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Polka Dog Bakery celebrates 10 years in the South End

Posted by Emily Files  December 18, 2012 12:54 PM

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Chicken poppers, lamb jerky, and duck liver.

The ingredients sound like the fare at a fine delicatessen. And in a sense they are – but this deli only serves dogs.

The Polka Dog Bakery on Shawmut Avenue heralds itself as a unique treat dog boutique. One of the first shops in the city catering to dogs when it opened in 2002, the store is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year – and its longevity in what’s become a busy market.

Alicia and Roger Dowd have been coming to Polka Dog for more than three years with their 8-year-old Chihuahua, CC.

“The food we get her here is healthy and doesn’t have all that processed stuff like what you’ll find in the big chain stores,” said Alicia Dowd.

And that’s exactly what co-owners Deborah Gregg Suchman and Robert Van Sickle want to hear. It’s why they went into business.

The concept of the store centered around Pearl, a boxer the two adopted after they graduated from Colorado College – Van Sickle in 1996 and Gregg Suchman in 1997 – and moved to Boston.

“She had had a rough life, and she was in rough shape…she only had one eye, but she had this great energy for being so old and beat up,” said Gregg Suchman, 38. So they started making treats for Pearl. “Treats that were healthy, natural, high in protein and low in fat,” she said.

The two didn’t initially plan on opening a dog bakery. But when neighbors encouraged them after they turned their loft into a doggie bakery and held a sort of open studios gathering for other dog lovers, the possibility took shape.

“There was a confluence of seemingly different things,” explained Van Sickle, who is also 38. “Boston was coming into its own, the South End was coming into its own, and the dog community was coming into its own. There was all this disconnected energy that for some reason was circling around Pearl.”

Soon, all of that disconnected energy came together in the Polka Dog Bakery.

“We were really lucky…we were in the right space at the right time,” said Van Sickle.

The two able to find an affordable space close to where they were living with one caveat: The landlord didn’t allow them to prepare the food on site. So they settled on a compromise. Gregg Suchman and Van Sickle would mix the dough for the treats at their apartment and then bring it to the store to bake it.

“We would lug 60 to 80 pounds of dough across Peters Park every morning,” said Van Sickle.

And so, the proximity of their apartment to the store had great import, said Gregg Suchman. “We worked so much I don’t think we left the South End for five years.”

Had the South End been as it is now, she said, “I doubt we would have been able to start.” The neighborhood, she noted, has gotten much pricier with the development of Washington Street and Harrison Avenue and many new buildings – too pricy perhaps for a couple as young as they then were.

But that gentrification has helped business. With demand outpacing their ability to make enough treats at home, the pair found an off-site baking space in South Boston and doubled the size of the store.

That still-intense demand and the dedication from the community has kept Polka Dog thriving a decade later,
they say.

“If we didn’t have the people around us that we did…the support from our family and friends and neighborhood…we wouldn’t be here,” Van Sickle said.

Among its visitors, Polka Dog can count on its share of regulars.

Karen Teller said she’s been coming with her Airedale Terrier, Nick, since the store opened.

“He loves it here, it’s his favorite store,” she said, laughing. “It’s funny. We’ll pass it on our walk at 6:30 in the morning and he’ll try and get in. It really is a great store.”

Some of the best selling treats are the “strange meats” they offer, anything from tripe, to buffalo, to duck. Prices range from $1.75 per ounce for the smaller treats, to $4 for some of the individual treats, and $15 for a canister of treats.

Customers often stop by on their way to and from Peters Park, which in 2007 became the city’s first sanctioned off-leash dog park.

“People will stop by to pick up a treat for their dog,” explained Indigo Mathews, 27, a manager at Polka Dog. “The same $3 you might spend on a coffee and bagel in the morning, these people will spend on their dogs.”

But it’s not just locals who come to shop.

Katie Despres from Medford stopped in one Sunday afternoon. She had been in the city to see “The Grinch” musical, but had heard about the store and thought she might check it out. She was looking for an “indestructible toy” for her Terrier mix, Milo.

Maegan Fee came from Newton with her 1-year-old Weimaraner, Zara.

“Every so often we’ll bring her into the city and take her to the dog parks, and then stop in to get her a treat we can’t really find anywhere else,” she said.

Van Sickle said it’s this reputation that drives a successful business.

“We consistently put out a good product and work hard…and we earn that every day.”

Not that it’s been easy. As the dog market expands, competing businesses have opened – and closed – around the city and in the South End. Doggie Day, another area pet care shop, which was located at Tremont and Herald streets, closed earlier this year.

“The market dictates what you do,” said Van Sickle, “and it moves quickly…you have to stay ahead of the curve.”

And that process can be stressful, he said. “I used to lose a lot of sleep over it. This is not a hobby, it’s my livelihood. But at some point, I can’t worry about it anymore.”

Still, the store tries to keep its edge.

“We always try to innovate our own product,” said Mathews, whether that be in the types of treats the store sells or how they are packaged. “Anything we can start doing ourselves, we’ll do it.” For example, she said, the store has started making its own special fish-flavored treats, a product it once imported from Iceland.

As for the next 10 years, Gregg Suchman said she really wants to work on expanding the experience of the Polka Dog brand. So far the pair has opened one other store, in Jamaica Plain in 2009. A third is slated to open along Route 9 in Chestnut Hill in the fall of 2013.

But Gregg Suchman would like to eventually expand beyond, selling products in stores across the country or possibly opening up other Polka Dog stores outside of Massachusetts.

For now, however, Van Sickle said the focus is on the Boston market, and celebrating 10 years in the South End with neighbors and friends.

“The store has spanned the life of some of the customers’ animals,” said Gregg Suchman. “We were really scrappy when we started but they brought in their dogs and trusted us, and that’s meant a lot.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College. To view more pictures of Polka Dog Bakery, click here.

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