Front Page May 2009
DOG BISCUITS BAKED WITH A DREAM TWO WOMEN WITH
DISABILITIES HAVE FOUND MEANINGFUL WORK BY CREATING THEIR OWN BUSINESS
The article is reprinted below or go
MON., MAY 18,
By DOUG ERICKSON
Like a lot of entrepreneurs,
Martha Lyans dreams of the day when her business really takes off. She
knows exactly what she’ll do with the money.
"Travel all over the world and
outer space," she says, in the brisk, assured manner she’s known for.
Lyans, 57, who has autism,
co-owns Mrs. Bow Wowz, a Madison company that makes all-natural dog
biscuits. Her business partner, Courtney Clack, 25, was born with a rare
genetic disorder called tuberous sclerosis
Three years ago, Madison Area
Rehabilitation Centers, a nonprofit agency that helps people with
developmental disabilities, tapped Lyans and Clack for its first foray
into micro-enterprises. The effort, part of a national trend, tries to
create mini-businesses for human services clients so that they can
become financially self-sufficient.
Mrs. Bow Wowz isn’t there yet — Lyans
draws a tiny stipend and Clack isn’t taking a salary — but the gourmet
dog treats are making inroads into the marketplace.
"Most people tell us how much their dogs
love them and that they’re glad they’re made by someone local," said
Katie Doyle, a manager at Sow’s Ear in Verona, the first retail outlet
to begin selling the dog biscuits two years ago.
Lyans, the higher-functioning of the two
business partners, does all of the baking. Three mornings a week, she
arrives by bus from her Downtown apartment to the nonprofit agency’s
South Madison headquarters, where a staff lounge has been converted into
a commercial kitchen.
Lyans thrives on routine, so the work
suits her. For several hours, she mixes ingredients, kneads dough and
stamps out dog biscuits with a cookie cutter. She says little and emits
a strong vibe that nothing will shake her focus.
"Martha’s always been someone who, if
expected to carry out a responsibility, is completely single-minded
about it," said her sister, Mary Lyans, of Los Angeles.
Clack, who packages the biscuits, is
cognitively at the level of someone still in early childhood, said her
mother, Sue Clack, of Windsor.
With the help of a job coach, Courtney
Clack lines up dog biscuits on a numbered place mat, then drops them
into plastic bags when she gets to 15. She often has a carton of
McDonald’s french fries nearby, and two days a week she does the work at
Bowl-A-Vard Lanes during outings there.
Trial and error
The idea for the company grew out of
research revealing the huge amounts of money people spend on pets, said
Suzanne Hanson, director of the micro-enterprise effort. Both Lyans and
Clack love animals, so dog biscuits seemed a good fit.
Agency staff, who routinely find jobs in
the community for people with developmental disabilities, created the
business plan and executed it along with input from Lyans and Clack’s
family. Mrs. Bow Wowz was incorporated in 2006 as a for-profit business.
Lyans contributed $200 in start-up cash,
Clack $4,500. State and local government programs pitched in with
equipment purchases and staff expertise.
The research-and-development phase proved
difficult for Lyans, who doesn’t like uncertainty. They found out that
peanut butter mildewed, garlic powder thins the blood of some canines
and many dogs are allergic to cornmeal.
It took 46 recipes and nearly a year for
her and agency staff to hit upon the right mix of organic ingredients —
like Colonel Sanders, the company won’t divulge its winning formula.
Four stores sell the biscuits, and Fair
Indigo, a local fair-trade retailer, plans to feature Mrs. Bow Wowz in
its holiday catalog, Hanson said. Company sales have been as high as
$500 a month, but that’s not yet enough to turn a profit. If the company
becomes profitable, Lyans and Clack will share the proceeds.
Lyans often accompanies agency staff on
sales calls. She initially stayed in the background but lately is more
apt to chat up store owners. This is a big turnaround, said her mother,
Lois Lyans, of Los Angeles.
"She takes great pride in what she’s
doing, and she could use some ego-boosting," Lyans said of her daughter.
"She’s been put down so much in her life and bullied a lot because she
Sue Clack said the business gives her
daughter, who survived pancreatic cancer two years ago, a task she
Sales of the dog biscuits coincides with a
national debate over how to market products made by people with
disabilities, Hanson said. No one wants to appear to be exploiting
disabilities for sympathy, yet customers like to know the back-stories
of the products they purchase, she said.
Initially, the dog biscuit packaging said
nothing about Lyans or Clack. This month, a line in small type was
added: "Proudly owned and operated by individuals with developmental
Where to buy them
Mrs. Bow Wowz dog biscuits are available
at the following Madison-area locations:
• Lakeview Veterinary Clinic, 3518 Monroe
• Nutzy Mutz & Crazy Catz, 330 W. Lakeside
• Sow’s Ear, 125 S. Main St., Verona
• Mad City Dog Training, 813 Post Road,
A 12-ounce bag (about 15 standard-size dog
biscuits) sells for $6.50.
For wholesale information, contact Madison
Area Rehabilitation Centers at 608-223-9100
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