Stephen Farmer and Todd Ruppenthal, co-owners, friends and business partners of Happy Husky Bakery, one of the only pet-specific bakeries in Chicagoland, have decided to close up their shop at 2601 Prairie Ave. after 11 years in business. Despite their business growing each of the first eight years, Mr. Farmer noted that, “Something has happened over the last two to three years. People are shopping differently.”
The legions of customers on their mailing list, their friends on social media and passersby in the neighborhood have been stopping by to shop, express thanks and share memories. Many are shocked with what seems, to them, a sudden decision, but for the owners, many months of declining sales have prepared them for the inevitable.
Mr. Farmer continued, “We’ve always been price conscious. We treated people fairly and nicely, tried to make everyone feel special and appreciated. We loved how our little store became like a community meeting house. Over the years here we have made friends with the adults, kids and pets – mostly dog – who stopped by. We’ve watched the kids grow up and graduate, we’ve watched many puppies grow up, mature to their end, and we’ve watched new families move in to the neighborhood. But between chewy.com, major online retailers and other chain store retailers who can offer lower prices and free delivery, we could not keep up.”
In addition to a thriving business of baking customized cakes and treats for pets, Happy Husky Bakery specializes in offering dozens of unusual packaged treats, toys, and training aids made by small, primarily family-owned vendors, most located within the United States. Mr. Ruppenthal, the original baker, recipe maker and buyer of goods for the store, hand-selected every item and knows most of the owners of these businesses, and in some cases, he knows all their immediate family members. He was proud that Happy Husky Bakery could offer product options in most categories.
The idea for Happy Husky Bakery was serendipitous. Mr. Ruppenthal, an experienced hospitality industry professional, was contemplating going back to school to study nutrition. At the same time, he was fostering a husky, “Ginger” Rogers who had been running away from suburban animal control officers for over a year before she was finally captured. Skittish and emaciated, Ginger did not eat any of the common brands of treats. Mr. Ruppenthal started experimenting with homemade treats, making up recipes without using processed sugar, processed flour or preservatives.
Ginger proved to be a good eater of homemade treats and started to put on weight; Mr. Ruppenthal proved to be a good baker. He researched pet food bakeries and realized that few, if any, options were available in Chicagoland. Mr. Farmer started to research whether a pet bakery was a viable business idea. Their goal was to produce baked goods that looked and smelled like something a pet owner would buy for themselves, and also have it taste good and be healthful for the animals eating the treats.
On many weekends prior to the opening of the bakery, Mr. Ruppenthal would pack up samples of that week’s test recipe in a clear plastic bag to hand out to dog owners at local dog parks. He set up a survey website to capture consumer responses and feedback. Tied to each bag was a note with the URL for that week’s survey, which asked owners questions such as how did their pet react to the treat, did they eat it, how fast did they eat it, and how did it look to the owners.
The pet bakery was their unique niche. They saw the retail space on Prairie Avenue, located in the heart of the Central Avenue shopping district in a prime spot next to Prairie Joe’s, Central Avenue’s unofficial “anchor.” Mr. Farmer had recently retired as a Partner at Andersen Consulting and was looking for something else to do. He would handle the numbers side of the business; Mr. Ruppenthal would market the bakery and source the products. Thus the business was born.
Only the test recipes that received rave reviews from their doggie testers were eventually rolled out and sold in the bakery case. Baking days created their own aroma in the store and in the street, as every baked good sold in the front case is baked on the premises. And they are official: the bakery is licensed by the State of Illinois Department of Agriculture as a “pet food manufacturer.”
Both owners loved the vibe on Central Street and the small town feel of Evanston. They got involved with the Central Street Business Association, each man serving at least two terms as President. One of their favorite Happy Husky Bakery memories is receiving an invitation from some neighborhood children asking if one of Mr. Ruppenthal’s dogs, “Fred” Astaire, would serve as the mascot for an upcoming block party. Not only did they accept the invitation, but they dressed up Astaire and handed out treats as Mr. Ruppenthal walked him up and down the street. The kids loved it, just like they loved this special husky.
The business partners and their dedicated employees are sad about saying good-bye, but are ready for their respective next steps even though neither man is certain what that will be. As Mr. Farmer said, “All options are open.” Looking back on nearly 11 years of friendships and memories, bolstered by a steady stream of foot traffic not usually seen except for December holidays, they feel they have made a positive impact on their spot in Evanston.
Until the store officially closes, Mr. Ruppenthal and Mr. Farmer will be in the store serving customers, Wednesday through Sunday. The second generation of happy huskies, “Gene” Kelly and “Judy” Garland, will also be at the store to welcome customers.