Katy Portillo, formerly a catering sales manager, left her career to start a unique business with her mother, making healthy dog treats. This venture, initially a side business called Susie’s Scrumptious Snacks sold at local farmers’ markets, has grown into Susie’s Snack Shop, a full-fledged store in Denton, Texas. Expanding beyond North Texas, her best friend, Christina Uili, left her job in the fashion industry to join the venture in Houston. Portillo prioritizes health and quality, developing treats such as smoked chicken feet for dogs’ joint health, created from a commercial kitchen. Over the past decade, Susie’s Snack Shop’s commitment to quality and unique offerings has led to its success. With plans to attend large festivals, shows, and potentially relaunch their dog food line, Portillo and Uili are optimistic about the future growth of their business.
Grayson Mask: When you initially launched the concept for Susie’s Snacks, did you have a specific snack in mind, or were you planning to cover a broad range of items?
Katy Portillo: No, we didn’t target a specific snack initially. Our main goal was to create something better than what was already available in the market. I hadn’t anticipated Susie’s Snacks to grow as it has. The initial idea was simply to participate in our local farmer’s market in Denton. We assessed what products were already available and realized no one was offering dog treats. It all came together rather serendipitously. We started with four or five flavors, all tested and approved by our Chief Food Officer, Susie. Since then, we’ve expanded our range based on my own experiences with my dogs or customer feedback, where they seek more natural alternatives for their dogs’ health.
Grayson Mask: Christina, were you part of the founding of this organization ten years ago, or what led you to co-found it?
Christina Uili: Ten years ago, I was not with Katy. I acted more as a supporter of her efforts. I quit my position in the corporate retail industry about a year ago to start the next chapter, which was a logical development. I’m passionate about serving clients, helping dogs, and offering top-notch products for animals and their families. It’s been a fun and tough experience since I joined Katy around a year ago. Every day, we discover something new about our industry and strive to advance.
GM: Who manages the social media and marketing aspects of the business?
KP: Christina is the primary force behind our social media presence; she’s our marketing guru. About a year and a half to two years ago, I realized I needed to either be content with where Susie’s Snacks was, or bring on a business partner because I couldn’t do it all by myself. Before Christina was even considering it, I had decided to settle and be happy with where I was. With Christina’s arrival, our business has grown significantly. She’s been instrumental in doubling our social media following, which has helped attract more people to our brand.
GM: You mentioned selling at the local farmer’s market. Is that still your primary sales outlet, or have you moved primarily to online sales?
CU: Yes, farmer’s markets contribute significantly to our sales, roughly 85% of them. We prefer selling our gourmet dog treats at these farmer’s markets because we think doing business locally and with the community is important. Our sweets are all-natural, free of salt, sugar, and preservatives, which is completely in line with the farmer’s market philosophy. We participate in several farmers markets in Houston and the North Dallas communities. These locations are where we live, shop, and conduct our day-to-day activities. As we grow, you may find us in other spaces – for instance, we recently had a vendor booth at the Dallas dog show. We also participate in larger craft fairs during the holiday season. However, our focus remains on supporting our local communities.
GM: I noticed an event about a self-service dog wash on your Instagram. Do you frequently collaborate with physical locations for such events?
KP: I do have a physical location that is open every day of the week in Denton, North Dallas. Our self-service dog wash station is located here. This is where our Do-It-Yourself dog wash station is located. We have three different stalls to accommodate dogs of all sizes, from tiny Pekingese to Great Danes. We sell our treats at this location. We also pride ourselves on our collaborations with other small businesses and woman-owned businesses. As a Latina, and with Christina being Polynesian API, we find it important to work with similar groups. Therefore, we stock products from such businesses in our store, including collars, leashes, t-shirts, mugs, and other accessories. We avoid mass-marketed items and strive to support local and smaller businesses.
GM: Can you expand on your earlier point about the “junk” in other dog foods? What kind of ingredients did you specifically want to avoid or include in your products?
KP: There are countless examples, but the best one might be our smoked chicken feet, a product we’re somewhat infamously known for. People at events or markets often recognize us as “the chicken foot lady”. Even in Houston, people recognize the Susie Snacks brand because of these chicken feet. The backstory is a rather straightforward one. Leon, a nine-year-old corgi who I rescued, suffered from hip dysplasia, a condition that is common in long-backed, low-riding dogs. He was on various drugs, including Rimadyl and Gabapentin, to manage his condition. I say to myself that there’s got to be a more natural way to help this dog with his pain. After doing some study, we discovered that cartilage, which is a natural source of glucosamine for dogs, is present in chicken, duck, and turkey. We couldn’t, of course, stop there. We couldn’t just like throw them in the dehydrator. We had to be a little bit different. So being the good Texas girls, I threw it on my smoker.
GM: What is a common logistical issue that faces this business?
KP: Finding a supplier that meets our ethical standards can be challenging. And we’re incredibly transparent about this process with our customers. Our commitment to quality is something we want our customers to understand. If we are unable to locate a specific item for them, we will inform them and provide a justification. As part of our commitment to excellence, we take the time to carefully choose the products we bring into our store. All of the goods and services we offer must meet our exacting standards.
CU: To expand further, one feature that sets us apart from your regular pet store is the amount of care and thought we put into the purchase of our goods. We take great care to make sure the goodies we provide are not only scrumptious but also wholesome and secure for dogs. Each supplier is thoroughly investigated, with their agricultural and manufacturing methods scrutinized, and we only work with those who share our commitment to quality. This level of consideration and appreciation from our clients is only one of the reasons they keep coming back to us for their pets’ goodies. We are open and honest about it, even in the face of challenges like a local supplier issue or a global disease that disrupts supply chains. We think keeping this line of communication open with our clients is crucial, and it’s helped us develop such a devoted customer base.
GM: Is there any issues with storage when it comes to the smoked chicken feet?
KP: Storage can be a challenge at times, especially given the fresh, high-quality nature of our products, but we’ve found ways to manage that effectively and ensure we can turn around stock quickly. We’re in a state where we are lucky to have huge farms near us, but it just comes back to a literal supply and demand sometimes. We offer fresh grass-fed beef bones that require collaboration with our meat packer. The cows and the meat goes one way and the bones come to us. We’re taking the bones the very next day and smoking them and then turning them right around and giving them to our customers. It is a very, very close-knit process. Susie Snacks isn’t just getting thousands and thousands of pounds of anything at any given time. We would rather get it in smaller, higher quality batches and be able to turn it around.
CU: We have a few intriguing projects in the works that will help us achieve some of our wider strategic goals, as I already said. We are looking into options for a wider distribution, possibly even entering the retail market. However, we are careful to expand in a way that is consistent with our beliefs and guarantees we continue to provide the high quality and moral sourcing that our clients need. We’re also considering novel approaches to interact with our clients and offer benefits that go beyond the items themselves. But we can’t yet provide too much information because these are still early-stage ventures. I can only say that we are really enthusiastic about Suzy Snacks’ future and that we look forward to sharing more as these projects advance.