Side business grows as Billings women's dog snacks gain favor

2014-03-09T00:00:00Z 2014-03-20T17:17:08Z Side business grows as Billings women's dog snacks gain favorStory By JAN FALSTAD Photos By CASEY PAGE The Billings Gazette

Three parrots at a Billings home have made a game of grabbing Jillcookies from a cookie jar, pecking the corners off and throwing the dog treats over the countertop to the waiting dogs.

The African grey, a green parrot and white Goffin Cockatoo, feed the locally made treats to the sister-brother English shepherds at the home of Earl Herman and his wife, Julie St. John.

“The birds like watching the dogs come running over,” said Herman, an owner of Western Office Supply.

The cookies are the creation of Jill Gibbs, who started making her all-natural Jillcookies for her own dogs a decade ago. Now they have become a cross-species hit.

“The dogs love them. Lots of kids eat them and even some adults have been known to munch them,” she said.

Her business began organically, with minimal investment, word-of-mouth advertising and sales to friends at dog shows.

“Dogs are my whole life. I train them. I show them. I do everything for my dogs,” she said.

Now Jill said she is as busy as she wants to be making dog treats evenings and weekends when she’s not working full-time at the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Department.

Her husband, Curtis Gibbs, also works at the Sheriff’s Department. He, too, recently turned a lifelong passion for leatherworking into a home-based business.

Last fall, Curtis started dying, carving and stamping leather collars and leashes.

The collars and the cookies are labors of love for the couple, but even with no traditional marketing, they are selling their Montana-made products across the U.S. and internationally in Canada and Europe.

The Gibbs have three dogs: Henry, a golden retriever, and two flat-coated retrievers, a breed described as “cheerful, optimistic and good-humored” by the American Kennel Club.

Henry’s face graces the cover of a dog-care book written by an Idaho veterinarian, Stephanie Green, who runs Milbrose Retrievers and Irish Wolfhounds outside of Concord, N.H., and became friends with the Gibbs when they bought Henry. Then Jill started mailing her dog treats to Green.

“More than anything in the world, my dogs love these cookies and know when the box arrives,” Green said. “I didn’t know what to call them, so I just started saying, ‘Here are your Jill cookies.”

After handing Jill her business name, Green then bragged about Jillcookies on Facebook, which remains the main sales tool.

Last year, Jill ran into her first international trade problems after selling her cookies at dog shows in Minnesota and in Calgary and Medicine Hat, Alberta.

“They loved the cookies up there, but the shipping costs from here to Canada are so high and it takes two weeks,” she said. “I could walk it across the border faster than that.”

Both Jill and Curtis said they are lucky to break even on their businesses.

A 9-1/2 ounce bag of Jillcookies or kibbles runs $5. Grain-free treats cost $6 a bag.

Jill makes a modest profit over the holidays when there is high demand for her dog treats.

“I’m not a business person at all, I’m a dog lover,” she said. “But people are telling me I don’t charge enough.”

Jillcookies are made from flour, oil and water, plus shredded veggies or fruit or other goodies, and then baked and dehydrated.

Using all-natural ingredients, Jill now makes 16 flavors, from peanut butter to blueberry and banana chips. Her latest bacon-and-cheese cookie is popular with her pups.

She makes gluten-free treats for dogs on special diets.

“Flat-coated retrievers have very high cancer rates. You want to lessen the carbs for cancer-prone dogs,” she said.

Judging from the grocery shelves stuffed with dog treats, there is plenty of choice. But the demand for all-natural dog products is growing, she said.

“There are a lot of people leery of made-in-China products,” Jill said. “These are made in Montana and they know everything that goes into it.”

Jillcookies is an official Made in Montana product, a program designed to promote Montana products and services.

And during hot summer dog shows, Gibbs makes a fully digestible treat involving a dried bull penis called a “bully stick.”

“I take frozen yogurt, put in a bully stick and that makes pupsicles,” she said. “They’re a hit with dogs when it’s 100 million degrees in July at the agility trials in a barn with no air circulating.”

Herman and St. John, who used to groom dogs, said they keep bags of Jillcookies on hand for the three parrots and two dogs they rescued.

“You want to feed them right,” Herman said. “And when the birds eat them and feed them to the dogs, that’s just great.”

Back at the Gibbs’ home, their dogs, Izzy, Henry and Navarre, just keep on working.

“My dogs are the taste-testers,” Jill said. “It’s a horrible job to have to work at the Jillcookie factory.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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