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Locally Richmond: Bark Stix

on October 9, 2015

Locally Richmond is an occasional series of profiles that highlights the small businesses that contribute to making Richmond a unique community. 

Walk into Bark Stix for the first time and you might think you’re in a “people bakery.” At least that’s what Kate Gebhart said customers tell her when they walk into her organic dog food retail store.

Bark Stix is the only organic dog food manufacturer in Richmond. All of the dog treats made out of the store’s kitchen use locally raised and grown products.

Gebhart, co-owner of Bark Stix, said the idea for the store came after she and Mim Drake, her business and life partner, rescued their first greyhound in 1999.

“I had seen a documentary on the lives and deaths of raising greyhounds,” Gebhart said. “I had no idea how brutal life was for a dog after they finished making money for their owner.”

Sadie, the slim dog they rescued, had been roaming around nearby train tracks. Drake, formerly a commercial baker, made long skinny bread treats for her.

“I said, ‘Oh, that looks like a bread stick but for dogs!’” Gebhart said. The snack’s appearance inspired the name later used to market the product and name their business.

They started making the treats at home, relying on Sadie’s “bark of approval” to determine when the recipe was right, Gebhart said.

The couple soon rented out space in Point Richmond before moving to their current location on Garrard Boulevard.

Besides the signature Bark Stix, the store also produces “Lucy Shortsticks,” “Chicken Sweetie Pies” and “Fart Busters.”  That last one will aid dogs’ digestion and eliminate the excuse of, “blaming it on the dog.”

Although it’s a niche category, demand for high-end pet food appears to be growing. The Organic Trade Association, an industry group, reports that sales of organic pet food are growing at nearly three times the rate of human organic food. Still, organic pet food accounts for only about $14 million in annual sales, about 1 percent of the total U.S. market.

Much of the interest derives from the same sort of clever marketing and packaging that attracts customers to expensive organics for human consumption. Bark Stix, for instance, lists the ingredients of each product on the packaging. It makes special note of the local sourcing. Chickens are raised within 100 miles of the store in Petaluma, for example. The treats contain organic flour, locally grown beef liver and Central Valley sweet potatoes.

The company also distributes its products locally at places like Andronico’s Community Market and other Bay Area natural food stores.

Mudpuppy’s, a pet retail store with locations at Richmond’s Point Isabel Dog Park and two in San Francisco, also carries some of Bark Stix’s treats.

Jay Villamor, an assistant manager at Point Isabel, said the store has sold Bark Stix products for more than a decade.

“We get great feedback,” Villamor said. “The most popular ones are the Lucy Shortsticks.”

Bark Stix also carries gumball-style treat-dispensers, selling 700 during the past four years. Some of those are parked around Point Richmond storefronts. You put a quarter in for a bite-size dog treat.

Earlier this year, Bark Stix won the “Best Locally-Made Dog Stuff Award” in the seventh annual “Beast of the Bay” competition, sponsored by Bay Woof.

For the Bark Stix founders, it’s all about the dogs.

Sadie was not the last dog they rescued. Gebhart and Drake routinely house rescued dogs in their shop before finding permanent homes for them. They are also involved in an active nonprofit community, Greyhound Friends for Life, which temporarily boards and advocates for rescued greyhounds.

“It’s a canine community that includes humans,” Gebhart said. “It has definitely been a labor of love.”

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