Polkadog Bakery and Laszlo Family Farm
Photos by Michael Piazza
Two Local Companies Use Food Byproducts to Create Healthy Pet Treats
Have you ever wondered what happens to the rest of the animal when you buy a single chicken breast or cod fillet for dinner? Unless you’re slaughtering and skinning that animal yourself, chances are you don’t think about the remaining offal, the parts of the animal we don’t like to eat, the piles of fish skins (or even the ugly vegetables passed over at the farmers market).
Two local companies, Polkadog Bakery in Boston and Laszlo Family Farm in Ashby, have created a niche for those leftovers, collaborating with other local businesses and using leftover organ meats, fish skins and unwanted veggies to make healthy and sustainable pet treats, reducing food waste while nourishing our furry friends with parts otherwise headed for the landfill.
Polkadog Bakery was born in 2002 when Deborah Suchman and Rob Van Sickle opened a small community store in the South End to sell the peanut butter dog biscuits they’d been making for their dog, Pearl. An old, beat-up one-eyed dog, Pearl danced when she said hello, looking like she was doing the polka.
“She was definitely our inspiration,” Deb says. “She was scrappy and full of life.” So Deb and Rob worked hard, doing everything themselves with a little help from friends.
“We were also scrappy,” she says. “We just had a little oven where we made treats and stamped them out. We were young, and we had energy.”
The idea for a dehydrated cod skin dog treat came about in 2009, when Deb and Rob met a local fish processor of cod fillets.
“They had all these skins, so we started buying them,” Deb says. She and Rob created a twisted and dehydrated footlong crunchy stick made of cod skins, packaged in a long clear tube with a colorful and whimsical fish label.
“It looked different, but it was also healthy,” Deb says. Especially good for dogs with allergies because of its single ingredient, the cod skins immediately created a cult-like following, and the Polkadog Bakery business exploded.
Now Polkadog Bakery employs 45 workers to make 23 Polkadog-branded packaged treats in a 14,000-square-foot space on Boston Fish Pier and sells them in their six Boston- area retail stores, through distributors at independent specialty pet stores and online nationwide and in Canada, South Korea, Hong Kong and Costa Rica. Polkadog Bakery makes another 12 to 15 treats that are only sold in bulk at their retail shops in Boston.
As the business expanded from hand-cut biscuits to limited-ingredient treats to single-ingredient chicken strips and then to Polkadog Cod Skins, Deb and Rob began looking for other pet treat ideas to utilize the whole animal or fish while working with local suppliers, local processors or fishermen. A contact at the Department of Agriculture connected them with New Bedford clam harvesters who couldn’t sell the darker meat of a quahog, and Clam Chowda was born: a short crunchy stick made with quahog clams, salmon, potato flour and brown rice. When a Nova Scotia fishing family was catching a lot of haddock, they contacted Deb and Rob and asked if they would consider using their leftover haddock skins, and Polkadog Haddock Skins were created.
“It’s part of who we are as a company, building relationships, working with people,” Deb says. “We feel more responsible as a company working collaboratively with other like-minded businesses.” Polkadog Bakery now partners with two of its neighbors, Walden Local Meat in the South End and Boston Smoked Fish on Boston Fish Pier, to create single-ingredient treats with leftover animal and fish parts, including dehydrated local pasture-raised chicken hearts, lamb liver, pork kidney and beef liver from Walden Local Meat and salmon oil and salmon skins from Boston Smoked Fish.
Because of its collaboration with Polkadog Bakery, Boston Smoked Fish’s owner, Matt Baumann, says his company is at virtually zero waste. “Polkadog takes about 98% of our waste,” he says.
“We feel there’s a lot we can do with fish, and I feel like it’s a part of who we are. Also as a company being from Boston,” Deb says. The move to Boston Fish Pier and the purchase of a new drying machine will allow the business to focus on R&D: to create new and unique products to sell locally and then to sell nationwide and export as well. The company is experimenting with dogfish, a local and sustainable fish.
“We work with local processors,” Deb says, using dogfish fillets and cartilage and drying them to make treats then selling them at their stores to see how people respond to them. “Our focus is more on single-ingredient jerky-style treats,” she says, but hand-cut biscuits “are still part of who we are and where we came from.”
According to their label, “We’re all about locally-sourced, made-in-the-USA, limited ingredient natural dog treats. … That’s howl we roll.”
LASZLO FAMILY FARM
“We’re the farm that’s gone to the dogs,” Clarke Laszlo tells me when I visit the 22-plus-acre Laszlo Family Farm in Ashby. Clarke and his wife, Virginia (Ginger) Culligan, bought Laszlo Family Farm in 2001 after falling in love with its 1820s farmhouse. Since then they’ve restored the farm, reclaimed its fields and now raise what they say are genetically important breeds of livestock considered in danger of extinction, including Spanish Mustang horses, Navajo-Churro sheep and Gloucestershire Old Spots pigs. Under the name Laszlo Family Farm, they began selling USDA-inspected meat in 2001, and in 2014 they added pet food to their products under the name SITZENS.
Initially the farm had a little bit of everything, says Sam Laszlo, Clarke’s son. “Cows, turkeys, geese, chickens—they were all endangered breeds,” he says. But Clarke explains that it’s hard to produce a lot of different meats efficiently. So in 2007, the family began focusing on producing and selling lamb, pork and eggs.
“We had made food for our dogs for years,” Clarke says, but it was Sam and his brother Joe’s idea to make and sell pet food with animal parts they couldn’t sell to people. The family currently has seven dogs of their own and began making dog treats for others based on the ingredients they could obtain from nearby farms. “A lot of our food line was developed based on what people have requested and going out and perfecting that,” Clarke says.
“We make the pet food here on the farm. We grind the grains ourselves. … We do the smoking, baking and cooking all here.” They even render the lard, Clarke adds. Laszlo Family Farm now makes and sells a wide-range of SITZENS pet products, from raw bones to smoked bones, pig feet, chicken claws, dehydrated beef liver and chicken cutlets, and beef, boar and lamb hearts in addition to biscuits and custom blends for individual customers.
To source ingredients, the Laszlos work with other local food producers who have leftover food they can’t use. “We deal with local slaughterhouses and other small farms to get animal parts,” Clarke says, adding that they work with Adams Farm in Athol and Blood Farm in Groton and have sourced beef hearts and lamb livers from Lilac Hedge Farm in Holden plus excess beef from local smaller-tier farms. Grains for the biscuits are sourced from Inverness Farm in New York, and when Two Field Farm of Wayland couldn’t sell its ugly vegetables at the farmers market, Clarke says, “We would grind them up and use them in our raw food grinds.”
To feed their own animals, the Laszlos obtain hay from Carter & Stevens Farm in Barre. Lanni Orchards gives its leftover apples to Laszlo Family Farm.
“It helps move them off their farm, and it helps us feed our pigs.” Clarke says. Aaronap Cellars of Westford brings its pomace (grape waste) to the farm. “We can give [the grapes] to the pigs or spread out for the chickens or just compost,” Clarke says.
Laszlo Family Farm sells its people and pet products on Saturdays at the farm store in Ashby, on weekends at its store at Mill No. 5 in Lowell, at farmers markets and online. There’s a monthly “Biscuit, Bones and Bites CSA” as well as a farm stay for dogs.
“We’ve been taking care of our own dogs for years,” Clarke says. All profits go toward supporting the farm’s work in conserving and promoting rare-breed livestock, according to Sam. “SITZENS is our solution to utilizing the whole animal and our answer to a smaller footprint, paw print and hoof print in today’s world.”
This story appeared in the Summer 2019 issue.