When people first meet Justin Miller and Tom Simon, with their beards and tattoos, Miller said many assume the Raleigh entrepreneurs might be in the craft beer game.
Their business is actually a bit more cuddly than that: they make dog treats. Specifically, a bake-at-home dog treat mix made with human-grade ingredients.
This Sunday night, they’ll pitch their product — Zookies Cookies — on the ABC show “Shark Tank.”
The fact is, Miller said in a phone interview on Tuesday, the genesis of Zookies Cookies is beer-related. Miller started experimenting with dog treat recipes as a way to use up spent grains after making home-brewed beer. He tested the treats on his two dogs, Stella (who has since passed) and Bennie, and he’d share them with neighbors.
Then during Hurricane Harvey in September 2017, the animal lover (in addition to Bennie he has two pigs and nine chickens) was moved by the plight of the suffering animals in Texas he saw on the news, and the pleas for help from rescue groups.
“I put a price tag on the dog treats and said I’d donate all the money to Harvey victims,” Miller said. “In 24 hours, I made $1,600 in treats. That’s when I thought, ‘this could be an interesting business.’”
Miller talked to Simon, his business partner and the co-founder of Source3, a tech company sold to Facebook in 2017, and they came up with a plan to simplify the recipe.
“We took out the beer grains and decided to approach it in a way that people could make the treats without buying a bunch of different ingredients,” he said. “That led to our original design of Zookies in jars. It’s a model similar to Bisquick — you add water and bake.”
They took Zookies (the name comes from the fact that Miller’s house is a bit of a zoo) to pop-up shops to test the product’s popularity. They got great feedback on the product, and on their business plan.
“Honest to God, from Day 1, one of the funniest things is people would see this and say, ‘really cool idea — you guys should be on Shark Tank.’”
Miller didn’t really need the prodding for “Shark Tank.” Getting on the show has always been a goal for the former IBMer who has made a name for himself with his previous companies, which include photo-sharing apps WedPics and DejaMi, and a mobile taco cart called El Taco Cartel.
“When I pitched the idea to Tom in November 2017, I told him if we decided to kick this off as a business, it would be a perfect opportunity for ‘Shark Tank,’ ” Miller said. “And here we are with Zookies.”
Made with ‘people food’
One of Miller’s big selling points for Zookies Cookies, especially when handing out samples at pop-up markets, is that the ingredients are so natural that people can eat them, too.
“They’re all made out of stuff you and I would eat ourselves: coconut, peanut butter and apples,” Miller said. “I baked some for Bennie the other day and I ate one at the same time. They’re plant-based, corn-free, soy-free and gluten-free. They’re like granola bars without added sugar or salt.”
Miller said his pet pigs love them too — for a Zookies treat, “the pigs will do any trick I ask them to do” — but he has 50/50 success with cats. “I’m told cats want to play with them more than eat them.”
Zookies mix comes in two flavors — Peanut Barker and Cocomutt — and each jar includes a bone-shaped cookie cutter. An 8-ounce jar sells for $10.99, a two-pack (one jar of each flavor) costs $18.99 and a three-pack costs $24.99 (in honor of “Shark Tank,” the coupon code treatright will get you 10 percent off your order, which ships free from zookiescookies.com.)
The whirlwind of the tank
Miller and Simon applied for the show last summer and went to Los Angeles in September for the taping. A fan of the show from the very beginning, Miller called the experience “surreal.”
The judges on the Zookies episode are Mark Cuban, Kevin O’Leary, Robert Herjavec, Lori Greiner and Alli Webb. Miller can’t reveal whether or not they got a deal, but he has no regrets.
“It was a total whirlwind of an experience from start to finish,” he said. “We went into it with a mindset of regardless of the outcome, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a chance for incredible exposure, for people to learn a lot about our company and ourselves.”
Watch ‘Shark Tank’
“Shark Tank” airs at 10 p.m. on March 3 on ABC. You can also watch On Demand through your cable, satellite or streaming service, or online at abc.go.com/shows/shark-tank (you’ll need your cable ID and password to sign in).