Categories: America's Coolest

Gangsta Dog Follows Recipe to Success

Gangsta Dog, Norfolk, VA

OWNERS: Gary and Laura Hughes; URL: gangstadog.com; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/gangstadog1; LOCATIONS: 2; AREA: 2,250 square feet Norfolk; 700 square feet Yorktown; FOUNDED: 2014; TOP BRANDS: Canophera, Gangsta Dog, Chloe & Max, Treat Planet, P.L.A.Y., Dr. Marty, Primal, SodaPup, West Paw, Baydog, K9 Granola Factory, Polka Dog, Boss Dog, VIP Dog Toys, Kathmandu’s Yak Chews, Cycle Dog, Zenta Pet, Mendota Pet, Preen Pets, Coastal Pet, Preppy Puppy, Hugglehounds, Evanger’s; EMPLOYEES: 4 full-time, 4 part-time


WHEN GARY HUGHES took his daughter’s place last minute at a Christmas cookie-decorating class in November 2013, he didn’t realize how much his life would change. “I enjoyed it so much,” Gary recalls, “my wife, Laura, convinced me that we should go into the dog-cookie business.” They did, founding Gangsta Dog two months later.

Gary explains that the growth of their business has been fluid, making it easier to respond to unexpected challenges. “We started with a dozen cookie recipes and a 5-foot table at a farmers’ market. It grew to a mobile store with 30 feet of tables and our own line of dog food. We opened our first brick-and-mortar store, and Covid hit. We opened our second store, and supply-chain issues hit. We relocated to a new state. We are working on our third store amid record inflation.”

Congratulations From One of Your Top-Selling Brands

Gangsta Dog currently encompasses two retail locations in Virginia — 700 square feet in Yorktown and 2,250 square feet in Norfolk — with a large variety of its own store-baked dog cookies and a line of proprietary pet products. Gary works full-time for the stores as a jack-of-all trades, diving in everywhere as needed, alongside four full-time and four part-time employees. Laura has an outside job, but also lends a hand here and there, particularly creating recipes with Gary.

The couple adapted and changed their business plan multiple times as lessons were learned and opportunities presented. “I don’t measure my success off of another competitor’s success,” Gary says. “I don’t compete with them. I compete with myself. So part of the organic growth of the store is that I do what works best for me, my store, the products, and what works best for the customers.”

Gary Hughes & Bruiser, left, and Laura Hughes

Making Biscuits a Business

Gangsta Dog bakes 53 different recipes of dog cookies in store and employs its own pastry chefs. The biscuits use human-grade ingredients and do not include any flavoring, fillers or preservatives. If it’s a beef cookie, that means beef is cooked up fresh, then ground very fine and baked in.

Gary found that designing unique dog biscuits — many of which play on the business’s 1920s gangster theme — drew customers to the well-lit, 6-foot bakery cases in each store. The large case size allows the pastry chefs to turn out cookies in larger quantities. For quality control, he eats one of every batch to ensure correct consistency and flavor.

The bakery line also includes special-needs dog biscuits. “We have cookies for dogs with pancreatitis, diabetes, frequent UTIs, etc.,” Gary says. “We also have functional cookies.” For example, the Vincenzo contains lavender flowers, ground lavender and ground chamomile to soothe.

Gangsta Dog never stops cooking up new products for the bakery, such as the barkuterie boards (different treats in each chamber of a slow feeder), Get Baked (a complete, prepackaged dog-cookie kit) and gender-reveal cakes that let dogs take part in the fun with their expecting humans.

Although the Gangsta Dog brand has expanded way past dog cookies, they remain essential to the bottom line. “In the past 12 months, 7% of our revenue has come from just our dog biscuits,” Gary says. “These are almost 100% add-on sales with 8,587 biscuits sold amounting to $47,000 in revenue.”

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Enticing Customers to Shop

Gary and Laura created an inviting and memorable look and feel for their stores. The Gangsta Dog team does all of its own painting, decorating and furniture selection. Since both locations are on Virginia beaches, a beachy vibe incorporating the gangster theme makes the stores stand out, yet still easy for customers to find what they need.

Gary believes the more customers move, the more they shop and the more they buy. “Our stores all have a freestyle flow that encourages customers to wander,” he says, adding that they strategically place products for people to shop in zones 3 to 6 feet high and products for dogs to shop from the floor to 3 feet high. “It works great!”

