Chaska dog biscuit company employs adults with disabilities
AuSM members Angie Gamades and Kyle Gallus create employment opportunities for adults with autism and other learning differences.
A new business in Chaska, Minn. hopes to send the unemployment rate for people with disabilities straight to the dogs.
With a model that includes baking, bagging, and distributing all natural dog treats online and at events, Finley’s Barkery helps young adults with autism and other disabilities find employment, grow socially, and use their talents to contribute.
Finley’s Barkery co-founders Angie Gamades and Kyle Gallus created this business model because they believe in investing in human potential. “We want to make the community aware of the incredible capabilities of our employees,” Gamades said.
This endeavor began as a functional job skills class at Chaska High School in 2010. In a class called “Pride Biscuits”, Gamades taught special education students business basics while they baked and delivered biscuits to staff at the school.
“I witnessed firsthand the growth my students made in learning practical skills for work and life,” Gamades said. “When a student asked after graduation if he could bake dog biscuits again, we jumped at the chance.”
Thus Finley’s Barkery, named after Gamades’s 30-pound mini German Shepard, was born in 2016, a business that, from a rented commercial kitchen, encourages adults with autism and other disabilities to use their talents to grow both personally and professionally.
According to the Autism Society of America, only 16.8 percent of people with disabilities are employed, a statistic that highlights the difficulties those with autism and other disabilities face as they move through transition and into adulthood.
Jonah Weinberg, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota, notes that despite the overall decrease in unemployment rates, nearly 80 percent of people with autism and similar disabilities remain unemployed. “This is not because most people with disabilities cannot work,” he said. “This is because people with disabilities often struggle to get through the interview process or are placed in jobs for which they are not the right fit.”
Gamades and Gallus have set out to change the unemployment statistic for people with disabilities, to convert challenges into opportunities while building on the premise that high expectations create high quality results.
Gamades said, “So often, we see these amazing individuals working janitorial or warehouse jobs where they are not engaging with others or learning the social skills needed for life long independence. We want to provide a work experience where our employees are working on life skills, communication, and social skills, all in a fun and exciting environment. We want them to be visible in the community so that people can see the amazing things they are capable of.”
Finley’s Barkery employees roll, cut, and place biscuits onto the baking sheets, bag biscuits, package, staff trade events, and distribute samples to prospective clients.
Gamades and Gallus work with each employee to find the best positions to fit personality and interests. That could mean allowing someone to sticker biscuit bags in a sensory-controlled environment at home, or unlocking the inner salesperson of someone who struggles with socialization. This personalized touch has created amazing results.
Kim Weispfennig notes that her daughter, Kirsten, is happy and excited when she goes to work at Finley’s Barkery. “It means a lot to our family to have Kirsten working with Angie and Kyle and the rest of the team,” Weispfenning said. “Kirsten is a hard worker and is able to keep on task with what’s required of her. She thrives in an environment with repetition and routine, and Kyle and Angie guide and instruct her every step of the way.”
Finley’s Barkery employee Jake Brasch likes being with his co-workers. “My favorite part of work is having a good time together, joking around, and just getting along,” Jake said.
Jake’s mom, Dawn Brasch, said the sense of responsibility and pride Jake takes away from his work is invaluable. “There is pride there that I have not seen before,” she said. “Angie and Kyle are accepting of Jake’s strengths and challenges. He feels welcome, included, and accepted, but most of all he has fun doing something that he truly enjoys.”
Since launching in March 2016, Finley’s Barkery has grown from two to seven employees, moved into a larger commercial kitchen, and has had a presence at events including the Animal Humane Society’s Walk for Animals 2016, The Minnesota Pet Expo, Fast and the Furry 5k, and All About Dogs Day.
The founders experience great joy in watching employees gain confidence and are very proud of their team. “Our team amazes us every single time we enter the kitchen or work an event,” Gallus said. “They have overcome fears, improved communication skills, increased their independence, and work so hard every time they come to work. Their work ethic is amazing, and they deserve so much credit for what they accomplish.”
Gamades and Gallus hope that larger corporations will take note, and bring the same optimistic attitude into programs that hire and train individuals with disabilities.
Weispfenning hopes that Finley’s Barkery will continue to grow. “Angie and Kyle believe in the abilities of all of their employees and have a fantastic product, too,” she said. “My hope is that they can continue to develop their business and employ other young adults who will benefit from the experience like Kirsten has.”
For more information about Finley’s Barkery or to order their dog treats, visit www.finleysbarkery.com.