All the loose dogs around the 4800 block of Paradise Road west of Modesto have sniffed out the Venegas home. They follow the irresistible aroma of beef bones being smoked out back.
“When I do the bones, you see so many dogs coming. They don’t go away, so I have to give them a treat. Then they come back – they’re like friends,” said Martha Venegas, who with her husband, Noah, owns and operates the dog-treat company California Favorites.
Bones are just one of several products the couple sell at the Modesto Certified Farmers Market on Thursday and Saturday mornings. They also offer beef liver jerky, chicken jerky, chicken liver kisses, chicken breast crackers, lamb strips and smoked pig ears.
The couple’s business will be 3 years old in November. They got into it when their German shepherd, Barbie, was itching and scratching and chewing herself raw because of allergic reactions to store-bought dog treats, even organic ones, Martha said.
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California Favorites packages of beef liver jerky and chicken liver kisses are $7. Packages of lamb strips, chicken breast crackers and chicken jerky are $8. Pig ears are six for $6.
Noah, a butcher with Dave’s Meat Service in Modesto, suggested they make their own dog treats, and try to make a go of it as a small business.
“I said I would give it a year, and if I liked it, would continue,” Martha said Tuesday as she made chicken jerky and chicken breast crackers. “It’s really amazing – it turned out really good.” Barbie and their other dog, a Chihuahua named T. rex, love the treats and aren’t at all itchy, she added.
The products start with simple, quality ingredients. The Venegases buy their meat from Sysco food products, and the chicken breast, lamb, beef liver and chicken liver all are the same that people buy for their own consumption, Martha said.
The most basic treat they make is chicken jerky, which is just raw chicken breast hand-sliced by Noah and put in the food dehydrator for the better part of a day. He trims off all the fat because they learned quickly it doesn’t dry well and makes a mess.
If I don’t want to eat it, why would my dogs?
Martha Venegas, on why she uses products fit for human consumption – and, yes, she’s sampled the products
“My daughter, when we do the chicken jerky and it’s freshly out of the dehydrator nice and warm, will ask, ‘Mom, can I have some chicken jerky?’ I say, ‘Help yourself.’ It tastes like bacon,” Martha said. Their daughter is Lea, 5, who has three brothers: Abraham, 10, Gabriel, 9, and Matteo, 9 months.
Martha said she knows at least one customer also buys the jerky for himself. The man regularly buys the chicken jerky at the farmers markets on Saturdays, she said, and she asked him a couple of weeks ago, “ ‘How’s your dog doing with the treats?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I don’t have a dog, it’s for me. I’m diabetic. ... The doctor said I had to eat with low sodium. I tried your treat and it’s amazing.’ ”
Other products are nearly as simple in ingredients, though some take more time to prepare than others. The chicken breast crackers are the most popular item, she said, and are made by grinding cooked chicken breast and canned carrots and sweet potatoes.
The three ingredients are mixed, then flattened out like cookie dough. Martha uses a bone-shaped cookie cutter to make the crackers, then puts them on trays for the dehydrator, where they bake 10 to 12 hours.
Unopened, the dried products have a shelf life of six months. Once opened, they should be used within two weeks if not refrigerated, or a month or more if kept in the fridge.
The kisses have the most ingredients – chicken liver, barley flour and molasses – and are the most labor-intensive. The ground and blended ingredients are put into a cone, like those used for frosting, and Martha hand-squeezes the kisses onto the drying trays. “They’re really good for small dogs,” she noted.
Martha said she works on California Favorites each weekday and puts in a full day. While sales now are at the farmers market only, the couple have a website, www.calfavorites.com, in the works and also hope to open a small store at some point.
They’d have to increase production, but Martha said she’s up for it and has family members who are ready to go to work. She knows it will be a challenge, but said, “I think I’ve got the guts to do it.”
After showing their California Favorites operation, including a couple of refrigerators and dehydrators, the grinder, a supply of labels, plastic bags and a heat sealer, Martha summed up, “There’s no secret to it, just a lot of passion to have the dogs happy.”
Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327
Meet your makers
This is one in a series of occasional video reports and stories on “makers” in the community. We intend to cover a broad range of creative types, from visual artists to performing artists to artisans to culinary composers whose palettes are our palates. If you’d like to be profiled, tell us a bit about what you do, including a link to a website if you have one. Feel free to attach images. Please email both Andy Alfaro at firstname.lastname@example.org and Deke Farrow at email@example.com.