Special needs students at the Livingston Education Service Agency have been baking and selling the treats under the name Lacey’s Love Dog Biscuits for about six years.
What’s new is that this year the 23 members of Leadership Livingston Youth got involved. The teens, who are participating in a nine month program to learn about how their community works and build their leadership skills, put together a sales-and-marketing plan to increase the sales of dog biscuits. Not only does that help the LESA students sell more dog biscuits, it enables the Livingston Leadership Youth to learn about business in a hands-on way.
Chantal Charron is a speech and language pathologist at LESA who also helps students bake dog biscuits.
“Back in the day (before we started baking dog biscuits), students were sorting and putting lids on things, (practicing) those kinds of skills,” Charron said. “We felt like our students deserved to have something more meaningful.” Inspiration came from another school district.
“We were at the Michigan Counsel for Exceptional Children conference, and Saginaw Intermediate School District had a dog biscuit company called Hank’s Dog Bone Co.,” Charon said. “We really liked the idea of it. Three or four of us went to Saginaw to see how their operation ran. We were on a mission especially for our students with high support needs. We wanted to give them some way to have meaningful work experiences and tasks.”
They couldn’t use Saginaw’s recipe because it contained peanut butter, and some of LESA’s students had nut allergies, so they scoured the Internet for recipes and tried them out.
“Our wonderful occupational therapist tested and tested recipes,” Charron said. “She was actually eating them.”
In the end, they settled on a recipe made with whole-wheat flour, skim milk, margarine, water and eggs.
“It’s fairly simple, but it’s one our students could work with,” Charron said.
They named the bone shaped biscuits after their beloved therapy dog, Lacey, and making the biscuits became an important part of the students’ lives.
“Lacey’s gives them the opportunity to learn and have a real work experience, with real work tasks and real work expectations to help them be successful in their next work placement,” Charron said.
The only problem was that they could make more dog biscuits than they were able to sell. Charron explained that, like her, the other LESA staff members who work with the biscuit baking students have other responsibilities as teachers and therapists. Not only is their time in short supply, but they’re not properly trained as businesspeople. Enter business consultant Sherri Richards of Brighton.
SELLING THE BISCUITS
Richards was a member of the Leadership Livingston adult program last year, calling it “one of the best things I’ve ever done.” One day when they were visiting the LESA program, she noticed a dog-biscuit chart on the wall.
“I said, ‘How’s it going?’ and they said, ‘We’re having issues with selling,’ ” Richards said. “They said, ‘We can make lots of bones, but we don’t have the means to sell them.’ ”
The product backlog meant the LESA students would have to cut back on their baking, depriving them of meaningful work and the opportunity to acquire real world skills.
Richards was ready to devise a marketing plan for them herself until she got a better idea.
At a Leadership Livingston Youth board meeting, someone noted the best way for the teens to learn to lead was to have a real project. Richards thought if they got involved with the dog biscuit business, they could help increase sales at the same time she taught them business basics.
“I love working with kids, and I love working with businesses,” Richards said. “Anytime you create an environment where people can make mistakes in a safe space so they can grow, that creates a perfect opportunity.”
One of the first things they did was arrange for the two groups of kids to meet. “They were prepared to do their best as (leaders) to get to know the other people they were working with, so we arranged a cookies-and-punch event for them to meet the kids that were actually making the dog bones,” Richards said. “The Leadership Livingston Youth kids were so interested in getting to know the (LESA) kids as people, and to understand how making the dog bones fit into their lives and affected their lives. It was one of the most magic days.”
Next, they split into four groups — marketing, operations, finance and community — so they could divide up the responsibilities.
“They created marketing materials, like fliers, business cards, brochures and posters,” Richards said. “They targeted businesses that would be supportive of the disabled community or the pet community to ask if they would sell the bones. Then they wrote a press release” and contacted local media outlets. They made a website. The group also sold dog biscuits at various community events.
Not that there haven’t been a few bumps in the road along the way.
“The marketing department needed to spend money but didn’t tell the finance department, so the finance department couldn’t send up a method to pay for the brochure, so the materials weren’t printed on time,” Richards said.
It’s the sort of slip-up that’s all too familiar to veterans of the business world.
“(I told them,) ‘Hey, guys, this is what happens all the time (in business,)’ ” Richard said. “There were dozens of those things, but we worked through them.”
Most recently, the kids had a booth at the Livingston County Home and Garden Show. “I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face as I left them,” Richards said.
“They are so darn inspiring with their desire to show up and make something happen. Plus, it was fun to teach them about working a trade show and how to generate demand if things are slow. So much is possible,” she added.
As for the people at LESA, they’re happy for the help.
“We are so pleased and grateful to have help from someone from the outside,” Charron said. “The Leadership kids are helping us take sales to a higher level.
Livingston Educational Service Agency (LESA) provides a variety of programs and services that support student achievement for approximately 30,000 students and 2,300 educators in the five public school districts and two public school academies in the county. Services include administration and delivery of career and technical education, special education, and alternative education programs, professional development focused on student achievement, early childhood education and care, data processing, and business operational support.
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