Made in New England: Meet Deborah Suchman of Polkadog Bakery
As an art student and fiction writer, Boston pals Deborah (Gregg) Suchman and Robert Van Sickle didn’t consider themselves “business savvy.” That said, they had an idea: to earn their place in the heart of the South End by bringing something new to the neighborhood. The solution? Polkadog Bakery, whipping up scratch-made sustainable dog treats made right here in Boston.
We got to chat with co-founder Deb about earning your keep in the community, the importance of keeping the ingredients simple (think: chicken and brown rice), and why she embraces—rather than avoids—the problems that arise in the business.
R.K.: How did you get the idea to launch Polkadog Bakery, and take it from idea to business?
D.S.: Polkadog was an idea long before we had the guts to open our shop down the street from where we live, in Boston’s South End. We wanted to make an argument for neighborhood, community, sustainability and ourselves. This was over 15 years ago! We knew we wanted to make our own treats from locally sourced ingredients. We knew nothing about business—and we’re talking art student and fiction writer nothing—but we loved this neighborhood and believed we could earn our place here. I think that was the real “idea”: we wanted to earn our place in a neighborhood we loved.
Turning the idea into a brick and mortar business wasn’t the result of some clever business plan or a single transformative opportunity. We just worked. We found the space, opened the store and then we worked all day, every single day of every year that I can remember. We mixed and cut treats in the “kitchen” of our artist’s working studio, worked the cash register and kept the books.
R.K.: When you started off, did you see a gap in the market for making healthy, homemade dog treats?
D.S.: When we first started so many years ago, we weren’t thinking about the market or the pet industry. We were thinking about the South End of Boston, about the neighborhood where we lived and how we felt about living here. We were lucky, in retrospect: There weren’t any dog treat bakeries here at that time, and the Polkadog we had inside our head wasn’t affected by an industry market standard. In our minds, we could make healthy, sustainable pet treats ourselves, sell them to the community we loved and make it all happen in our South End neighborhood.
Would we have followed that same vision if there had already been dog treat stores throughout Boston and the rest of the country? Maybe not. When we opened Polkadog for the first time, we didn’t understand what a business needed to survive, but we loved our neighborhood and we strongly believed in our vision.
R.K.: I love that your products are slowly dehydrated, hand-crafted and made with healthy, real ingredients. How do you go about product and recipe development?
D.S.: I love this question! Researching new ideas for sustainable, healthy pet treats is one of my favorite parts of the job. Polkadog manufactures an entire treat from scratch so we keep it simple. We find quality grain, fish and meat. Then we make limited ingredient treats (Chicken Littles, for example, are made from chicken, brown rice and potato flour), and we make single ingredient treats (like Cod Skins and Chicken Strips).
Learning about co-products was a game-changer for me, and has changed the way Polkadog researches and produces new treats. Several years ago, when researching, I discover the health benefits of fish skin for dogs. Fish is easily digested, rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, and great for a dog’s skin and coat. Omega-3s are so important to the overall health of a dog! Then I learn that fish skins are often a co-product—fish processors have many co-products that aren’t frequently purchased by local restaurant chains or groceries. That’s how Polkadog’s Cod Skins were born. So, fish and specifically fish co-products, became the major focus of Polkadog’s attempt to manufacture healthier and more sustainable treats.
A lot of fishing and processing takes place in the Boston area so it was easy for me to meet the fisherman, and confirm their fishing practices aligned with our own ideas of sustainability. I have a friend at the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture who’s an amazing resource; she told me that Ocean Quahogs are part of a sustainable fishery, which has been regulated for the past 34 years by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Our domestic offshore clam industry in the USA is considered by many around the world to be among the best-managed fisheries on the planet. The clams are harvested in pristine waters 50 to 100 miles offshore. Local restaurants love to use the clam’s white meat to make the famous New England chowder, leaving the equally tasty and healthy dark meat as a co-product… perfect for Polkadog’s Clam Chowda sticks! I’ll stop there before I get too nerdy for your readers… but I think you get the idea. I love new product research!
R.K.: What did you have to learn the hard way in launching your business? Any particular challenges along the way?
D.S.: Well, unfortunately, pretty much everything! As I mentioned, we didn’t know a thing about business, and we didn’t have much money to cover early mistakes. Everything costed more and the margins, when they existed, were so tiny. Everything required so much more work than we could have imagined!
