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Dog treat manufacturer to expand with Sussex funds

Katie Tabeling
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Two employees decorate Tail Bangers “cookies” – dog treats – which will eventually be shipped and sold to hundreds of retail stores across the country. | PHOTO COURTESY JIM LODICO

MILLSBORO — When Lisa St. Clair embarked on her all natural dog treat business in a backyard shed almost 18 years, she wanted to do something a little different, something “crazy and a little fun.”

Now with the help of a $1.4 million loan from ExciteSussex Fund, St. Clair hopes to take that crazy dream and turn it into reality, building a Tail Bangers dog park off U.S. Route 113. The capital will be used to buy property that she has rented for years and create a destination for dog lovers visiting Sussex County in the next two years.

“When you’re a dog owner, you understand. You get it when you’re buying treats to celebrate their ‘gotcha’ day or their birthday,” St. Clair told the Delaware Business Times. “What we want to do is create a dog park, complete with water sprinklers shaped like hydrants, a retail store and open up our bakery again for tours and cookie decorating. Hopefully they’ll be food trucks.”

Tail Bangers is the quintessential small business owner dream realized. After her dog got sick, St. Clair started to research what was in the food her pup was eating. Seeking a natural food option, she started to make her own and eventually started manufacturing and distributing all over the country.

Tail Bangers owner Lisa St. Clair married her love of canines with her business sense with a dog treat venture. | PHOTO COURTESY OF LISA ST. CLAIR.

But for St. Clair, who holds a degree in culinary arts and hotel management from Johnson & Wales University, it wasn’t exactly tapping into her creativity or her business sense.

“It’s hard to change people’s dog food, but it’s easy to change their treats,” she told DBT. “I thought if I was going to do this, it was going to be something fun like canine cannolis or barkin’ biscotti.”

In 2003, she started baking up the first batches of dog biscuits out of a shed. She had a rolling pin, an oven, a mixer and her dog at her side. St. Clair and her then-business partner Cheryl Myers then rented out a RV to take the business to trade and craft shows. The name Tail Bangers came from her pooch banging his tail  while St. Clair worked.

Tail Bangers’ big break came when St. Clair reached out to an acrylic case manufacturer in Michigan to make cases for her treats. With those gift and display cases in hand, they went to the former Backer’s Trade Show.

“We weren’t the first ones to come up with organic dog treats, but we were the first to figure out how to sell them in cases,” St. Clair.

Tail Bangers went from the shed to a storefront in a stripmall in five years, and eventually to buildings totaling 14,000 square feet off Betts Pond Road in Millsboro. In a single day, employees can cut, bake and decorate 30,000 cookies and thousands of other doughnuts, pretzels, cannolis and more. Tail Bangers is in hundreds of pet retailers and specialty stores across the country. That includes Candy Kitchens, Dunkin’ Donuts, Concord Pet and Kampgrounds of America.

St. Clair’s biggest business account is Pet Supplies Plus, the third largest pet store in the nation with 535 stores. The pandemic did dry up a million-dollar account with Pet Valu after the retailer closed in 2020, but St. Clair isn’t worried. Pet Supplies Plus has picked up the slack.

“I’d say we’re projecting $4 million in sales from them, and we’re shipping about 70 to 100 cases to them on a daily basis,” she said.

Tail Bangers has 45 employees in all. Staff spend the workday cutting, baking and decorating 30,000 all-natural dog treats in a single day. | PHOTO COURTESY OF JIM LODICO

With the ExciteSussex loan, Tail Bangers hopes to ramp up its informal campus on Betts Pond Road and grow from 45 to 66 employees. St. Clair added the capital will help with equipment in the bakery, like two 3D printers that can print words like “Good Boy” and “Good Girl” on 2,000 dog cookies in eight hours.

More importantly for St. Clair, it gives Tail Bangers some security. She said she hopes to use the funds to invest back in her staff by offering health care and laying the groundwork for the future. 

“It’s amazing that we were able to move forward on this. Getting the ExciteSussex loan means we have the cashflow to make it happen, and that means something as a small business owner who took out mortgages against her home to make it work,” she said.

In the future, St. Clair also hopes Tail Bangers will be a certified Women Owned Business, as that could provide a “side door” to land deals to wholesale dog treats with Cosco and BJ’s Wholesale Club.

ExciteSussex Fund was launched in 2018 by Sussex County officials as a way to incentivize businesses to come or stay in Sussex County. It started as a $4 million joint venture with Discover Bank and the National Development Council (NDC), and the Sussex County Council voted to allocate $3 million in March to continue it.

Discover Bank matched the county’s funds 3 to 1, adding another $9 million to the loan fund managed by the NDC.

Other past ExciteSussex loan recipients include Peninsula Paving, which used a $985,000 loan to move from Rehoboth Beach to Georgetown; JAYKAL LED Solutions, which used a $850,000 loan to build headquarters in the Delaware Coastal Business Park; and Showtime Powersports, which used a $755,000 loan to create a second location at the former Allen Harim headquarters in Seaford.

In total, the four ventures created or retained 131 jobs in Sussex County, according to officials.


 

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