my dog will not eat anything else!”, “THAT’s no way to run a business, especially before Christmas!” and “where can I buy more of these, my dog is going crazy for them?”. This was enough to make the decision. Nick quit his job, and I began baking again in earnest. Simultaneously in the same year, I had entered my son’s picture to a studio who was looking for babies and toddlers to be in the new Huggies diaper commercial. He was chosen out of 100 children and before you know it, our son at the age of 2 landed a lead role in a commercial that was to be aired internationally. The very same week that we decided to devote our full-time careers to making dog biscuits and upon our return from the east coast, a cheque was waiting for us from the diaper company that would be the catalyst in the launch of Northern Biscuit Bakery. It funded us for a year, enabled us to provide for our family in order for us to expand the business. With no regrets, we never looked back.
It was a huge risk, but we had our feet pointed forward and blinders on our eyes. No matter how crazy people thought we were, our passion continued to grow every day. To make our dogs happy has always been our main goal. Today, 25 years later, you will still see our biscuits, including the original beef liver biscuit in a brown paper bag with ingredients that will always be fresh, local, carefully sourced and handcrafted with love.
We thank you Tasha for being that picky dog that inspired us and for giving us 18 years of your unconditional love and loyalty-- you will never be forgotten. We thank our children for working by our side through every stage of their young lives to help with what we knew was our calling. We love what we do, we love the people that help us along the way, and we hope that your pets will be as happy as we are baking for you!
Patricia A. Grillo
Founder and President