Dog Days: Barks Brothers Invites Pets to Take their Place at the Table
Somewhere in the commercial catering kitchen, a timer dings. Chef Miles Angelo pulls a halfsheet pan from a convection oven and slides it into a tiered rolling rack to cool.
“Doesn’t it look like a brownie?” he asks, pressing an edge gently.
Indeed, the golden-brown crust does resemble a batch of blondies—except, well, it stinks. Instead of the inviting aromas of caramelized sugar and chocolate, the kitchen reeks of organ meat. 7X Beef liver, specifically.
Clearly, this project is not for Angelo’s sweet-toothed clients at the members-only Caribou Club, where he’s been executive chef for nearly two decades. Instead, this 1,000-square-foot facility in Basalt is the year-old headquarters of Angelo’s side gig, Barks Brothers, a gourmet, organic pet food company he began six years ago with his wife, Lisa; Caribou Club Chef de Cuisine Mike Ziemer; plus partner Arthur Scott “Chip” Beir.
Soon the chefs will slice this slab of puréed, baked liver, garbanzo beans, eggs and garden veggies into tidy, one-inch pieces to create Barks Bites, the company’s original product, also made in chicken liver flavor. Today they’ll crank out a couple hundred pounds of treats toward a recent “blitzkrieg of orders,” contributing to a monthly output of about 2,000 pounds that is sold around the state.
Nearby, while Lisa is weighing and vacuum-sealing portions into light blue, biodegradable Barks Bites bags, Miles Angelo picks up a square from a massive container.
“You can almost see a dark layer in between,” he explains, turning the treat over in his hand. “We undercook them a tiny bit to get that layer in the center.” Baking the treats at 275° kills harmful bacteria while preserving essential vitamins and minerals. Three-and-a-half days of air-drying “cures” the tender center while turning the exterior as crunchy as biscotti.
Barks Brothers eschews unnatural preservatives as well as seemingly innocuous fillers, such as corn, rice, and cellulose. Other all-natural, healthconscious pet food companies “use the same stuff we’re using,” Angelo says, “just not the same quality.”
“This is what I’d feed the richest members [at the Caribou Club], the same quality of ingredients from the same purveyors,” he adds. “We don’t compromise with our products—that’s the key.”
To prove his point, Angelo flings open a freezer stuffed with frozen organic, whole, bone-in rabbits and free-range turkeys. These are the main ingredients of the newest Barks Brothers product, launching in December: Barks Bones, a pale-pink bar of bendable protein with visible bone fragments, carrot flecks and just enough gelatin to hold it all together. Angelo describes the edible chew toy as a cross between a PowerBar and a toothbrush.
“It’s complete nutrition,” Angelo says. “The raw bone fragments take plaque off teeth and are completely digestible. Gelatin adheres to pieces of plaque and carries it through digestive system. It’s a jerky stick without a ton of salt. This is how my wolf dogs would have eaten a thousand years ago in nature.”
The bars count 70 percent protein and 20 percent fat—a near-perfect food for carnivorous eaters, and one that maintains dental health and bolsters joints and connective tissue to boot.
“I’ve been cooking for the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous for 19 years, and now I just wanna cook for our pets,” Angelo says. “Every dog should be treated as a celebrity.”
A place at the table
Originally started as Barks of Aspen, Barks Brothers is the means through which Angelo and crew are able to “give our pet companions a place at the table,” he explains.
That means feeding Fido nutrientdense food made with the best possible, human-grade, sustainably sourced ingredients, without artificial fillers or chemicals. All Barks Brothers products are gluten-free and high in ideal protein and fat (37 to 38.5 percent and 14 to 16 percent, respectively, in Barks Bites). It’s a crusade against an industry that only until recently has largely ignored the quality of life of our furry companions in favor of the bottom line.
“In general, the food they eat plays a huge role in determining their wellbeing,” says Seth Sachson, director of the Aspen Animal Shelter (AAS) for 23 years. “Dogs can’t make their own decisions, and a hungry dog is gonna eat whatever you put in front of it. It’s up to the human companion to regulate what’s going into the dog.”
Partner Mike Ziemer likens an owner who chooses Barks Brothers treats—and ultimately, hydrated food—to a parent who refuses to feed his children a steady diet of fast food. “Instead of eating the McDonald’s of the world—which is what most dog food is—they’re eating the best stuff, a clean diet,” he says.
It’s not cheap. An eight-ounce bag of Barks Bites costs $12; Barks Bones cost $2.50 for a six-inch stick or $15 for six. But many believe it’s worth shelling out for now, versus on vet bills later.
Meet the real Barks Bros.
In 2009, Miles and Lisa Angelo embarked on this journey into the then-fledgling healthful pet food industry when they got their oldest dog, Homer, now 6. A finicky eater, the Siberian husky-wolf mix would spit out every snack they gave him. His younger brother Butters, 5, was born with a compromised immune system and suffers epileptic seizures, requiring the Angelos to monitor his sugar intake and energy levels. So the couple began making dog food from scratch: whole chicken, squash, turkey meatloaf—meals they’d eat themselves, minus salt or seasonings.
“We decided we’re never going to feed them from a box or a bag,” Angelo says. “Our pets are so important to us—they’re our children. It’s a different age from chaining your dog outside to a tree. We’re making food that’s worthy of their love.”
Currently in development: Barks Brothers chicken and salmon gummy treats made with gelatin and honey (eventually the company will create crossover items for cats, too) and a bouncing ball made of duck, bison, chicken, and venison aspic using agar-agar (a seaweed high in minerals), the latter of which adds an element of play to treat time.
The big goal, though, is to produce hydrated food—crucial for animals in arid climates such as the Rocky Mountains—using a decidedly modernist method: sous-vide. It’s no bourgeois gimmick, however. Similar to the low oven temperature used to make Barks Bites, the French technique of cooking food slowly inside a bag immersed in hot water kills microbes while preserving water content and nutritional value on par with raw food. Call it a return to the Paleo Diet, for animals. A varied one, at that.
“How much happier is your dog when you feed him three different things?” asks Angelo, adding that proof is in, well, the poo. “If you had to eat the same thing day after day … ah, how monotonous.”
Thanks to its emphasis on outdoor lifestyle, Colorado is a target market for this kind of enterprise. RJ Paddywacks Pet Supply in El Jebel bests its competitors by selling about 24 eight-ounce bags of Barks Bites per week. “They’re like potato chips—at least for my black Lab, Amos,” says inventory controller Julie Cleveland. “He knows where they’re parked on top of the freezer. He’ll sit there and wait.”
For Barks Brothers, consumer feedback is everything. “Dogs are very humble, appreciative customers,” Angelo says. “It isn’t like having somebody say, ‘What a wonderful dish you served me, chef.’ You see it in their eyes and you know that you really made that dog’s day.”
WHERE TO BUY BARKS BITES IN THE ROARING FORK VALLEY
Aspen Animal Hospital
Aspen Animal Shelter
Rocky Mountain Pet Shop
Whole Foods Market
Online store opening in December