Trish Donnelly has worked under celebrated Toronto chef Jamie Kennedy and helmed trendy spots from Oyster Boy on Queen St. W. to Mildred’s Temple Kitchen in Liberty Village.
These days the executive chef with the perfect pedigree is making a dog’s breakfast on Queen St. E. – and loving it.
As top chef of the new, high-end and healthy pet food store Tom&Sawyer, she still puts her considerable chops to good use, whipping up restaurant quality dishes like sous vide salmon, tuna with sweet potato and Italian beef pasta for a less lippy, if not more yappy, clientele.
“My friends weren’t surprised when they found out. They said, ‘Well, you like dogs more than people anyway’,” she says with a giggle.
Of course, making gourmet grub in a shiny, open kitchen that looks like something you’d see at a top-notch establishment doesn’t come cheap (some meals are priced at $11 a pop.) So owners Kristin Matthews and Peter Zakarow have partnered with digital upstart League to get the fancy food onto some employee benefit plans.
League’s digital platform, accessed through an app, provides companies with health spending accounts, lifestyle spending accounts and workplace health services for employees.
“We are aware that pets are a huge part of people’s lives — especially for millennials,” says League founder and CEO Michael Serbinis.
“This is a driving reason why League is investigating pet-related services and products in our health marketplace,” he says, noting he’s expecting to see good traction from clients for the offbeat offering.
Most big insurance companies like Sun Life and Manulife offer flexible benefit packages to employees that provide tax-free services such as physiotherapy and massage therapy. Lifestyle or wellness spending accounts also offer workers taxable benefits such as gym memberships and nutritional supplements – but healthy pet food is pretty new to the mix, he says.
There are also plenty of companies from Hudson’s Bay Financial Services to Home Depot that offer pet insurance for veterinary services, which pet owners know can be very pricey if their pooch or feline gets sick.
“While many companies offer perks such as ‘take your dog to work’, only a few companies have started to make veterinary coverage available under employee benefit plans,” Serbinis says.
Lisa Kay, president and lead human resources consultant at Peak Performance HR in Toronto, said more companies need to come up with creative incentives to attract and retain good staff.
“I think it would be highly popular. People view their pets these days as part of the family,” she said.
She notes that the big insurance players will likely be watching closely to see if the healthy pet meals concept is something they should also include in their benefits packages, particularly since pets are not deemed as dependents.
“For many families, dogs and cats are our children, so it only made sense for us to offer our fresh pet meal service to the benefits space and bring health and wellness to the entire family,” explains Matthews, who left her career in forensic accounting to launch the business last May with her husband.
They say the goal of Tom&Sawyer – Tom is their cat, Sawyer is their pup and Zakarow is a huge Rush fan – is to get pets eating healthier than stuff that comes in the bag of kibble usually found in the cleaning supply aisle of the grocery store.
“We have all learned the benefits of proper nutrition to promote a healthier and longer life for our family members, but we’re not there yet when it comes to pets,” says Zakarow, noting there has been a rise in pet illnesses and associated health costs to care for them.
“We only use fully human-grade ingredients that are of restaurant quality, sourced exactly as a premium restaurant would source them. When we say chicken breast meat, we mean 100 per cent chicken breast meat – not like the pictures you see on a bag of dog food,” he adds.
The couple says it was also motivated to get into the healthy pet food business since the industry is a Wild West of sorts and poorly regulated, resulting in overly-processed fast food for animals. They emphasize that they came up with recipes under the supervision of nutritionists and veterinarians, and insisted on culinary school-trained chefs to make the meals as opposed to the factories that still crank out dog and cat food today.
“We’re still a little bit ahead of the market,” notes Zakarow, who says they are still determining whether to market the food as a once-a-week splurge or a more regular purchase, since the meals are big enough to split into two meals for smaller dogs and cats.
The 2,400-square-foot space with high ceilings and comfy chairs looks almost like a trendy Leslieville café. (Actually they do serve latte and other coffee drinks for pet parents who, after all, pick up the tab for Rover.)
“It’s clearly more expensive than eating kibble, but people don’t think twice about buying a $5 Starbucks coffee, sometimes twice a day,” notes Matthews.
Even though it looks and smells pretty good, the cuisine appeals to four-legged foodies rather than their owners, particularly since there is not a lot of sodium or spice and there are some weird food combinations that humans wouldn’t quite dig.
“Everything we make, humans can eat. The only issue is that we don’t add any salt, which is bad for dogs, so it could taste bland to humans. And some of the flavour combinations aren’t typical human combinations, like oatmeal, blueberries and beef liver in the muffins,” he says. Those muffins, called Good Morning Muffins, come in a four-pack for $12.
And there are many items that are off-limits to pets like chocolate, garlic and raw meat.
At this point, they do most of their business online and ship across Canada, but mostly in Ontario, and sales have doubled each month since they opened. They plan on an expansion of up to 20 stores, mainly in city centres.