GRAND RAPIDS, MI – The crew behind Beer City Dog Biscuits is trying to better their corner of the world, and they believe in doing it one tiny, crunchy treat at a time. The Grand Rapids-based company hires people with disabilities to bake, package and sell these all-natural dog biscuits, with 100% of donations and sales being reinvested in the company and in their very special Brew Bakers.
Beer City Dog Biscuits is one of the businesses that Founders Brewing Company is highlighting through their Crafted in Michigan campaign. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be bringing you the stories of the locally-owned businesses behind Crafted in Michigan, introducing the people behind these businesses, their products or craft, and the inspiration behind it all.
Created in 2018 by two families who have children with disabilities, Beer City Dog Biscuits was founded over a kitchen table one night by Tad and Suzanne Wilcox and David and Leslie Hooker. Two of their children were quickly approaching adulthood, and the families were disappointed in the lack of options that awaited them. Suzanne Wilcox and Leslie Hooker, who have been friends for over 40 years, figured they would just have to figure out a plan themselves, and quickly settled on dog biscuits.
“My son (Gavin) is autistic, and Leslie has a son who is blind and has fine motor issues, and a little bit of cognitive (issues),” Wilcox said. “Together, not only have we been friends, but we have been working together to look at what opportunities were outside of school, and what they could be doing. After doing a lot of research, (we were) trying to figure out what our boys would be doing beyond high school, and beyond the age of 26. Michigan supports students with disabilities until the age of 26. We realized that there really was not much out there, not only for job opportunities, but also for living. We committed to each other, and to our husbands, that we would do what we could to change that.”
Watch our interview with Wilcox, and learn more about Beer City Dog Biscuit’s mission below.
The two moms settled on dog biscuits as the product pretty quickly, liking the idea that they wouldn’t encounter quite as much regulation as people food would have. “We aren’t governed by the FDA,” Wilcox said. “We didn’t have to go through too many hoops.”
Coming up with a product and process that the employees could master was important.
“The recipe was simple, the process was simple,” Wilcox said.
The biscuits feature spent grain from the brewing process, which is donated to the organization from Founders. The all-natural dog biscuits can even be eaten by humans, if you’re so inclined. In fact, we’ve been told that Dave Engbers, one of Founders’ owners, handed them out to the staff to try when they started carrying them.
Beer City Dog Biscuits not only began working with their own kids, and others in the Kent Intermediate School District’s special education program, but also reached out to adult foster homes and other transition programs as well. This special group of workers is affectionately known as the Brew Bakers.
The organization currently rents commercial kitchen space in downtown Grand Rapids for production, but since the pandemic shut-down, they’ve been bringing what product they can directly to the Brew Bakers. It’s been a bit hectic, but since consistency of schedule is pretty important to many of the bakers, they’ve worked very hard to purchase new equipment to share, and to continue production as seamlessly as possible. “They’ll be more apt to feel shut-in than most of us,” Wilcox explained. “We’ve all felt shut-in the last few months, of course. But they have a tendency to feel more shut-in.”
“For them to be shut-in, to not have that communication, or that daily routine and activity, they can regress in their skills,” Wilcox said. “Since they can’t come to us, we are going to them.”
This very personal project has expanded and grown exponentially since its start. Beer City Dog Biscuits now has over 80 Brew Bakers making treats on a regular basis, learning new skills, and taking one more step toward independence every day. The roots of the business still rest in the hope the two moms have always had for their boys.
“We wanted for our boys the same thing we want for our other children: to be happy, to give back, to feel fulfilled, to feel they have a purpose,” Wilcox said. “That’s the whole basis as to why we chose to create this business. We want it to be sustainable, something that will continue to move with them, and continue to give other opportunities to adults with disabilities as well.”
Tiny biscuits can create big changes, thanks to two moms who took a chance.
Beer City Dog Biscuits
You can find a complete listing of places that carry Beer City Dog Biscuits here.
You can also order dog treats online from Beer City Dog Biscuits here.
If you’d like to get to know the Brew Bakers better, and hear their stories, check out their Facebook page. Every Sunday a different worker gets a shout-out.
If you feel compelled, you can also donate to Beer City Dog Biscuits, which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit. They currently are looking to purchase more mobile equipment, so that the over 80 Brew Bakers they employ can continue to work from home during the pandemic. You can learn more about donations here.
To learn more about Founders Brewing Company’s Crafted in Michigan campaign, check out our story and interview.