When Angie Gamades was a teacher at Chaska High School, she started baking dog biscuits with her special education students. When she left her job at the high school to return to the elementary school setting, the dog biscuit business left, too. Four years later, two of Gamades’ former students called her with one simple question: Will you bake with us again?
She did, along with fellow special education teacher Kyle Gallus, and just a few short weeks later Finley’s Barkery was born. “Two weeks after baking with the students, I was filling out the form for the LLC,” Gallus says.
Finley’s Barkery employs adults age 21 and older who have autism and other intellectual special needs. “They are my former students, some I’ve known from third grade on,” Gamades says. “We know all of our employees and their families.”
Gamades, Gallus and their staff of six work out of a commercial kitchen in Chaska, baking together twice a week. Currently, sales are online and at pet events, including the Minnesota Pet Expo. For Gamades and Gallus, though, the sales are the least important part of the business. “We may be doing retail in the future, but we would have to cut margins and employees,” Gallus says. “For us, the most important thing is the work opportunity.”
Still, the long-term goal is to have Finley’s Barkery provide full-time jobs for their employees, as well as for Gamades and Gallus. “The more we sell, the more we can employ,” Gamades says. “Our goal is to have our own space, do it during the day, and employ as many as we can.”
They decided to focus on adults age 21 and up because of the lack of jobs for those leaving high school transition programs (most of which provide opportunities for students through age 21). “There is such a need,” Gamades says. “Many are on waiting lists for jobs.”
The kitchen is organized to meet the needs of its employees. “It is set up for employees to have success,” Gallus says. “Some are noise sensitive. How do we get creative and still give them a job they love?”
For Becki Becker of Chaska and her son Tony, Finley’s Barkery has provided an opportunity to maximize his skills. “Tony loves working there because it gives him a purpose,” Becker says. “He’s very visual and likes things in order, so the packaging department is a perfect fit for him. He can work from home in a quiet, predictable environment at his own pace—which is very fast!”
And as for the dog biscuits themselves? The best seller is Gamades’ original recipe from Chaska High School: peanut butter oatmeal. The group also makes blueberry coconut, wheat-free peanut butter pumpkin, and apple cinnamon flavored dog biscuits.
Finley’s Barkery is already making an impact on the local community, with partnerships with SouthWest Metro Intermediate District (the school offers the group use of a commercial kitchen) and nonprofits such as the Autism Society of Minnesota.
While the business continues to grow, Gamades and Gallus will keep baking and working full time at their teaching jobs. “We want to make it really fun,” Gamades says. “We’re so proud to see how far our students have come in just six months.”