The nonprofit enterprise uses about 35 bakers, including Gavin Wilcox, foreground, and has its product in 15 area stores and sites in Alabama and Wisconsin. Courtesy Beer City Dog Biscuits
Two local moms have found a way to use Founders Brewing Co. byproducts to empower people with disabilities.
Leslie Hooker and Suzanne Wilcox, who met in school four decades ago, reconnected a few years ago when Wilcox moved back to West Michigan from Ohio. They bonded over each having sons with disabilities, Tanis Hooker and Gavin Wilcox.
Tanis Hooker was soon to age out of the school system. In Michigan, adults with developmental disabilities and cognitive impairment can receive public education until age 26. Gavin Wilcox is four years younger than Tanis Hooker, so he was nearing the same cutoff point.
In November 2017, the moms started brainstorming ways to provide “purposeful training” for their sons, according to Suzanne Wilcox.
Since she owns Hope Educational Consulting, which advocates for families who have children with disabilities, Wilcox knew the programs and jobs geared toward people with disabilities in the region tend to cover only short periods and involve participants in menial tasks such as sweeping, setting cutlery, folding napkins, bagging groceries, etc. She and Leslie Hooker wanted to create an opportunity that would offer training and a sense of dignity and would be a challenge as well as an activity.
A friend of Wilcox’s “randomly” sent her a package of dog biscuits one day that were made by a group of high schoolers in Ohio, and it sparked an idea.
“We sat at my kitchen table,” Wilcox said. “I pulled (the treats) out of my cupboard and I looked at Leslie and said, ‘What do you think? I think we can do this.’”
By January 2018, the pair had filed paperwork to become a nonprofit called Beer City Dog Biscuits.
They decided to make the biscuits out of spent grains — the leftover mash after the malt, sugars and other nutrients have been extracted to make beer — because it was “new and different” to them, would be “a great way to recycle” and Beer City, USA, could provide a practically limitless supply, Hooker said.
Since Founders is the largest brewery in Grand Rapids, they contacted its president and co-founder, Dave Engbers, who met with them, said yes and helped them develop a system for collecting and transporting the spent grains.
The recipe Hooker and Wilcox developed also includes eggs, rice flour and peanut butter.
By August 2018, after trademarking their brand and obtaining a license from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, they began making biscuits in the kitchen of Central Reformed Church in Heritage Hill, where Hooker attends.
Their sons were the operation’s first “brew bakers” and now are its head bakers. But they also formed partnerships with Grand Rapids Public Schools’ Community Transition Center and the nonprofit Ready for Life to be a free vocational training site.
Today, the nonprofit has about 35 bakers — three groups from GRPS, including an under-18 group and an 18-26 group, and one from Ready for Life. Both organizations send support coordinators to help with the individuals’ special needs since Wilcox and Hooker are limited by HIPAA laws from knowing the details of their disabilities.
The participants also assist with spent grains pickup and delivery, as well as selling the biscuits at special events and farmers markets.
In addition to those venues, Beer City Dog Biscuits sells its biscuits at 15 area stores, including Founders’ e-commerce site, Bridget Street Market, five Pet Supplies Plus locations and Martha’s Vineyard, among others — plus at Pet Supplies Plus franchises in Mobile, Alabama, and Appleton, Wisconsin.
Beer City Dog Biscuits does not currently pay its workers because the feeder programs are only set up to be free vocational training. But as the dog biscuit operation grows, Hooker and Wilcox hope to begin hiring permanent employees and paying a competitive wage.
They also hope to expand, eventually, to a kitchen that has more ovens, is more accessible for those with physical disabilities and will allow Beer City Dog Biscuits to bake five days a week instead of the current four at Central Reformed.
For now, they are focusing on providing skills training, a sense of belonging and community involvement, and preparing the participants for future jobs.
Hooker said it has been rewarding to watch the growth they’ve seen in their bakers.
“It’s been amazing to watch these groups,” she said. “They've gone from training in the beginning, not knowing anything about this, to now … they’re really doing every part of the business. We just try to oversee it. And so truly, the mission is for them.”
Wilcox added the ownership they’ve seen individuals take in the kitchen is “amazing.”
“(One of the workers), she’s nonverbal, and when she first came, she was just stuffing the biscuits and we thought, ‘Well, OK, this is what she can do.’ And then we started introducing her to other tasks,” Wilcox said. “She could run the kitchen now. And the coordinators are saying, ‘We didn’t realize that she was capable of this because she was never given the opportunity in a workplace to do it.’”
Another worker, Jenni, said she loves working at Beer City Dog Biscuits and her “favorite job is packing the bags and putting stickers on the bags.”
Hooker and Wilcox do not draw salaries from the nonprofit, and all donations and proceeds from the sale of the dog biscuits go back into supporting their mission to create an inclusive workforce “where all people will flourish.”
“We feel that, in our community and the world, everyone deserves that purpose and dignity,” Hooker said. “We want them to be seen by people and people to see this model as they’re really hard working, they care about their job, they want to work and they’re reliable.”