Cakes for dogs.
The concept prompts either awws or eyerolls (if you’re one of those, bear with me—also, maybe relax a bit and let others have their joy). But this new Vancouver bakery isn’t here for your fawning or sarcasm: the story of The Great Canadian Dog Cakes is one of necessity. And it’s a good one.
Partners (in business and in life) Olga and Natasha Vernev are from Russia originally. Olga, who had an artistic background, was illustrating books for children, and Natasha owned a distribution dairy company. Then 2013 came around, and Russia passed a law prohibiting the propaganda of homosexuality, which resulted in a massive wave of violence and hatred towards LGBTQ+ people. “We got a lot of attention and it ended up causing big problems,” shares Olga. “We attracted too much negative attention from homophobes.” They didn’t want to move—they had just adopted a puppy. (A Scottish terrier puppy named Spielberg, if you can handle it.)
Spielberg, the Scottish terrier/food critic.
But enough was enough, so the pair sold all they had save for one suitcase and Spielberg. After flying to the closest available country (Thailand) and being forced out by a military coup, they settled in Cambodia for three years. “It must be said here that it is not so romantic when you are not coming as a tourist,” says Olga. While in Cambodia, they partnered with a spiritual development centre and opened a vegetarian restaurant. “It was a place where people could meditate, get in touch with ancient rituals and then have a great lunch,” says Olga. Both she and Natasha credit the strong patriarchy in Russia for their ability to cook well. “Most of us were prepared primarily to be great housewives,” she shares, “and for the first time in my life, it brought some kind of benefit—although this can hardly outweigh the harm of this concept.”
The restaurant was a grand success; Natasha especially was an awesome chef. Take this story from Olga: “I’ll never forget the day the restaurant served a big banquet, and at some point, the guests asked the chef to go out into the hall. When Natasha came out to them, the guests suddenly got up and applauded. Thunderous applause. That’s where we learned that the two of us make not only a good family, but a strong team that can work well together.”
Unfortunately (or fortunately, for Vancouver dogs—but more on that later) the restaurant closed due to ethical differences with their partner. “We weren’t quite ready to cooperate with an organization that suddenly started to convince people that cancer can be cured by alternative magic,” says Olga. Thanks to Rainbow Refugee, Olga, Natasha and Speilberg then found themselves in Vancouver.
Olga, Natasha and Spielberg Vernev.
Moving from country to country has its obvious struggles for humans, but their smallest family member was having his own issues: little Speilberg couldn’t handle having his dog food change so often. “We were often changing his food from one unfamiliar brand after another. In Canada, we went to a veterinary clinic literally every three months.” Their bills were growing, and the dog was feeling worse.
A friend told the couple about a relative of hers that switched to homemade dog food, and shared a few recipes. “It changed everything for our dog. Since then, we’ve only been to the vet to update vaccinations or to discuss the condition of the dog’s teeth,” says Olga.
A sampling of homemade dog treats.
The homemade dog food was a personal venture until the pandemic hit. Olga and Natasha were in the midst of opening a (people) restaurant, and their investments and future slipped away overnight. “As we recovered from the shock, we began to think about what we could do with the minimal resources we had,” Olga shares. “We had made homemade cookies for our dog, and I was looking at our table, where there were scattered ingredients for dog cookies—it looked very picturesque.” A new idea was born: homemade, healthy dog treats that looked good enough for people to eat.
It was barely a business idea. “We did not understand what kind of concept it should be,” says Olga. She actually registered for the Futurpreneur assistance program accidentally while browsing their website. “I entered my data just to read information about the program—and the next day, suddenly, I got a call from the business development manager.”
Olga and the development manager talked about loans, mentoring, and the support that Futurpreneur offered. “Five minutes after this conversation, I called my wife and said, 'Honey—I think we’re opening a dog bakery.'”
And The Great Canadian Dog Cakes began. Olga and Natasha make healthy homemade food, specialty dog cakes and cupcakes (pupcakes?) and offer the “Bow-Wow Box,” a weekly subscription box of dishes and treats. They use no preservatives and buy all their ingredients locally. Their creations are coloured naturally with beets, parsley, and yams.
A few of Natasha and Olga's creations. Spielberg approves.
The result is gorgeous, one-of-a-kind “confections” that you may have to label to be sure a person doesn’t eat them (not that they couldn’t—all these ingredients are good for the two-legged, too). All of the dog food, treats and cakes are made in the Vernev's kitchen. Spielberg is the official taste-tester, and like most well-traveled folks, he has quite a refined palate. “He’s awfully picky… perhaps we should have named him after Gordon Ramsay,” Olga jokes. “Because of his pickiness, we have to come up with the most delicious cookies.” Spielberg also answers the questions of clients in the chat room of their website.
The pair are also really upping the dog food Instagram game.
Olga, Natasha and Spielberg all acknowledge that buying special cakes for your pet does require a certain amount of privilege. But in these difficult times, it’s nice to celebrate—and your dog is in your bubble. “We’re all really going through a great ordeal right now, and suffering from social deprivation, so every positive emotion is priceless,” says Olga. “Celebrating your dog’s birthday or graduation from canine training, or just celebrating that your good puppy hasn’t eaten a shoe in two days or declared war on a garbage can, is a good way to feel positive.”
If you’re still a naysayer (come on) I’ll leave you with this last quote from Olga: “We have to admit that our pets are full-fledged members of our families. They give us unconditional love without demanding anything in return. Don’t they deserve what we deserve? They have such a short life, it’s so sad—so let’s make these years beautiful. Let them be terrific. Let them have many happy long walks, lots of love and lots of delicious and nice food.”