When the Davis family welcomed a new bundle of joy into the world in February 1989, they were quickly delivered some saddening news. Not only did Joshua, as the baby was named, have Down Syndrome, but his heart was in such poor condition that it required two surgeries.
At the time, doctors told the family that little Joshua would mostly not make it to his first birthday. However, God had a different plan in mind.
"It’s a real exciting time for us,” said Lois Davis, who pointed out that her son, now 23, is doing quite well.
Not only did Joshua defy his doctors’ expectations, but he also went on to graduate from high school and start a business with his family called Joshua’s Pet Treat Bakery. Joshua can be found most days in his bakery, whipping up batches of yummy treats for dogs to enjoy while providing meaningful job training to other individuals with disabilities.
"Our business is not just about making a biscuit,” Davis explained. “It's about helping people and to help them change their lives and become productive in our community.”
What has grown into a successful business and project for a large number of individuals with special needs all began as an attempt to help one young man, Joshua.
It began in April 2008, when Joshua was about to graduate from Cumberland County High School. Davis was warned by Joshua’s special education teacher that her son was on the verge of “getting burned out.” She doubted it because he seemed to be thriving at the time.
"Within two weeks, it happened just like that,” she explained. “He didn't want to go to school… He just clammed up.”
Davis immediately began thinking of ways to rectify the situation.
"That's where the business originated — what are the things Joshua loves most? He adores his family and he adores his dogs (Malcolm and Max). So that was a good indicator to make a biscuit,” she explained.
Plus, she thought making dog treats would provide Joshua with something to do once he graduated from high school since his disability leaves him unable to hold a regular job.
The family sent Joshua back to school and immediately began working on the bakery project. With the help of Joshua's father, Tim, who has a degree in animal science and more than 30 years of experience working in both the pet food and baking industries, the family started making dog treats in their basement. Over the next few months, the family began selling the biscuits at local craft fairs.
Another conversation with Joshua's special education teacher shortly thereafter led to a phone call that would set the family in a new direction. A special education job coach wanted to bring a few of Joshua's classmates over to the bakery for some job training. That is when the Transition Academy was born.
Now, other special education students and adults join Joshua in the bakery four days a week to help make dog biscuits.
"That first year we had Josh and Ashley (Joshua's friend), and then from there we have grown and at times we have had 10 adults working in the bakery,” said Davis.
"We even have other adults who have volunteered from the community,” she added. “They're (individuals with) special needs… and they come to the bakery twice a week. I have the Transition adults two days a week…”
Joshua and his crew started out using regular kitchen appliances to make the pet treats. After a year they were able to buy an industrial oven, which “was the most highlighted time” of his mother's life since the business started.
"It was like buying a diamond ring… It was awesome,” she exclaimed.
Before, their process included an additional step that involved using a food dehydrator to get moisture out of the biscuits. It slowed production down some, but allowed the treats to be on the shelves longer, Davis noted.
Frank Shipley, president of Flowers and Tim's boss, later donated an industrial mixer and other needed items to help the family business progress. It also allowed Joshua and his friends to feel like true bakers.
"When we first got started, I wanted them to be comfortable and be very relaxed while they were cutting biscuits. Now they stand on a line because we want to create the atmosphere like a real bakery. They go back and forth from the oven, they stand at the production line and they cut the biscuits there,” Davis said.
Everyday is different at the bakery, as the crew has 12 different flavors of dog biscuits to work with. They include apple, bacon, banana, beef, cheddar cheese, chicken, green bean, honey wheat, lamb and rice, peanut butter, sweet potato and turkey.
"We try to offer two new flavors each year. Last year, it was honey wheat and cheese," Davis said, adding that their first flavor was peanut butter.
In addition, the crew works on gourmet muffins in peanut butter, cranberry and blueberry flavors for their furry customers. They are only offered from October through April of each year, but a package keeps well in the freezer, Davis noted.
The recipes for all the pet treats were developed by Joshua's father, who is a food scientist. They are made with “food grade,” all natural ingredients and are low fat. A few of them are also considered hypoallergenic (made with rice and oat flour) for dogs with allergies and food sensitivities.
"They're slow baked,” Davis said. “We don't use any additives or preservatives, and they have a shelf life of 18-24 months… even though they don't last that long with the fur babies."
Once out of the oven, the dog biscuits are set aside for a day before being placed in special Joshua's Pet Treat Bakery packaging. Before the industrial oven, it would take days before the treats were ready for this step.
From there, the treats and other merchandise are placed on the shelves of Joshua’s new training store, located in what used to be part of the family’s carport. Davis came up with the store idea over the winter to give Joshua and his pals another opportunity to expand their marketing skills and interact directly with customers.
"Anyone can come by, just call (337-0228) ahead,” Davis said. "Customers can even call in orders and come to the store to pick them up. If we're not open, the pet treats are in eight other locations in town.”
Joshua’s Pet Treat Bakery has partnered with local retailers and veterinary clinics to promote their treats. They include The Bakery on West Ave., Bed and Biscuit Kennel, Best Friends Veterinary Hospital, Brownstone's, Hematite Hut, Rainbow Crafts, Simonton's Cheese and Gourmet House and Three Stones.
The treats and more can also be purchased online at www.joshuaspettreatbakery.com and shipped anywhere in the U.S. The family also sets up a booth on the first Saturday of each month at the Upper Cumberland Credit Union in Crossville from 8 to 11:30 a.m.
"My ultimate goal... is to get them in grocery stores,” Davis said.
In the future, Davis would also love to provide jobs with pay at Joshua's Pet Treat Bakery. Until then, she is pleased just knowing that her family has helped four volunteers gain the confidence and skills they needed to “graduate” from the bakery and obtain employment elsewhere.
In addition, the family plans to offer two scholarships for the 2012-’13 school year. Details are still being worked out, but Davis is optimistic that the scholarships will benefit students who plan on majoring in special education, nursing and other related fields.
“We’re just a family trying to make a difference,” she concluded.
Missy Wattenbarger may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.