This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
Folks who had any contact with Disney fare in the 90s might recall Homeward Bound as the adventure movie wherein three anthropomorphized pets—an American Bulldog, a Golden Retriever, and a Himalayan cat—undertake an unglamorous trek across the Sierra Nevada in search of their owners.
So, if millennials associate the words “homeward bound” more closely with wayfaring pets than with Simon and Garfunkel, just know that Disney’s 1993 movie (at that, a remake of a 60s version) is to blame.
And for us younger pups who have carried that association into our adult lives, it might feel like kismet that an organization called Homeward Bound has ventured into the art of making dog treats with a strong social mission.
Housing, Training & Hope
Homeward Bound of Marin has been providing services for unsheltered adults and families since 1974. With more than 350 beds available in supportive housing, Homeward Bound is the primary provider of homeless shelters and services in Marin County, just north of San Francisco.
“Ending homelessness with housing, training, and hope” is the organization’s stated mission, and the latter two goals are accomplished largely through various culinary social enterprises, including Wagster Treats, a line of human-grade, plant-based treats full of health benefits for dogs.
Wagster Treats grew somewhat organically out of work Homeward Bound has been doing since 2000 through its Fresh Start Culinary Academy. “That was for both people in our programs and low-income folks from the community who wanted to build their skills and look for different employment avenues,” says Maura Thurman, development associate for Homeward Bound.
Homeward Bound has focused subsequent social enterprises on creating more employment opportunities for graduates of their culinary academy. “We have a series of celebrity chef dinners and an onsite event venue that the public can rent and we do the catering,” Maura says.
“We started Wagster Treats as another way to expand employment. We have a lot of folks on our team who love dogs. We thought it would be a good opportunity to branch out from catering and serving our residents on-site.”
If one thing’s for sure, the decision to branch out has made some pups extremely happy. “We have people tell us, ‘My dog loves these treats and it’s the only thing they want,’” Maura says. Customers have also reported that their dogs won’t leave them alone once they’re aware a fresh bag of Wagster Treats has entered their home.
Now, treats with catnip-like magnetism for dogs might raise some suspicion about Wagster’s claim to simple ingredients. But they are simple, and the treats are that good. “All our ingredients are human-grade and to be honest, sometimes we eat them, too,” Maura says with a laugh.
With flavors of apple and toasted almond, banana and toasted coconut, and peanut butter and molasses, Maura compares these oat- and flax-based treats to granola bars that are probably less sweet than most people are used to. And that makes sense, because Wagster Treats contain many of the same ingredients, but none of the processed sugar and sweeteners.
Maura and her team landed on the ingredients with some help from experts at UC Davis, which, besides being renowned for its animal science department, is a convenient one-hour drive northeast of Novato, where Homeward Bound is based.
The team returned from that conversation with a better understanding of which ingredients would be good for dogs while fitting with the vision for all-around simplicity—from manufacturing to marketing. From there, they began selling treats at farmers markets in 2015.
Baked-In Social Impact
Without dedicated sales and admin staff, Maura says Wagster has moved “fairly slowly” since then, even though the treats are available at more than 100 retail locations in California, and online orders shipped to 10 states last year.
On the production side, baking operations are headed up by Dalaina, who was jobless and living in her car before she started training with professional chefs through the Fresh Starts Culinary Academy. Now, in addition to leading a team of bakers in the kitchen, Dalaina visits vendors and special events as an ambassador for the brand.
Packing, meanwhile, is handled by three folks referred to Homeward Bound by a partner organization that expands skills and job opportunities for adults with developmental and intellectual differences.
Expanding skills and opportunities for people like Dalaina who face barriers to employment is the primary reason Homeward Bound wants to scale up Wagster Treats.
“We have a big vision to, in the next five years, build a production kitchen just for our products,” Maura says. “That would open more employment opportunities and career growth beyond the baking and packing—giving people access to jobs in marketing, supervising, and sales.”
Sales growth at Wagster Treats would also enable more core services at Homeward Bound, Maura adds: “Any expansion of employment opportunities we do would be coupled with housing expansion programs.”
Maura credits some of Homeward Bound’s ability to bring all the social service and social enterprise work together to two specific networks that have been instrumental through their startup journey, REDF in San Francisco and Catalyst Kitchens in Seattle—the latter of which specifically supports foodservice job training programs like the Fresh Starts Culinary Academy.
Still, only Homeward Bound can take credit for making their healthy snacks that dogs love. And with Wagster Treats in their mix of social enterprises, it’s a safe bet they will be supporting the health of pups and opportunities for vulnerable people in Marin County for years to come.
Spend for good: Use Wagster’s product locator to see where you can find them in California, or get treats delivered anywhere by ordering online and using code FREESHIP for free shipping on all orders of $30 or more. On Instagram? Tag a photo of your pup with #WagsterTreats for a $2 coupon!
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