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Polka Dog Bakery is in the spotlight

Rob Van Sickle and Deb Gregg started making treats for their dog Pearl, who they nicknamed “Polka Dog.”
Rob Van Sickle and Deb Gregg started making treats for their dog Pearl, who they nicknamed “Polka Dog.”Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

This is the story of a one-eyed dog from Puerto Rico (now deceased), a young, artsy couple searching for their calling in life, and Target. But that part comes later.

The story begins around 2000, when a do-gooder brought Pearl, a scab-ridden stray, to the US hoping someone would adopt her, except who wants a vision-impaired Boxer with heartworm? Pearl was close to being euthanized when Robert Van Sickle and Deborah Gregg decided that they should make her theirs.

“I still remember the first time I met Pearl,” Van Sickle, now 39, recalled the other day. “There is something about certain animals who are special creatures. Pearl’s story was so inspiring. She had to scrounge for food, but she had this pure spirit that was never darkened by her struggles. When you meet an animal like that, they just have this calm and peace and inner joy that is really breathtaking.”

Rob Van Sickle and Deb Gregg’s products will be carried by Target stores.
Rob Van Sickle and Deb Gregg’s products will be carried by Target stores. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Van Sickle and Gregg not only gave Pearl a home in their South End loft, they gave the hard-luck animal an upbeat identity. “Polka Dog” they called her, for her habit of bobbing her head around to say hello to people. And they baked for her, using only the finest ingredients — whole wheat, natural peanut butter, oats, eggs.

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Pearl, whose age a vet estimated at 12, died about a year after finally finding a home. But she had made her mark. As an homage, Van Sickle and Gregg decided to stage a Polka Dog installation during a South End open studios weekend in 2002.

They decorated their Washington Street live/work space with rolling pins and bags of flour, they gave away Pearl-inspired treats such as Carob Chip Puppy Dough, Liver’s Lane, and Tuna Yelper, and, of course, they played polka music and hung a big banner illustrated with Pearl’s adorable face.

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A selection of the Polka Dot Bakery treats.
A selection of the Polka Dot Bakery treats.Paul.Weber

“People went bananas for it,” Van Sickle said. “Sometime during that event I started thinking, maybe this is what we could do.”

Neither one had any business experience — Gregg was working for a photographer and Van Sickle was a freelance copy editor. But they had a dream, and by the end of the year, they’d borrowed money from family and opened a bare bones Polka Dog Bakery, on Shawmut Avenue.

Today, Van Sickle describes the vibe as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and indeed, with its cheerful indoor white picket fence, colorful accessories, and appealing bakery case, newcomers sometimes think — wish — they’ve walked into a boutique for humans.

In an increasingly pet-centric world, the demand for Polka Dog’s $36 collars, and $15 elk antler chews grew. In 2005, Polka Dog started selling treats wholesale to about 800 stores, mostly nationwide but a few international, including pet stores, natural food stores, and Whole Foods. In 2009, the owners, who are no longer a romantic couple, added a Jamaica Plain shop.

Enter Target. After collaborating with some of the world’s most in-demand designers like Jason Wu (who’s dressed first lady Michelle Obama) and Missoni, Target decided it was time for Rover to go high style.

Starting on May 6, for six weeks, Target stores nationwide, all 1,765 of them, will carry Polka Dog treats (such as General Bow Wow’s Chicken Biscuits and Snickerpoodles Biscuits), and toys and accessories. Some of the products, which range in price from $1.99 to $14.99, will be available online.

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The collaboration with Polka Dog is part of Target’s inaugural Shops at Target promotion, a partnership with five boutiques nationwide. The other anointed shops are The Candy Store, a San Francisco candy boutique; Cos Bar, an Aspen-based small chain of shops that sell “prestige” body care products; Privet House, a Connecticut-based purveyor of home décor and accessories; and The Webster, a Miami luxury fashion boutique.

But whoa. Let’s back up. How did Target find Polka Dog Bakery, on a mellow corner of unassuming Shawmut Avenue? Don’t ask. Perhaps trying to protect a business strategy that non-corporate types can’t even begin to imagine, Target refuses to say how, exactly, Polka Dog came to its attention.

All the publicist would say is: “Target travels the globe to spot trends and through these trips, we uncovered the distinctive Polka Dog Bakery.”

Suffice it to say that a letter was sent to the store, talks were held, visits were made, and the collaborative process unfolded. Polka Dog Bakery will appear in national TV and print adds later this month.

Gregg, 38, said she’s not sure what the Target gig will mean for Polka Dog, “but we’re aware that we’ll have increased national exposure.” The owners are attempting to take advantage of that by beefing up social media efforts and starting a blog. They’re also scouting for locations for a third Polka Dog Bakery.

While local dogs seem to be taking the big news in stride, Indigo Mathews, a Polka Dog store manager in the South End location, said some customers are a bit riled up. “Some people are really excited and others [think] you guys sold out.”

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“No we didn’t,” Mathews said. “It’s kind of like Target bought in.”

As the Target launch neared, Gregg reflected on the dog who started it all. “When I think about Pearl dying, and Polka Dog starting, it makes me think about the end and beginning of things. How one end leads to a beginning.”

As for Van Sickle, he knows just how he’s going to spend that beginning. On the morning of May 6, he plans to load his wife, Liz, and their 6-month-old daughter, Lucinda, into his pickup truck, the one emblazoned with the logo of Pearl the original Polka Dog. They’ll take a victory lap of local Targets.

If you’re at one of the stores perhaps you’ll see him. He’ll be the one loitering in the pet aisle. “It’s like seeing your work in front of the world,” he said.


Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.