BARKING UP THE RIGHT TREE
By Chris Wadsworth
Every two weeks, a young woman named Natalie comes home to Alexandria from her job at the ECHO Barkery in Ashburn. She’s especially excited because it’s payday, and she and her parents gather together while the envelope is opened.
“Her father has told us how… she always holds the paycheck up and says she is taking her mom and dad to dinner,” said Pete Yuska, general manager at the Barkery.
Natalie is one of 16 employees with intellectual or developmental disabilities at the ECHO Barkery, at 20630 Ashburn Road. (Editor’s note: The organization prefers not to share its employees’ last names.) At the Barkery, they spend their workdays listening to music and enjoying each other’s company while baking organic dog treats that are sold in stores around the Mid-Atlantic.
Providing meaningful jobs like this for adults with disabilities is the mission of the Leesburg-based nonprofit ECHO (Every Citizen Has Opportunities), and it’s the focus of the Barkery since it was launched during the pandemic in 2020. Now, the bakery is seeing some major growth with no end in sight.
“We’ve been growing at a rate of over 100% year over year, revenue-wise,” Yuska said. “This equates to we need more people, and we will be adding additional jobs as we grow and as we scale.”
No one could have imagined numbers like this or even an enterprise like this just a few years ago. Pre-pandemic, ECHO focused on placing the people it served with area businesses. But when the pandemic shut the world down, these individuals were suddenly without a job. It was a tough blow, and the powers-that-be at ECHO knew they had to rethink things.
“We had over 100 people that relied on us for employment, and the initial goal was just get them back to work,” Yuska said. “So, we decided to create something internally.”
Thus, the Barkery was born. Rather than relying solely on placing clients with community partners, ECHO would launch its own businesses that would provide much-needed jobs while hopefully turning a profit that could support other ECHO endeavors.
The Mon Amie Amy gift shop in Ashburn’s Goose Creek Village shopping center is among the local retailers that carry the Barkery’s biscuits. Owner Amy Weisberg has a special-needs child herself and learned about the Barkery as she explored future options for her son.
“I said I would love to sell these in my store because I have a small section for animals, and I also want to do anything to help out the disabled and special-needs community because it’s dear to my heart,” Weisberg said. “My own dog loves them. I have a Goldendoodle and she loves them.”
Weisberg’s husband owns Thousand Oaks Barrel Co. in Manassas, which specializes in wooden barrels and other supplies and gifts for bourbon aficionados. He has hired the team at the Barkery to make a line of dog treats that Thousand Oaks sells under its private label – Pooch Hooch Gourmet Dog Treats.
Over the years, the bakery has learned other new tricks. It still has the standard three flavors of biscuits – chicken, bacon and peanut butter. But the recipes have been retooled to make them simpler and healthier.
The bakery has also ramped up special flavors linked to particular seasons and holidays.
“Our current one is called Winter Wonder and it’s flavored with sweet potato,” Yuska said. “Our last one was pumpkin at Halloween. We do apple pie over the Fourth of July and a carrot-flavored treat around Easter in the spring.”
Future plans call for launching larger baked birthday bones and small birthday cakes for dogs, topped, of course, with edible frosting.
One of the employees helping bring these plans to life is Kelly, who is from Sterling and has worked at the bakery for two years.
“I love it here,” she said. “This is my favorite job because me and my mom do baking all the time at my house.”
Kelly likes everything about making the biscuits – organizing the ingredients, baking them, even packing them up. And she always makes sure to take some treats home for Sophie, the rescue Labrador Retriever she got from Arizona last year.
“She loves chicken,” Kelly said. “Whenever my mom puts out chicken for my dinner, she goes crazy. She’s obsessed with chicken. It’s her favorite flavor.”
More dogs than ever are joining Sophie in her love of the Barkery’s biscuits. In October, the bakery took a major leap forward when its product line caught the eye of Whole Foods supermarkets.
“We got picked up… by nearly every Whole Foods in the Mid-Atlantic – 50 Whole Foods stores from New Jersey through eastern Pennsylvania through southern Virginia,” Yuska said. “That was a big deal.”
The Barkery also hired its first full-time sales rep earlier this year and that made a huge difference, seeing the bakery jump from about 30 accounts at the start of the year to roughly 70 accounts currently.
But the biggest goal for the Barkery isn’t one that you would necessarily see on the store shelves. Yuska admits the bakery still isn’t profitable and relies on grants from public and private funding sources.
“Our goal next year would be to break even and hit profitability and then in subsequent years, to increase our headcount here of people we can serve and start building our brand and expanding out of the immediate geographic area,” he said.
Despite the Barkery being a true business – with all the associated ups and downs – Yuska says the best part of his job is something that not every business can provide – the smiles of his employees.
“You can see it in their faces. They wear their emotions on their sleeves,” he added. “It’s very rewarding for me personally and for them because when anyone does a good job, there is a sense of accomplishment.”
TIME TO SHOP
Some locations in the area that regularly carry ECHO Barkery dog biscuits and treats:
- Whole Foods, Ashburn
- Mon Amie Amy, Ashburn
- Belly Rubs Biscuit Bar & Spa, Ashburn
- Woof Gang Bakery & Grooming, Ashburn
- Happy Hound, Lansdowne
- SimplyBe Coffee, Leesburg
- Very Virginia, Leesburg
- Shear Love Pet Spa & Boutique, Leesburg
- Anchor Bar, Leesburg
- Quattro Goombas Winery, Aldie
- Old Towne Pet Resort, Sterling
- LMAC, Sterling
You can also purchase ECHO Barkery products on the bakery’s website – echobarkery.org – and have them delivered to your home.