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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Most working stiffs would probably prefer to wind down at the end of a rough week with a Bud Light, not a non-alcoholic brew that strengthens their joints and makes their hair extra shiny.

But for frequenters of the Friday night Yappy Hour at Sweet Paws Bakery, Haile Village Center's newest dog bakery and boutique, the latter alternative is their beverage of choice.

This pooch hooch is one of many refreshments Colleen O'Fallon serves at her bakery's weekly dog social hour. Her all-natural homemade treats, the bakery's chief selling point, are also in hot demand.

Upwards of ten dogs ranging in breed from Yorkshire terrier to Goldendoodle attend Yappy Hour every week, owners in tow. The pups go crazy for O'Fallon's signature goodies, tails wagging so hard they threaten to topple the shop's bone-shaped display tables.

O'Fallon crumbled up cookies in her fists and doled them out to her hungry patrons.

"Most of them really love the peanut buddies, snickerpoodle cookies and bacon balls," she said. "My favorites to make are the 'pupcakes' and brownies, just because I get to decorate them."

O'Fallon's pun-filled and playful approach to baking is telling of her youth. An animal lover since childhood, the 25-year-old studied Animal Sciences at UF with the intention of becoming a veterinarian.

Education and experience taught her that commercial treats weren't the best options for her cocker spaniels, Abby and Parker.

"I didn't like feeding them treats filled with preservatives," O'Fallon said.

So she began baking her own, giving the extras to friends and clients at Millhopper Veterinary Medical Center where she worked as a vet technician.

As the demand for O'Fallon's treats grew, she began selling online and at local farmers' markets. She left her job as a vet tech to open Sweet Paws Bakery in September 2007.

Now the bakery's sole proprietor and employee, she leaves the register only to attend classes for her master's degree in public health.

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O'Fallon bakes all of Sweet Paws' edible merchandise in her home kitchen, which is stocked with dog-friendly ingredients like unsweetened carob, whole-wheat flour and chicken bouillon.

Most of her recipes are original, inspired in part by those passed on to her by friends.

She even confesses to sampling her creations.

"They're pretty bland because they're made without sugar," she said, "but that's why they're perfect for dogs or diabetics."

Opening a bakery just for dogs is hardly a new concept.

Called "barkeries," these specialty shops are quickly cropping up all over the country. Even books and Web sites are geared toward culinary-inclined entrepreneurs hoping to profit off of pet-lovers.

O'Fallon attributes their success to an evolving pet culture.

"Some dogs are part of the family, and the dogs become like kids," she said. "People spend money on their dogs like they would on their children."

In fact, shoppers sometimes mistake Sweet Paws for a "human" bakery and boutique.

"People come in thinking it's a children's place," O'Fallon said. "They look at the shirts and say, 'Aw, this is so cute!' and I have to tell them, 'Oh, it's actually for a dog.'"

The confusion is a testament to O'Fallon's tasteful, low-key approach to canine commerce.

Unlike the bustling pet metropolis that is PetSmart, Sweet Paws is a tiny, tucked-away gem. With polka-dotted dog beds in the corners and framed puppy pictures on the walls, the shop feels more like a cozy living room that happens to be well-supplied with dog treats and accessories than a place of business.

O'Fallon definitely knows her market. She lines the shelves with collars and doggy dresses designed to imitate popular patterns and logos by Vera Bradley and Lacoste. There are even T-shirts and toys made from organic fabrics and natural dyes for environmentally-conscious pups.

And what would an independently-owned Gainesville shop be without the requisite Gators gear? Sweet Paws boasts an impressive array of miniature Gators jerseys, orange-and-blue scarves and tailgate baskets for four-legged football fans.

Regular customers often come to the store decked out in Sweet Paws accouterment.

Customer Alex Meador's cocker spaniel Marley sometimes attends Yappy Hour sporting a shirt that reads "Heartbreaker."

"He gets really excited when we put it on him," Meador said. "He knows it means we're coming here."

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