DETROIT - After six years as vice president of research and development for dog treat maker Oink-Oink Inc., Heidi Handy needs help.
She was instrumental in launching the company in 1991 and has been a valued executive ever since. But these days, arthritis usually prevents her from getting to the office. She's even pushing for early retirement - at age 13.
Heidi is a beagle who earned her title after helping her owner, Miles Handy, start Oink-Oink Inc., the maker of such dog treats as Oinkers roasted pig ears and Moo Ears roasted cow ears.
From a humble start with a $3,000 investment by Mr. Handy, the business reached $10 million in sales last year. Of course, the company's growth is a largely human achievement, but Mr. Handy gives his dog much of the credit.
Mr. Handy, now 32, was a pet food distributor when he returned from a trade show in Germany with a roasted pig ear. He thought it was an experiment, not a best-selling dog treat. Heidi thought otherwise.
"She went hog wild over the pig ear, and I knew it was going to be a hit," Mr. Handy said.
Instead of just distributing the treat, Mr. Handy decided to go into business for himself. He used Heidi, whose taste apparently runs to the exotic, to develop the product line.
Since sampling her first pig ear, Heidi's taste buds have helped Oink-Oink introduce Oinkers and Moo Ears as well as OinkeRoll and LambRoll sausages, OinkerPucks pork and beef meat roll slices, Spare Ribs smoked pork treat, Moo Toes cow hoof chew treat, and Mammoth Bone chew treat.
"She's extremely finicky," Mr. Handy said. "If it passes her nose and she goes for it, chances are, we're going to have a winner."
Oinkers pig ears are the company's biggest seller. They come in singles, sacks of 10, buckets of 20 or "lunch boxes" of 100 or more, and all are labeled with bright, colorful cartoons of pigs playing with dogs.
The ears sell for about 79 cents each and come in flavors cool mint, nacho cheese, spicy pizza and French vanilla.
Mitchell Balicki, a dog owner and manager of a pet supply store in the Detroit suburb of Redford, said his store sells more than 4,000 Oinkers treats every month.
"Some people say, `Eew, that's kind of gross,' but dogs eat them," Mr. Balicki said.
Mr. Balicki said his miniature dachshund, Trusty, typically takes a day or two to finish an ear, but a bigger dog easily "can make short work of a pig ear."
Heidi has been a valuable marketing tool for Oink-Oink. But at 13, which is elderly for a beagle, she won't be vice president forever.
So Mr. Handy's firm ran a nationwide contest to find dogs to serve on the Oink-Oink board of advisers. The winners included Mongo, a black labrador-pointer mixed breed from Delmont, Pa.; Sam, a boxer from Burbank, Ill.; Kodiac, a mastiff from Gloucester, Mass.; Ashley, an English cocker spaniel from Avon, Ohio; Gizmo, a Papillon from Lake Tapawingo, Mo.; and Jake Peabody, a basset hound from Farmington, Mich.
The board's first test will be the Oinkeroni, pepperoni-flavored sausage for dogs.
Along with Heidi, Mr. Handy says ingenuity has been a key factor in Oink-Oink's success. And, "We try to have fun with our stuff."
Mr. Handy started his business with $3,000 and one small smokehouse in his hometown of Redford Township, a Detroit suburb. Since then the company has grown enough to need a 28,000-square-foot plant in Detroit with more than 100 workers.
With help from the Detroit Investment Fund, a group that finances businesses locating in the city, Handy has opened a second plant in the Eastern Market area of Detroit. There, he hopes to employ 75 people by the end of the year.
Besides ears, the company makes treats from pig liver, heart, snout, hooves - "everything but the oink," Mr. Handy says. Oink-Oink also has special holiday packages including pork hearts for Valentine's Day and turkey products for Thanksgiving.
Mr. Handy declined to say what his profits were in 1996, but said the $10 million in sales that year marked a $2 million increase since 1995 and a $4 million increase from 1994. An average of more than 2 million pig ear treats are produced each month.
The interest in pig ears has tapered slightly over the past few years, but many dog owners still buy the treats, said Jack Sweet, an editor at Los Angeles-based Fancy Publications, which publishes Dog Fancy magazine.
"The novelty of it and the fact that dogs love them is about the only way I can put it," Mr. Sweet said of the pig ear's popularity. "I don't know of a dog that would not enjoy one of those things."
This year, Mr. Handy intends to expand into the dog food market and eventually produce cat treats.
"As far as coming out with the next product or something, we're going to be that company," Mr. Handy said.
"When potato chips came out, people probably thought, `Oh they're going to be a fad, people are going to think they're unhealthy and they're going to quit buying them and they're going to go to the next treat.'
"But potato chips haven't gone away."