With mixers spinning on high, batter baking in the oven and a dirty apron tossed on the counter, Jennifer Murray’s bakery is in full swing. Her shelves are stocked with ingredients ranging from organic spelt flour and Scotch oatmeal to herbs, eggs, purees and liver. And her tasty creations have a legion of followers across Canada, albeit four-legged ones.
Murray and her business partner, Brian Burke, own the Amelia Biscuit Company in Paris, Ont. She earned a Guelph arts degree in 2004, and he studied history at U of G before they opened the bakery in 2003. Since then, they’ve expanded their business to include a pet retail store.
“It looks just like a people bakery except everything is baked specifically for dogs,” says Murray.
Her interest in baking her own dog biscuits developed just after she adopted a chow-Shepherd cross named Amelia. Not long after bringing Amelia home from the SPCA, Murray discovered that her new dog, like countless other canines across the country, has food allergies.
“I started baking for her,” says Murray, who has since adopted a collie-retriever cross named Sophie and a Boston terrier named Rosie. “From there, my friends started asking me to bake for their dogs, and it just grew and grew. All our recipes are created with a dog’s health in mind. We use only human-grade ingredients for our dog biscuits, including homemade broths, healthy grains and organic flours. And this year, we’ve gone completely wheat-free.” Wheat, corn and soy top the list of food sensitivities among dogs, she says.
Murray and Burke develop their own menu, with each new product taking between 12 and 18 months to develop. Their “Beef and Cheddar Treaty Bites” and “Fresh-Breath Bites” are their most sought after items, and Murray says they are adding a new grain-free training treat.
In addition to a thriving retail segment, they also have a wholesale business that supplies 150 to 200 stores nationally.
She says that her parents, Karen and Berry Murray, have been a great help to her and Burke as their business has grown. Berry earned an MBA at U of G in 2000. They know that part of the reason for their rapid growth is the pet food recalls in 2007.
U of G’s Animal Health Laboratory (AHL) played a central role in finding the cause of pet deaths that led to the recall of various brands of pet food. U of G scientists found crystal-like substances in the kidneys and urine of affected animals and later discovered that melamine and cyanuric acid can react with one another to form the crystals and impair kidney function. These substances were found to be contaminants in the suspected pet foods.
Murray says public concern generated by the recall and subsequent awareness of the need for safe, high-quality pet food have encouraged many consumers to seek out locally produced foods for their dogs.
Despite the initial challenges of being a young entrepreneur — like trying to finance a new business while working elsewhere to pay off a student loan — Murray says she enjoys the freedom of being her own boss.
“You’re ultimately in charge of yourself, and you can be as creative as you want to be. You feel like you have more opportunity when you work for yourself,” she says.
“Once you get over the fact that everyone is at risk, whether they’re self-employed or not, you realize that by running your own business, you’ll know at least six months in advance if your livelihood is at risk. As entrepreneurs, we’re on the inside of our companies, so it’s actually more secure for us in an economic downturn.”