Cow trachea, anyone? New St. Pete pet shop goes 'primal'

A St. Petersburg couple want to make inroads in the pet food market with all-natural treats.

ST. PETERSBURG — Krista Schmidt is giving a tour of her dream come true, even if it sounds like a nightmare. "When you first walk in the store," she says, "you'll see the body parts: duck feet, antlers, cow tracheas."

Husband Keenan Atkinson is totally grooving on the tracheas as well: "Cattle windpipes from grass-fed, free-range cows. All kinds of primal things in here."

The couple, both 29, are standing and smiling just inside the door of St. PetersBark!, an all-natural pet food shop that opened Saturday in the MLK Business District.

"Dogs are scavengers, omnivorous," says Atkinson, failing to also mention the chewy bull penises for sale. "These body parts satisfy that urge. To eat what we humans leave behind."

If you want your dog or cat to be grain-free, gluten-free and preservative-free — and you can afford this non-Alpo, pro-bull-penis luxury — this 1,400-square-foot shop is for you.

And there are a lot of you.

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It's a smart time to get into the "pet humanization" and "pet parenting" business, a movement catering to those who treat their furry friends better than they treat themselves. Nationally in 2014, we spent close to $59 billion on our pets, according to the American Pet Products Association, with almost half of that record figure devoted to food. The "holistic" pet food movement is subsequently expanding; even talk show host Ellen DeGeneres got in on the act, co-owning Halo, Purely for Pets.

There are already several stores in the Tampa Bay area that push the organic doggie diet, including the Woof Gang Bakery.

Jaime Calderbank, owner of One Lucky Dog, a "unique boutique" on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg, says, "Everyone told me I was crazy (when I opened the store) eight years ago. But every year I've done better." One Lucky Dog's luxury grooming and fancy four-legged clothes have been steady hits, but that zeal for organic dog food has grown exponentially. "Oh, absolutely," she says. "People are getting more educated."

Jennifer Fadal, owner of Tampa's Wag Natural Pet Market, will celebrate 10 years in business in May — and 10 years of watching her sales of organic food steadily increase. "That's our biggest growth department for sure," she says. "The general population is more educated now." More and more pet owners are steering away from "commercial, processed food."

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Schmidt and Atkinson are hoping to benefit from that increased awareness, as well as ride a healthier economy, seemingly one where more people can afford to pamper their pooch. For the past year or so, they have been cooking up healthy dog vittles — raw materials locally sourced from "humane" family farms — in the tiny kitchen of their Crescent Heights home: sweet potato chews, chicken jerky treats, beef liver snacks.

The St. PetersBarkers are self-taught cooks; their recipes are "easy, single-ingredient, no preservatives, handmade with love," Schmidt says.

Their research and development team consisted of them plus their two Rhodesian ridgebacks, Gentleman Jack Daniel's and Ellie, who food-tested, and loved, everything: "a 100 percent approval rating," Atkinson says. (Atkinson, it should be noted, is allergic to cats, a possible reason why felines will only get one wall of goodies in St. PetersBark! This joint is primarily about the canine.)

After going through all of the state-level licensing steps, the couple managed to sell their St. PetersBark! snacks, at about $6.50 for a smallish bag, in such Tampa Bay specialty markets as Rollin' Oats and, most recently, Locale at Sundial.

And they started to break even on the snacks. Then, one night way past midnight, when crazy ideas start making sense, Schmidt decided she wanted to open a brick-and-mortar store.

Now they'll combine their own St. PetersBark! snacks with other all-natural food for dogs and cats, such as those tracheas (a bargain at $2.59) and wheat-and-corn-free blueberry cobbler treats. If blueberry cobbler sounds a little kooky — especially if you're not a pet person — let it be known that Schmidt and Atkinson are incredibly level-headed, paying off their student-loan debt from Georgia Tech before taking on the risks of small-business ownership. Schmidt worked in IT at a software company; Atkinson will continue his consulting firm specializing in the energy industry.

"I have those moments of, 'What in the hell are we doing?' " Schmidt says about the new-business jitters. "I had a sweet job. Sometimes it lasts an hour; sometimes it lasts days."

"We're not really big on impulsive-type stuff," says Atkinson, who adds that they refused to take out a loan. They figure they have a six-month cash buffer.

Worries aside, the young couple think St. Petersburg is the ideal place for a shop like theirs. "As the city changes demographics-wise — the construction, the gentrification — now is an excellent time for us to come in," Schmidt says. "There's nothing like this on this side of the bridge."

And besides, there's a significant number of obsessive pet owners. "There are a lot of characters in St. Pete in general," Schmidt says. "They all want to tell you their story — and their dog's story."

Contact Sean Daly at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife.