When Lisa Graham started the local small-batch dog treat company Brewhaus Dog Bones in 2014, it just made sense. She grew up on a farm in southern Indiana near Louisville, she has a background in biology, her family loves to bake and she has had dogs her whole life. The fact that the program is a 100-percent nonprofit run by young adults with developmental disabilities also makes perfect sense once you get to know her.
Graham’s daughter Natalie has a chromosomal translocation. Students in her situation can defer high school graduation until they are 22, as Natalie has done, with the school system providing life and vocational skills to help transition into a career. Brewhaus has become an integral part of this process, operating a project-based learning model within the programs of participating Greater Cincinnati school districts like Mariemont, New Richmond, Mason and others. The Brewhaus Brew Crew, of which Natalie is a member, works in the school kitchens to learn real-life job skills.
“You can tell when she’s really happy,” Graham says, “and she’s really happy in this kitchen.”
The genesis of Brewhaus began in November 2013, when Graham and her family visited the Coronado Brewing Company in San Diego and noticed dog treats for sale made from spent grains. “My three dogs loved them!” she says. And something clicked. Graham wanted to bring the idea to Cincinnati, with its rich microbrewing scene, and wanted to pair that with her other passion — helping everyone, regardless of ability, live normal, happy and fulfilling lives.
But it wasn’t an easy process. First Graham used her test kitchen at home to experiment, putting her background in science to good use. The first brewery she approached was Listermann Brewing Company in Evanston. After that, she met with Mt. Carmel, and from there the connections multiplied, with current brewing partners ranging from Rivertown and Rhinegeist to Bad Tom Smith, Fibonacci, Braxton and more. (Each bag of treats comes with a label listing the brewery from which the grains came, and the Brew Crew member who packaged them.)
The donated wet grains (completely non-alcoholic) are picked up on brewing days to ensure freshness, and are mixed with natural peanut butter, brown rice flour and eggs, which come from Graham’s neighbor — she has a flock of chickens in her backyard.
The treats are then shaped and slow-oven baked at the different schools, with the New Richmond Exempted School as headquarters; it has the only industrial-sized kitchen. One teacher, Lisa Martin, and four vocational instructors guide the students through the entire process, which includes clocking in for the day, driving to breweries to pick up grains, making and baking treats, counting them out into 6-ounce bags and then delivering them to the retail locations.
“It’s about following directions,” Martin says. “And I can make lessons and activities out of it, such as teaching arithmetic.” All of this helps advance students’ skills and eventual employability. The more higher-functioning students, for instance, are charged with keeping track of the inventory for the day.
Once the students have made the biscuits, they partner with area vendors like veterinary offices and stores, including the Party Source and Earthwise Pet Supply, to sell the treats. They also attend events like City Flea and Crafty Supermarket, which offer an inclusive experience where they can feel pride in their work and develop communication skills.
“Typically these students are told what to do and when to do it. They don’t have the same avenue for empowerment,” Graham says. "The goal is to plant seeds of potential opportunity where once people get to know our young adults, our Brew Crew, that they may be able to offer employment or other types of inclusive opportunities in the future."
That includes partnering with the Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired to provide paying jobs for center members, plus future Brew Crew grads. It’s just the first step in what Graham hopes will be an enterprise that spreads far and wide.
“I really hope to someday have a food truck for dogs,” she says with a laugh. “That’s the dream!”
To learn more about or to purchase BREWHAUS DOG BONES, visit brewhausdogbones.com.