Dogs older than the age limit have their choice of non-alcoholic beverages, including Bowser Beer and Sauvignon Barkundy from Bark Vineyards, “Fine wine for the canine.”
Depending on their mood, they can nibble on a barbecue beef bone (grill marks included), pumpkin pie fire hydrants, or snicker poodles at Woof Gang.
At Smoky Mountain Dog Bakery, chicken and beef tacos, pizza, hot dogs, banana cream pies and even birthday cakes are up for grabs. Most treats will cost $2 each.
Jackson County has been no exception to the booming worldwide trend of gourmet dog food. It’s nothing like what has dominated store shelves for decades. And now more than ever, the trend is catching on in Western North Carolina.
Smoky Mountain Bakery plans to open a new location in Waynesville in the next month. Woof Gang Bakery recently opened a store in Cashiers, the Florida chain’s first in the state. A grand opening for a second store followed in Asheville last week, and one more is planned for Chapel Hill late this summer.
The gourmet dog treat business continues to thrive, flying in the face of the recession.
“The pet industry has not suffered at all,” said Janet Martin, owner of Woof Gang Bakery. “In fact, it has grown.”
More people are traveling with pets, and hotels are trashing their “No Pets” signs accordingly. A few are even tucking gourmet treats in their rooms to welcome canine customers.
Walt Cook, owner of Smoky Mountain Dog Bakery, said with an increasingly mobile society and family members no longer living nearby, pets have become more important to people.
“You don’t have the connection, the family dinner every Friday night or the 4th of July picnic with 30 or 40 family members,” said Cook. “That’s what I grew up in, and you don’t have that anymore.”
The loss of a family member is what prompted Martin to get her dog late in life.
Her 20-year-old son Jacob died after undergoing a bone marrow transplant at Duke University. While coping with the tragedy, Martin continually felt an impulse to get a dog. Her younger son Jonathan had always wanted one as well.
Soon after, Brady joined the Martin family.
“I just thought it would be good for healing,” said Martin. “They’re such wonderful creatures. They give you unconditional love … They require you to walk them; they require you to keep on living.”
The enticing aroma wafting from the oven at Smoky Mountain Dog Bakery easily deceives the human nose.
But one bite is enough to tell the difference.
“It tastes like a very bland peanut butter cookie,” said Cook, adding that it is a healthy treat.
Cook’s handmade organic treats have no sugar or butter. His simple recipes often include oat flour, oatmeal, carob and peanut butter.
“No wheat, corn, soy — none of the things that dogs have allergies to,” said Cook, who regularly researches to make sure all the ingredients he uses are puppy-safe.
In the last 10 years, there’s been a growth in the natural dog food market, prompted by the deaths of several thousand dogs in the U.S. after ingesting unsafe chemicals used in dog food. Many more had contracted serious health problems.
Cook’s foray into the dog treat business came after he noticed many travelers dropping into his restaurant in Florida with their dogs. He began baking treats for them, and they were so popular that travelers came back on their return trip specifically for more treats.
After moving to Dillsboro for retirement, he started hunting for something new to do.
“I don’t golf,” said Cook. “You can only fish so many days of the year.”
The store met with instant success, but Dillsboro shortly afterward lost droves of tourists when the scenic Great Smoky Mountain Railroad moved its operations to Bryson City. Forced to find a new business model, Cook began selling his products wholesale and online.
He’s hoping to shift back into retail with a new location in Waynesville. While he would like to see the Dillsboro store stay open, he’s not sure yet if it will.
For now, Cook, who is friendly with every customer that walks in, is looking forward to the grand opening of the store on Main Street in Waynesville.
With more space, Cook can offer more products. He will continue to focus on bringing locally made products to his store, especially items not commonly found in chains.
Meanwhile, Martin has opened her store to brisk business in Cashiers.
“It’s a very happy place,” said Martin. “When you walk through that door, everybody’s got a smile on their face.”
Woof Gang features dog-friendly concrete floors and a crystal chandelier over a table chock-full of treats.
Customers of all kinds have paid a visit even if they didn’t own a dog. In Martin’s experience, though, North Carolina is very much a dog state.
“I’ve quit asking customers, ‘Do you have a dog,’” said Martin. “I now ask them ‘How many do you have?’”
One recent customer had a whopping eleven of them, Martin said.