Dog lover Veronica Fortunato was scrutinizing the labels of dog treats at the supermarket, and she didn’t like what she saw.
“I was going through the list of ingredients on the packages and didn’t recognize a lot of them,” Fortunato said. “There were so many additives that were bad for them. Some are banned in other countries. Why are we feeding these things to our dogs?”
Wanting to provide the best possible diet for Blue, her boyfriend’s 5-year-old pit bull-Labrador mix, Fortunato decided she would make her own healthy treats devoid of additives and mystery ingredients. So, she scoured Pinterest for healthy recipes for dog treats. From this simple desire, a company was born – the aptly named The Best Dog Gone Treats.
“Baking and dogs. I combined my two favorite things,” said Fortunato, who graduated in May with a degree in resort and hospitality management and a minor in professional sales as well as a burgeoning business she operates from the cozy confines of her home kitchen.
Fortunato knew she’d need additional training in how to launch a business and create a business plan. She found her way to the Runway Program in the Daveler & Kauanui School of Entrepreneurship, which turned out to be just what she needed. The program is a free business incubator open to students and alumni. It offers them access to shared workspace, equipment and mentoring from faculty, staff and community startup coaches.
Instructor Annie Stout was Fortunato’s main mentor and has nothing but praise for her.
“She jumped in with both feet,” Stout says. “She did all the testing and validation and the uncomfortable work without a complaint. Because of her resort and hospitality background, she knew how to cost things out, but she needed to make cookies and test the product. Most people want to just make it, price it and think everyone will come to their door.”
But Fortunato did everything Stout suggested to her, bringing in samples, getting feedback from people and, of course, dogs.
She tested them out on her parents’ picky shih tzu, who doesn’t typically like treats, and on her aunt and uncle’s equally selective dogs. In both cases, the pups were pleased. Now she’s thinking about ways to work some vegetables, berries and other healthy ingredients into the mix.
“There’s so much a dog can eat,” she said. “Having human-grade food is so good for them. To get their vitamins through food is the best way.”
Stout was impressed. “She hadn’t had (entrepreneurship) classes and had to learn everything within a semester,” she said. “She would meet with every one of us. We are all resources. It was a great experience to work with her.”
When it came time to pitch her business concept to potential “angels” – the people who would provide the initial funding to help her launch her business – she first had to submit a YouTube video, which served as the pitch that would normally be done in person but could not be this time because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s when she discussed her projections, survey results and marketing plan. That qualified her for the next round a few weeks later, when she faced the judges during a Zoom call.
“The panel fired a lot of questions at me,” she said. “It was really stressful.”
Fortunato obviously handled herself well because she received the $4,500 in startup funds that she requested and she was ready to go.
The Best Dog Gone Treats opened for business last October just a couple of months after Fortunato began her senior year at FGCU.
Beyond what she learned in classes and from the mentors, Stout said Fortunato was a great networker, so she did an excellent job of setting up her website and spreading the word about her new business on Instagram and elsewhere. She sold her product at farmers markets for a while during the winter but has stopped during the dog days of summer.
Meanwhile, she’s busily baking her line of organic peanut butter and banana biscuits, organic peanut butter and pumpkin biscuits as well as organic banana peanut butter pupsicles (in paw or biscuit shapes). Biscuits come in Mason jars and are priced from $10, depending on the order size, while the pupsicles are 50 cents to $1 each. And the bonus: For $2, consumers have the option of having their dogs’ names stamped into the biscuits for that personalized touch.
Fortunato doesn’t have her own dog at the moment, but Blue spends a lot of time at her place, dutifully taste testing the products for her.
“He definitely knows the sound of the Mason jars opening,” she says, reaching into a jar for a biscuit as the 60-pound lap dog’s ears stand up expectantly. She hands him a peanut butter and banana biscuit, of which he makes short work.
Fortunato plans to train as a dog groomer, with hopes of eventually starting a mobile grooming and dog bakery business, an ideal way to ensure that her grooming customers develop a taste for her services. She also hopes to establish a monthly subscription service so people can have boxes delivered on a regular basis.
For details or to order Fortunato’s products, visit thebestdoggonetreats.com or check it out on Instagram at @TheBestDogGoneTreats.
Reactions from the critics
Sure, you’d expect the dog who loves Fortunato to also love her biscuits. But what about canines who don’t know her? We thought this would be a good way to ensure a more objective assessment of their quality. So, we enlisted a quartet of four-leggers who, while not exactly picky, have not met Fortunato. She baked peanut butter banana biscuits for them, stamping each of their names into their cookies.
The tasters were Fireball Feldman, an 11-year-old greyhound; Gizmo Funyuns Feldman, a 5-year-old greyhound; Sassafras Feldman, a 15 1/2-year-old hairless Chinese crested; and Gigi Feldman, a 10-year-old Chinese crested-Maltese mix.
While the tasters weren’t big on quotes, their leaping and chomping bore testimony to the fact that all were extremely pleased with their treats. It’s not clear that they noticed the personalization on each cookie, but it was fun for their owner to match the properly labeled cookie with each recipient. The pack ripped through a full Mason jar in a weekend, leaving nary a crumb on the floor.