They light up the rooms with the bright colors of toys and unique artwork. The stores don’t have a warehouse, but rather one large stock room, and they keep an abundant inventory on the floor at all times. “We work with vendors who can provide us with products on short notice, and we balance between our stores multiple times a week,” Gary says. “That way, we are always full and the employees know what’s available in both stores. We have a very thorough point-of-sale system that allows us to instantly see inventory quantities for ordering or balancing.”

Getting the Word Out

Gary markets and advertises the stores and Gangsta Dog product lines through a variety of media. On the website, he lays out the brand’s history, story and mission. He promoted the store assistant manager to brand manager to focus on expanding the online store’s inventory and presence. This resulted in it adding $24,000 to the bottom line in the past 12 months, the most online sales Gangsta Dog has ever done. Mirroring the look and feel of the stores, the website responds and adapts to different devices to maximize the ability to browse. Because of this, they didn’t need to create a separate app as the website does it all.

Gary also uses local media to promote the business. “We have great success with our print ads as both our stores not only service locals, but also tourists,” Gary says. “We get people on a regular basis coming in and saying, ‘We saw the ad and just had to come in and see the store.’” The team created a series of radio commercials and are working on their first TV spots.

He puts his advertising budget at just 2% thanks to robust use of social media platforms. “Social media is free, and I do that myself,” Gary says. He makes videos, and posts pictures and helpful tips and tricks on the store’s page and in local Facebook groups, which he has found to be most effective. TikTok and YouTube are new to the brand, but Gary considers himself a technology guy, buying equipment, such as lights and mics, to create more effective posts.

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Developing Proprietary Products

Gary and Laura decided early on to create as many Gangsta Dog products as possible. “This would differentiate us, allow us to control pricing, make us Amazon-proof, and create an exclusive offering that would migrate well into franchising,” he says.

A big risk with doing this: the supply chain. Gary explains, “Having your own products means purchasing the product, container, designing and printing labels, putting it together in a manner that appeals to customers, and then anything consumable has to be registered with the state department of agriculture.”

To promote the proprietary products and make them more than worth the effort, they rely on marketing through social media, demos and comparisons with customers in store, and strong salespeople. “Every team member is trained heavily on all of our proprietary products so they can discuss everything from ingredients to functionality,” Gary says. Customers receive free samples of food, and the stores have a generous return policy, meaning they never argue with a customer about a return. Employees also receive a paid commission every time they start a customer on Gangsta Dog’s line of dog food.

Creating the brand’s own line of products has been key to the success of the business. “In the past 12 months,” Gary says, “33% of all revenue came from our branded items.” The long and varied Gangsta Dog line includes everything from nine different flavors of dog food to a variety of supplements, treats, grooming products, CBD oil and food toppers, on top of the dog biscuits that kicked off the brand.

Gary considers benchmarking the product lines to be a top priority and a key to their success, and uses non-pet industries to do so. For example, he says, “We benchmarked our bakery items off of a fishing lure company.” A rep with the company told him, “Fish don’t have wallets. Lures aren’t designed to catch fish, but to catch fishermen.” He adds, “Anyone can make bone-shaped dog cookies. We make each recipe a fun shape that goes with a 1920s gangster slang for the name. On top of that, we only use all-natural ingredients that are people grade. Like with the fishing lure company, we sell to the owner, not the dog.”

Cooking Up What’s Next

Gary and Laura strive to continue growing the brick-and-mortar and online stores by constantly adding new lines and products. He says, “Never be afraid to try anything. Fear is your worst enemy when you own a small business.”

The couple are currently negotiating a third store location, but are working the hardest on recently launched franchising opportunities.

“We have the perfect franchise model,” Gary says, “and we hope to have locations opened all across the country in five to 10 years. Maybe then I will retire. After all, I am 66 years old!”

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Five Cool Things About Gangsta Dog

1. BRAND INSPIRATION: One night over martinis and notes on a bar napkin, Gary and Laura turned their beloved mixed-breed dog, Bruiser, into a company. “We’ve got this cool dog,” Gary says. He and Laura thought, “Why don’t we do something fun with this dog.” To keep from calling him a mutt, Gary would call him a Gangsta Dog. Laura suggested using that name for their future company and, when they checked, the domain name gangstadog.com was available. Bruiser will be 11-years-old in the spring and has been the logo of Gangsta Dog for the past nine years. The Hughes now have a total of three mixed-breed dogs and a rescued Yorkshire Terrier. “They are our test dogs for all new products,” Gary says, “and I must say they love the job!”

