A hometown sensation has set tails wagging across West Virginia — from Centre Market in Wheeling to the Tamarack cultural center in Beckley, and in farmers’ markets and co-ops across the state. Built on a love of their canine companions and driven by a desire to help others take care of their own precious pups, Zeb’s Barky Bites is growing by leaps and bounds.
As great things often do, this story started with one boy’s love of his family dogs. In 2017, Zeb Helmick, now 10 years old, had already spent a year making healthy treats for the Bethlehem family’s three boxers, Lucy, Layla and Liam. He wanted to provide his fuzzy family members with simple, wholesome, preservative-free treats. His philosophy, “If there are ingredients we can’t pronounce, I don’t want them in our dog treats!” would go on to become the company catchphrase.
It was in May 2017 that Zeb approached his board of directors, (AKA Mom and Dad), with an interesting proposal: he wanted to start his own dog treat business. After some discussion and research, his father Steve and mother Betsy decided to give it a shot as a learning exercise.
They invested in some of the basic materials and ingredients, carefully ensuring that their products met both Zeb’s standards and those of the federal and state governments.
And in the spirit of community building, the business sources local ingredients whenever possible. Their honey comes from Wheeling’s Windswept Farm, their grain comes from Weatherbury Farm in Avella, Pa., their maple syrup comes from Family Roots Farm in Wellsburg, and their eggs come from farmers in Ohio. The remainder of their produce, Steve said, comes from Jebbia’s Market in Wheeling.
Starting small, Zeb’s Barky Bites set up at their first farmers’ market in Woodsdale last summer. Their initial offering was three different kinds of treats, puppy snack chips and their own recipe of treat bones. From there, they quickly gained traction and soon found themselves set up at three farmers’ markets each week over that summer.
Soon after and with help from Grow Ohio Valley, Zeb and Steve took their idea to a representative with The Wild Ramp Co-Op in Huntington. After reaching an agreement, they began wholesaling their products there and developed a small but well-established following in the city. In November they began to offer products at Tamarack, showcasing them alongside some of the finest artists in the state.
It was in August 2017 that the idea materialized to set up a brick and mortar location for Zeb’s Barky Bites in Centre Market. They kept an eye open for vacancies while gathering the essential supplies for this next major step. In January this year, this endeavor picked up steam with a win at the Wheeling Heritage Show of Hands, which brought extra funding.
When a vacancy opened in the main market house shortly after, the Helmick family pounced on the opportunity. They began moving in in March and made their first sale at the new location in April. Five months later, Steve said the Centre Market location is supporting itself. He said the Wheeling shop is especially important because it features an industrial-size kitchen, which was greatly needed.
As 2018 draws to a close, Zeb’s Barky Bites continues to fetch attention and business across the state. This summer, Steve Helmick said the shop sold products at five different co-ops, farmers’ markets in Woodsdale and Warwood, and at the recent West Virginia State Fair in Lewisburg. At each of these, he said, they meet both new customers and new business contacts.
He added that Zeb’s Barky Bites has now grown so strong that what began as a teaching exercise has become a major source of income for the family.
“Wow, this is real money that comes every month!” Steve Helmick said.
“I am very surprised,” at the business’ growth, said Zeb. “But happy it has grown so much.” Zeb is also surprised at the support from people in the community.
His mom added, “We’ve all been stunned! We never dreamed a table at Wheeling Farmers’ Market would turn into a family business.”
She pointed out that Zeb has an older sister, Lily, who has autism and “is finding her place in the business as well. One of our hopes in opening a true business in Centre Market was creating a space where she might one day be able to work,” Betsy said.
As time passes and word gets out, Steve Helmick said Zeb’s Barky Bites is going strong and gaining traction. He credits the good people of West Virginia and their love of their dogs with this success.
“People want to take good care of their pets,” he said. “That’s the best part of this: It genuinely makes people happy. Plus it’s fun. Making people happy and hanging out with their pets is fun.”
“Probably my favorite thing is getting to meet a lot of people and a lot of dogs,” Zeb said. “Yeah — it’s the dogs!”
• Born and raised in the Ohio Valley, Daniel Dorsch brings a rich background of research and writing to Weelunk. He studied at West Virginia University and Duquesne University and has worked as a historian, a journalist and a marketing communications expert. Daniel’s personal philosophy is that every person and every place has a story to tell, and he makes it his mission as a wordsmith to help tell them. Daniel lives in Weirton with his wife and son.