A one-eyed dog from Puerto Rico, who is now deceased, gave an artsy couple the inspiration they needed back in 2000. A good Samaritan brought Pearl, a scab-ridden stray who was missing an eye, to the United States in hopes of finding her a forever home. There was just one problem. Who would want a vision impaired boxer with heartworm and a laundry list of other health problems?
Shortly before she was set to be euthanized, Robert Van Sickle and Deborah Gregg decided to adopt Pearl into their family. Van Sickle says that he can still remember the day that he met Pearl. He said that her story was so inspiring, and despite all the hardships that she faced, she still had a pure spirit that hadn’t been darkened by all the struggles. He said that meeting an animal like Pearl, with a sense of peace and an inner joy that is unmistakable, is a breathtaking experience.
The couple gave the dog a welcoming home in their South End loft in Boston, Massachusetts and a nickname. She was always bobbing her head around to say hello to people, so they began calling her Polka Dog, and it stuck. Van Sickle and Gregg also baked for the sweet pup using the finest ingredients they could find like whole wheat, and natural products including eggs, peanut butter, and oats.
A veterinarian estimated Pearl was already 12 when the couple adopted her, and sadly she passed away about a year later. But Pearl had made her mark. As an homage to their late dog, Van Sickle and Gregg decided to offer a Polka Dog installation during an open studios weekend in their South End live/work space in 2002. They hung up bags of flour, rolling pins, and a banner with Pearl’s adorable face on it. They played polka music and gave away Pearl-inspired dog treats.
People went crazy for it, which got Van Sickle thinking that it could be a lucrative business opportunity. Neither of the pair had any business experience, but they borrowed money from family and opened a bare bones Polka Dog Bakery by the end of that year. Today, they refer to their establishment as a canine version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
As the pet market has grown, so has Polka Dog. In 2005 they started selling their dog treats wholesale to almost 800 stores around the United States and a few internationally. Their treats were available in natural food stores, pet stores, and at Whole Foods. In 2009 they added another shop in Jamaica Plain, MA to their quickly-expanding empire. Now they have a total of four locations. The other two are located in Chestnut Hill, MA and Lynnfield, MA.
Starting a pet business, or any small business for that matter, is no small feat. Making it successful takes time, dedication, and a lot of hard work. Van sickle and Gregg, who are no longer seeing each other romantically, had to battle some personal hardships along the way as well. They managed to not only keep their business on track, but to vastly expand it in the span of just 15 years. Most small business owners don’t see this much success in their entire career.
The company’s most popular products are of course their healthy dog treats. They offer dehydrated and jerky treats, soft and chewy treats, and a variety of classic biscuits as well. They’ve also expanded the brand to include dog bowls and holiday and gift items too. All of their products are made in the United States. In fact, they are all made in Boston. They also try to get all of their ingredients as close to their home base in South Boston as they can.
Not only are they supporting their local economy by sourcing their ingredients and manufacturing their products close to home, but the company also gives back to charities in the local community. They mainly work with local and regional animal-related rescue organizations, but they also support charities around the country and around the globe. It is easy to respect a company that is focused on making the world a better place.