While bakers all over town turn their efforts this time of year to the likes of Christmas tree meringue pops and snowflake sugar cookies, Krista Aversano, head baker Lee Williams and the crew at Taj Ma-Hound in Oakhurst have been at work since July on the doggie Christmas treats that fill their Poochie Gift Box.
“Christmas in July is a real thing for us,” Aversano said. “We are sending out thousands of treats every week, and that won’t stop until Christmas. We’re baking every day, starting at 4 or 5 in the morning. And that’s seven days a week.”
Not all their baking is destined for faraway stores. They’re also baking holiday treats for their retail shop, their booth at the Peachtree Road Farmers Market and their local pet shop customers.
All this baking is going on at a shop around the corner from Oakhurst’s main drag. The bright green exterior wall peppered with large black paw prints is the clue you’ve come to the right spot. Aversano has been in this space for 10 years. She moved in after first baking in her Virginia-Highland apartment, then in a Kirkwood loft, where every surface was covered with treats.
This commercial space provides what she calls the perfect mix of neighborhood contact and working space. The production bakery takes up three-quarters of the space in the back; a small retail area in the front means dogs and their people can drop by to pick up a little snack, or a pretty gift box for that holiday party with a pampered pup in the house.
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“It all started in 1994, when I paid attention to what was in commercial dog treats,” Aversano said. “I thought, I’m living a healthy lifestyle. I wouldn’t eat that. I don’t want my dog to eat that.”
She began experimenting at home. When the treats were consumed happily by her resident pups, and those of friends, she took out a business license and got serious.
“The first place I took my treats to was Highland Pet Supply,” she said. “Toni Barry, the owner, bought my treats on the spot. That’s when I knew it was a legitimate business idea. She placed a wholesale order, and I’d go back at night and look in the window to see if the treats were selling. She was the perfect first customer, and is still a client.”
Those first treats were a far cry from the colorfully decorated “howliday” treats she and her team produce now. They were simple shapes in simple packaging. “But, we started getting lots of custom requests. Piedmont Bark asked, ‘Can you put our logo on a dog treat?’ It was one of the hardest things I had to learn to do, but that’s what got us into fancy treats.”
And fancy, they are. “We don’t dumb down our treats,” Aversano said. “You wouldn’t even know they’re for dogs. They look like really pretty cookies. People are blown away.”
There’s a lot of work that goes into making those pretty cookies. For example, each cookie cutter is a custom creation. Aversano creates a design, then fashions the cutter out of a material she calls “a trade secret.”
The Candy Cane MixStix? They’re “PeaMutt Butter” dough twisted into a candy cane shape. The “pawstrys” are cannoli, peanut butter cups and yogurt-filled sandwich cookies.
Aversano said what makes the treats appropriate for dogs is not what’s in them, but what isn’t. “We don’t use sugar. We sweeten with molasses. There’s no added salt. Our ‘chocolate’ icing is carob, which is safe for dogs. We buy the yogurt-based white icing, which is a specialty product better than anything for people.”
Everything is made at the Oakhurst bakery.
Just as with holiday baking for people, all that attention and those quality ingredients come at a cost. “During the holidays, you can buy one of our undecorated treats for $1 or get a decorated one for $6,” Aversano said. “Our giant candy cane sticks are $10 or $12. Gift boxes are huge. Our customers are buying them for their dogs and for their friends’ dogs.”
One customer with a water-loving pup has ordered a Christmas cake that looks like a swimming pool, topped with cookies decorated as a pool float and diving board. “It will look just like a cake for people, but be totally dog-friendly,” Aversano said.
If you’re looking for your own personalized gift, don’t wait. Some customization of treats, like adding a dog’s name to a cookie, still is available if you go by the Oakhurst shop.
You might find Aversano’s dogs there. There’s Coco Nut, a rescue pit bull, who is one of the company’s “chief tasting officers.” Pip, also a rescue pit, also is happy to offer an opinion on treats. “They both come to work, but stay behind the scenes,” Aversano said. “I think they think people are coming in to steal their treats, so you can often hear them barking, or snoring, in the back.”
Taj Ma-Hound’s Christmas treats also are available at the Good Dog Shoppe in Kennesaw; Pooch N Paws in Suwanee and Peachtree Corners; and Highland Pet Supply, Inman Park Petworks, Krog Street Petworks, Piedmont Bark and City Dog Market in Atlanta.