Deb Suchman, Polkadog Bakery
An elderly, one-eyed rescue dog Deb Suchman adopted years ago would probably be surprised at how widely her nickname has spread. Suchman called the pooch, whose name was Pearl, “polkadog” because she did a little dance when she walked.
When Suchman and her business partner Rob Van Sickle started their dog treat business, it became Pearl’s namesake.
“We were newly out of college and trying to figure out what to do with our lives,” says Suchman, who had just graduated from Colorado College with a degree in studio art. “We were full of youthful enthusiasm. We didn’t start this thing with a business plan and a lot of money. We originally intended it to be a single store in our neighborhood [Boston’s South End], where we made and sold the treats. We were actually hand-cutting and baking the treats in the store. And then we just grew from there.”
Today, Polkadog Bakery has close to 100 employees, eight stores in the Boston area, and a wholesale business. Their products are made in a kitchen on Boston’s Fish Pier, and they operate a warehouse in Canton.
The company’s most popular product is cod skin treats, dehydrated and rolled sticks of crunchiness beloved by both dogs and cats. At the beginning, “I went around to different fish processing places in the Boston area,” Suchman recalls. “We started buying our cod skins from them, and then from restaurants and grocery stores.”
A neighbor, Joe McKendry, an artist who taught drawing and watercolor at the Rhode Island School of Design, created the drawing for the cod skin packaging. “He had a little studio right next to our kitchen,” Suchman says. “We used a fish drawing of his. And we’re still working with him today.” In fact, McKendry recently created a portrait for a collaboration between Polkadog Bakery and Charlie McAvoy of the Boston Bruins. The image depicts McAvoy’s pup, Otto the Rocket Dog, who now has his own line of treats.
Suchman took samples of the cod skins in their packaging to a trade show in Las Vegas. “And then everything changed for us. It wasn’t quite overnight, but we realized we had a product that the industry responded to. We didn't have any salespeople, but the product sold itself. That really changed the business for us. Today we work with distributors to wholesale to independent pet stores, grocery stores, and gift stores all over the United States and in Canada and Korea.”
These days, Polkadog processes 30,000 pounds of cod skins per week. Their product line also includes Alaskan salmon chips, chicken strips, pork jerky, peanut butter nuggets, liver jerky, and more.
In sourcing ingredients from Walden Local Meat, Suchman became an early corporator and Partner Business of Walden Mutual - eager to develop the future of sustainable banking. “It’s inspiring and exciting to hear about someone taking something like a bank and making it much more progressive, much more local, and supporting agriculture,” she says. “It feels like real people, not corporate. That was important to us.”
Despite the national scope of its wholesale business, Polkadog remains deeply connected with local producers and seeks out vendors who are working sustainably, an ethos that Suchman attributes to her childhood. “I grew up in New Hampshire in a small rural town. We knew the farmers. My mom still lives there,” she says.
Suchman and her husband, a novelist, still live in an apartment in the South End with their 7-year-old son, around the corner from one of the Polkadog stores, though she’s no longer rolling out dog treats in the shop at six in the morning. These days, Van Sickle oversees the stores’ day-to-day operations. “I'm more involved on the manufacturing, wholesale and in the brand development,” she says.
Looking ahead, Suchman wants to continue to build the business, innovate with pet treats, and foster long-term relationships with Polkadog’s vendors. “We'll open some new stores, but we're not really looking to expand rapidly,” she says. “We’ll continue sustainable growth. We've hired a sales team and a marketing director and are looking to hire some additional key people.”
Polkadog Bakery remains committed to creating products that are fresh, simple, and pure, without additives or preservatives. “We’re not trying to make overly complicated treats,” she says. “We're just trying to make really healthy treats.”
Is there another dog in her future?
“Yes, for sure,” says Suchman. “Definitely. I'm working on it.”
When you bank with us at Walden Mutual, your savings directly support partners like Deb, Polkadog, and their part of our local food ecosystem.
Photography from Deb Suchman