For the love of dogs
Dragons and dogs do not sound like a match made in heaven, but as Charlotte Pearson reveals it is a perfect combination for one Hambledon business.
Britain is known for being a nation of dog lovers.
But very few have created a business inspired by their four legged friends.
“If it hadn’t been for my dog Billy I wouldn’t have had the idea for dog ice cream,” explains Marie Sawle, founder of Billy & Margot.
“Dogs get hot and pant to try and cool down. I used to give Billy ice cubes, but I was always worried he would swallow them.
“I knew he liked human ice cream but it isn’t really good for them as dogs can be dairy intolerant, so I started to make him his own canine-friendly version.”
And it was while working as a consultant for the Goodwood Estate that Marie came across Kent ice cream makers Taywell.
“I spoke to the owner Alastair Jessel and just said ‘I have a crazy idea’,” she recalls. “I told him that I wanted to make dog ice cream and he loved it and told me to go for it.”
The next step was to see if anyone would buy it so Marie decided to test the idea at a dog show.
“I had a name and a brand but no product,” she reveals. “I wanted to get people’s views and it was great, I got such a positive response.”
With some inheritance left to her by her father the business was born in 2011.
“I wanted it to be healthy and good for them,” Marie says. “My first flavours were carrot, banana and apple; strawberry and apple, and honey and banana.
“I can’t cut a carrot in my house without a dog appearing now.”
And the name?
“I had to name it after Billy, who sadly is no longer with us,” she says, “and we had just got Margot so decided to use their names.”
Having never run a business before Marie then looked to some dragons for expert help.
“I applied to go on Dragon’s Den, not really thinking I would get through,” she reveals. “I suppose I wanted to know what the business experts thought of my idea.
“If they had hated it and said it was never going to work I would have listened and stopped the business.”
Filmed in March 2012 and aired in October 2012, Marie had dragons Hilary Devey and Deborah Meaden fighting it out.
“I had just launched the business at Crufts, it was four days old,” she explains. “I was in there for an hour and a half and in the end accepted Deborah’s offer of £60,000 for a 40 per cent stake of the business.
“I didn’t really have any numbers for them, she took a real risk on me.”
And even after the show aired Marie has a lot of contact with her dragon.
“She lets me run the business, but if I need her she is only a phone call or email away,” Marie says.
“We meet every three months and I send her monthly reports so she is always aware of what is going on in the company. She is fantastic to work with and really lovely in person.
“We recently lost one of our dogs Louis, we put something on the website and she text me straight away, she didn’t have to but it was nice for her to do so.”
Realising that ice cream was not something people would buy all year round Marie has expanded the range to include venison treats, wet dog food, popcorn and luxury Christmas crackers.
“It is all British made,” Marie enthuses. “The ice cream is now made by New Forest Ice Cream, the venison is from Scotland, and the popcorn is made by Berkshire Foods in Gosport.
“There are no additives or preservatives, just all good things from coconut oil for their coats and aloe vera for their gut.”
And it is all tested by chief taster Margot.
“The only thing is she is a Labrador so will eat anything,” Marie laughs. “She isn’t a great taster in that way.
“But I go to a mums and dogs group and there are so many different dogs, staffies, alsatians and mongrels, so I give them little bags to try and see what goes down well.”
Describing running her own business as ‘hard work’, I ask if she enjoys it.
“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” she beams. “I have always loved dogs.
“When I was at nursery the teacher called my parents asking if I was getting a dog as it was all I talked about, so in the end they got a black poodle and he was my dog, I loved him so much.
“Anyone that knows me isn’t surprised my business centres around dogs,” she adds with a laugh.
Something tells me Marie is a dog’s best friend.
For information on products, stockists and how your pooch can be part of the taster club, visit www.billyandmargot.com