2. EMPLOYEE GROWTH: “Employees are an investment, not an expense,” Gary says, and should be treated that way. “They are also your front line of customer requests and the face of what you do.” Focus goes to the right product — not just the sale — and ensuring each customer has a great experience. Hughes rewards team members for all five-star reviews. Team members participate in buying products for the store, so they have a sense of ownership. Plus, every member is cross trained to fill in across stores. “As owners, we treat the team members as though we work for them. We offer paid vacations, holidays off, a health program and training incentives. We also promote from within and plan for escalation.”

3. REUSE AND RECYCLE: Fixtures in the stores are recycled décor and furniture, such as reclaimed Eurasian vendor street carts, Italian bakery carts, bourbon barrels, and old crates and shelves made from reclaimed woods. Gangsta Dog’s own line of all-natural dog food comes in reusable FDA-approved food buckets. When the container is empty, the customer brings it back into the store for a refill at a discount. “We also sell biodegradable poop bags, our bulk bar containers are biodegradable as well,” Gary says. “We sell a lot of Cycle Dog products that use recycled water bottles and recycled bicycle inner tubes in their toys, collars and leashes, plus West Paw products made from recycled ocean-bound plastics. As far as I know, we have zero single-use plastics sold out of our store. Everything is recyclable or has been made from recycled products.”

4. MOBILE MARKETING: Gangsta Dog’s large, logo-covered trailer comes with an awning and vendor window. Bought and used back in Gangsta Dog’s early days, the mobile store’s primary mission now focuses on special-event advertising and awareness. For example, Gangsta Dog takes the mobile store to local breweries, which give the business grain from their distilling process to make dog biscuits for their customers. “We have even made a barrel-shaped cookie called the Smoked Old Fashioned that we feature every time,” Gary says.

5. IN-STORE ENTERTAINMENT: Gangsta Dog promotes brand awareness through entertaining in-store events and efforts. Examples include: Free holiday photo opportunities, during which Gary puts on tailor-made outfits (Santa, a leprechaun, Uncle Sam, etc.) to pose with pups. Gary encourages nearby restaurants with waiting customers to send them to Gangsta Dog to play a game — paintings of dogs as celebrities hang on a wall in the back of the store, and they can win a prize by correctly guessing the celebrities. “The restaurants love it, the customers love it, and we build a reputation of great customer service through all of it.”

PHOTO GALLERY (9 IMAGES)

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JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Lyn M. Falk, Retailworks Inc.: The story of their line of baked goods — even making their own oat flour! — is impressive, and they showcase well in the bakery case on the selling floor. Very nice, clean, well merchandised interior. Their marketing campaigns are well done: mobile cart to breweries, keeping waiting restaurant patrons entertained, having the only dog treats in 2017’s Emmy Award SWAG bag.
  • Peter Scott, American Pet Products Association: The brand presentation is the coolest. It’s well thought through and fun. There are a lot of elements that really let owners and customers have fun with the brand. Well done.
  • Kat Carbonaro, Astro Loyalty: This is one of the best origin stories: “All because of a mixed-breed dog.” I love their name and their signs. And their bakery counter! Their under-the-sea display is so awesome! Their merchandising and design touches are unique and whimsical. I really love all the artwork on the walls, as well. I also love how they included dog-level shopping areas! They have one of my favorite websites; the dog portraits are very unique and do not feel like stock images. I love how strongly they believe in good customer service, and how they believe it’s more important to “focus on the right product, not just the sale.” This builds immense trust. I love all the specialty cookies they make, and how they use them to raise money for local rescues.
  • Missy Limbeck, Pet Palette Distribution: The wall portraits are amazing. I could look at them all day! The store appears to be super full of great products without looking cluttered or messy — great job merchandising and arranging displays for flow of traffic. The chandelier and other quirky fixtures and decorations give the interior so much personality, so that it looks like a really fun place to visit.
  • Nancy Guinn, Dog Krazy: The layout of the stores is lovely. Very clean and well put together.

Melissa L. Kauffman

Melissa L. Kauffman is the former editor of Dogster and Catster and has covered the pet world in print and online for 30 years — everything from products, retailers, trade and consumer shows to cats, dogs, birds, fish and rabbits. She lives in Charlotte, NC, with her husband, three dogs and two parrots.

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