Support Local: Dishes For Dogs
June 1, 2017Dominique Stewart
We may never be certain on what our pets think about us. Somewhere down the line we have convinced ourselves that the wagging of a tail or the excessive face licking upon each encounter is a sign of affection; a nonverbal exchange meant to signify that they have claimed us as their human. It’s easy to get caught up in the old adage “dog is man’s best friend,” but what if our sentiments weren’t shared? What if your dog really was judging you for ordering take out the third night in a row? Or snoozing through all your alarms? But then again, maybe it’s the not knowing that draws us to dogs, with their excitement that seems to propel a continuous happy disposition whenever we’re near.
And while science has yet to help us divulge the inner thoughts of our canine friends, it has found a way to provide a balanced meal that the most conscientious dog owner and their dog can both agree on, and it’s not so different from what could be found on our own plates.
I recently sat down with Dishes for Dogs Founder Michael O’Rourke in his canine kitchen in Wynwood where we talked about opening up shop, his pup Ripley, and why friends don’t let friends eat kibble.
What do you do and why?
To put it simply, we manufacture dog food as an alternative to what’s already out there. We don’t see it that we’re doing anything fancy, it’s just that the bar has been set so low for dog food that it seems like something nice but it’s much more in line with what dogs should be eating than what is commonly fed to them. Originally I would feed my dog home prepared diets, and started to prepare some food for a few friends and thought that this would be a good idea for a business. I was living in California at the time, so I was trying to figure out where this should belong. My family was living in Miami, so I would visit once or twice a year and saw how Miami is super dog-friendly. If you come from the outside, the amount of restaurants and dog parks we have here is super high. So I moved down here the end of 2014 and worked on starting this up. But we started really small with me cooking out of my mom’s kitchen.
So tell me about the dog behind the man?
Her name is Ripley and she’s a little Pomeranian. Originally, I didn’t want a dog. I love dogs but I didn’t want one at the place I was living. My girlfriend at the time really wanted one and her sister’s friend Pomeranian had puppies while I was away on vacation. And when I returned, she had Ripley at home. I instantly fell in love with her. She’s my little buddy. I use to take her with me everywhere, be it bar, friend’s house or restaurant. She’s so cute, so even places that didn’t allow dogs would see her and be like “it’s OK.” Everyone says their dog is the sweetest, but she is really a bundle of light.
What is your background? Were you always cooking?
I’ve done the same amount of cooking as the average person. I knew how to make mac and cheese and spaghetti. But no, I study business at school. And the thing to know is we aren’t chef cooking here. We’re much more of a lunch lady in terms of how we cook. We’re cooking 150 batches at a time with ground meat and steamed veggies. So no I didn’t have a cooking background, I was just looking for a way to feed my dog better. Cooking for your dog is a process. Back in the day, I had me, Mason, my mom, and my grandmother chopping sweet potatoes and we would spend three hours chopping them for a 20lb recipe. So cooking for your dog at home is a whole day process. And the one thing we like to say is that we aren’t providing a product, but more so a service of cooking for you.
Kind of like a doggy restaurant?
No. That’s the one thing we want to clear up is that we are not a restaurant. We get that a lot and had an article written about us saying that we were, but we’re not. We prepare, package, and sell the food, but we don’t serve the dogs. There are a couple complications with serving the dogs here, one being that having multiple dogs eating in a relatively small spot isn’t a wise idea but also it would be seen more so of a novelty and this is more of an alternative to commercial dog food. All our meals are developed by a veterinarian nutritionist, Dr. Justin Shmalberg, from the University of Florida, which is one of the things that separate us from 90 percent of the people doing this. Our meals meet AAFCO (The Association of American Feed Control) standards of a balanced diet. So this is designed to be a stand-alone diet. So no, we’re not a restaurant.
So what has been the reception so far?
What’s funny is there’s a lot of people doing something similar, but we’re really different from everyone else. We started doing farmer’s market at the end of September 2015 and it was slow. We had a decent amount of customers but it was like we were selling dog food on the street. So people would buy an empanada at the farmer’s market and not even think of the quality of how it was made or when it was made, but with dog food, people were more skeptical. It was slow, but reception has been good and we’re really content on how it’s growing.
It’s crazy to think that this hasn’t really been done yet since people love their dogs.
It has been done, but one of the big things that separate us from everybody that’s doing this that our vet nutritionist is one of 60 in the whole country. So he’s gone to veterinarian school and veterinarian nutrition school. He’s basically a scientist at UF, so he does studies, is a professor and doctor at the hospital there. Obviously, we have a bias, but he’s really one of the best people in the country to help us put this together. And then the other thing, we have an open kitchen where people can come and see how the food is made, see the quality ingredients, and ask any questions. Our meals are balanced and have been tested at least a dozen times at Michigan State University and another one in New York to make sure that everything like protein, fat, and carbs in the right proportion. Everything is extremely tested and have package dates. But we’re not trying to be a national brand, we’re really just trying to cater to people in the Miami area.
It’s almost like eating human food.
Honestly, it is. There is no difference in terms of quality. We get a lot of our ingredients from US Foods, which you’ve seen the trucks around restaurants. So it’s really similar to what you’re eating at home but geared towards dogs.
What would you say to someone who is wanting to make the switch?
There’s a lot of quality dog foods out there. And one of the things I like to say is there is no one right way to feed your dog. A lot of people put things in black and white, but no, it’s complicated. So you have to you do your research and figure out what’s good for you and your dog. I have a seven-pound Pomeranian and this is all I feed her, where my fiancé takes care of a 70lb Ridgeback, so 40 percent of this, 40 percent of home cooking and a little bit of kibble. The only thing I will say is kibble is pretty poor in quality and the way its processed isn’t too appropriate of a diet for dogs. Kibble is the one thing I would say stay away from. Even most canned food is better than kibble.
Why is it important to support local businesses?
I think Wynwood is a great example. I went to school in Orlando, and remember thinking how I would love to go somewhere that isn’t a chain. Small, unique businesses are the life and blood of a city or town. I’m relatively new to Miami, so I can’t speak too much on this, but they say Miami is starting to have a culture and a lot of that is because of these unique businesses.
This is a piece in our series spotlighting small businesses part of our Support Local initiative.