I learned—and quickly!—that running a business is not about avoiding problems but about solving them. Problems wake up a few hours before you do, and really start to work their magic once you go to bed at night. When I start to consider all the problems I have faced and solved, I’m tempted to let myself feel a bit proud of myself… which is a bit like walking under a ladder on Friday the 13th or, as my husband says, washing your football jersey on a day that starts with the letter “T.”
How’s that for an unexpected challenge? If you want to start a business, don’t wash your jerseys on Tuesdays or Thursdays.
R.K.: Has there been a benefit to starting your business in the New England area that you don’t think you’d get elsewhere?
D.S.: The biggest benefit for me personally is doing what I do for my own neighborhood in the South End, for the city of Boston and for New England in general. Obviously Polkadog has expanded, and just as obviously, as a manufacturer of treats for retail and wholesale, I want to spread the Polkadog vision for healthy, sustainable pet treats wherever I can. But, in my opinion, a business grows from the ground of a very real, very specific place. Our place is the South End, Boston, and New England. New England has given Polkadog real resources to survive, and my goal since day one has been to earn my keep.
Because our relationships with the neighborhoods of New England are inseparable from who we are as a business, Polkadog benefits from a strong, rising commitment to sustainability that is so natural to New England’s farms and fisheries. That’s what Polkadog means as a branded business, and what Polkadog means to me. Polkadog’s new kitchen wasn’t welcomed to Boston’s Fish Pier community by chance, or even by providence, but because we belong there. There isn’t anything that makes me more proud than that.
R.K.: Who has been the greatest influence or role model in starting your business?
D.S.: There have been so many people who have influenced and inspired me, and I’m too grateful for each and every one to make a single selection so, that leaves me with you, Pearl!
When we adopted Pearl, she was a gnarly, chewed-up cur [mixed breed] dog who’d spent more time living on the streets than anywhere else—but she still had the capacity to take joy in her life, and to share that joy with others. When she greeted people, her whole body would wiggle. She’s the grittiest embodiment of hope and love that I know. When the bad stuff happens in business, when it becomes overwhelming (and it does), it’s good to have reminders that things can be turned around, given a tiny bit of perspective—and maybe an abundance of attitude.
R.K.: Where do you hope to see your brand in the next two years?
D.S.: For us, the Polkadog brand means community, health and sustainability. That hasn’t changed since we opened our doors. Our community was the South End of Boston. Our health was the health of our neighborhood. Our sustainability was a dynamic stream of relationships with our neighbors, our suppliers, and other businesses.
Our brand grows with our community. I’d love to see our community in more neighborhoods around the country.
R.K.: What advice would you give someone looking to start their own local business?
D.S.: When we were first opening our little Polkadog shop in 2002, our neighbor friend, Paul, who owned a bookstore down the street, said, “If I knew everything that I would go through, I never would have opened in the first place. So, I’m glad I didn’t know all of those things.” You can brainstorm and plan all you want but then you have to start, and then you have to keep going. You can’t really prepare for the “keep going” part but you should prepare for that part taking a while.
Choose your “local” with care. Seriously, we had a lot of help and advice from other local businesses, neighbors and friends in the South End of Boston. You have to believe in your community. Talk with people who have gone through some of this and learned from their experiences, and especially with people who have grown from the place you want to plant your roots.
R.K.: At WELL, we believe 360 wellness comes in all forms. What does wellness look like for you?
D.S.: Wellness is balancing all the different parts of your life, tending to all the parts as if they were pieces of a special, personal puzzle. If you forget a piece or two you might not know it at first, but it affects everything. And when you own a business, you learn quickly that everything is connected. You’re an owner and a mom and a wife all at the same time, all the time. For me, I experience a wholeness when I achieve that balance.
It’s easy to get swallowed up in work, and I know what that feels like. I’ve spent time locked into that way of being, completely swallowed up by work for any number of years. But it’s not sustainable and not healthy. Life is dynamic… things change whether you’re paying attention to those things or not. Four years ago, I had a baby, so I couldn’t focus on work like I had pre-baby. I had to make myself much more efficient and productive and focus on the essentials. Your business doesn’t care if you have a family. The puzzle becomes more complicated, and balance/wellness is essential.
Wellness for me is spending time with my family and sharing experiences with them, cooking a slow meal on the weekends and going to a yoga class—at least one hour per week. Yoga helps me create space and stillness.
Polkadog never goes away, working never stops, which is good when I let it fit with the other important parts of my life. I’m continually working to make new tasty treats, to develop and maintain good relationships with our customers, partners and community. All of that feels right and good, like it fits into the life I want to live. I want to build a better, more sustainable business for my employees, for my neighborhood, and for myself. And I wouldn’t mind paying off our bank loans, either!
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