Hawaii lawyer opens bakery shop for dogs
By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Curtis Lum
What does a local girl do after graduating from Punahou, UC-Berkeley and then the University of Hawai'i law school?
She leaves her job at a big law firm and opens a bakery that caters to dogs, of course.
It may sound like a joke, but Jen Kunishima Sarsuelo has turned an unusual concept into a seriously successful business. Her Hawai'i Doggie Bakery and Gift Shop recently celebrated its ninth anniversary, and Sarsuelo has plans to expand the business.
When she first started whipping up batches of biscuits for her dog, Sarsuelo had just a couple of varieties and baked the goods in her own kitchen. Today, Hawai'i Doggie Bakery offers 80 different food items, including doggie laulau, sushi and waffles, and has expanded its inventory to 200 products, such as doggie clothing and accessories for dogs and humans.
Initially, friends and colleagues questioned Sarsuelo's judgment because not many people had heard of a doggie bakery.
"In the beginning it was kind of funny, like, 'Oh my gosh, what are you doing?' " she said. "After it caught on and they all have dogs themselves, it's commonly accepted that they have a doggie bento in their refrigerator for their dogs."
Sarsuelo, 34, admits that the bakery idea was a little unusual, but she said she always wanted to go into business for herself and looked for something that would be fun. She said the bakery was a "fluke" that came to her while studying for the bar exam.
"I had a golden retriever and she was going to have puppies, and I started to read about cooking for her and doing all of these things that I don't even do for myself," Sarsuelo said. "I had a really good veterinarian and she recommended basing it on a Hawaiian diet, things fresh, like chicken, sweet potato and poi."
She took a basic biscuit recipe and with the help of her sister, Trudi Mahelona, came up with a small line of treats. For the first three months, Sarsuelo sold her biscuits out of the Native Books store at the Ward Warehouse, but then decided to open her own store at a shopping complex.
Sarsuelo slowly expanded her product line and got trademarks for zany items like Fish-n-Poi Pup Treats, Tail Waggin' Wontons, Begg Rolls and Arf-Arf Arare. She marketed the products as fresh, locally made and healthy.
"My idea was to position this company so that it was unique even within the niche of dog bakeries, which was a very small niche nationally," Sarsuelo said. "People caught on to the idea one, of being healthy for themselves and for their pets, and two, they really appreciated that these treats were also very local."
Sarsuelo said one reason for her success is her willingness to listen to her customers. Based on their suggestions, she expanded her line to aloha-print clothing and bedding, as well as items for people.
"People who love their dogs would come in and they would pick up something for themselves," she said.
The outlet store, she said, will allow customers to buy in larger quantities at lower prices. Sarsuelo said she'll eventually open a kitchen in the shop because "people like to see where things are being made, just like in restaurants."
A few years ago, Sarsuelo came out with a cookbook of Hawai'i Doggie Bakery's popular items, and in the past year she launched her dry biscuit mixes so customers can bake their own treats.
The biscuits are safe for humans to consume, but Sarsuelo said people probably wouldn't enjoy them because they contain no sugar or butter.
One thing Sarsuelo said she has resisted is expanding her product line for other animals.
"We didn't want to branch too far out that we were unrecognizable to people," she said.
So Sarsuelo said she will focus on growing her company, particularly through Internet sales, and continuing to provide quality goods and services.
"It does get difficult as you get up in the years because you kind of have to reinvent yourself, but you don't want to get far away from where you started," Sarsuelo said. "I don't think I would have ever dreamed that it would be as strong as it is nine or 10 years later, and I think that is the power of doing something that is made in Hawai'i.
"I was fortunate because it really was unique and we were the first people to do something of this nature. Now, there's doggie daycares and doggie walkers, so we don't seem strange at all. People are sending their dogs to doggie nannies, so we're normal."
Reach Curtis Lum at email@example.com.