Renzo Novelle has always had a very unique relationship with animals. One time, his mother found him outside holding a baby deer in his lap. Another time, he caught a largemouth bass barehanded. And within his family, he’s known as “the dog whisperer” for how well he relates to canine friends.
So when it came to the ideal job for Renzo, who has autism, it only made sense that it would involve animals in some way. That’s how Uniquely Pawfect, a dog biscuit company, came about. Renzo is involved with every aspect of the business, with the help of his mom, Renee.
The company launched last December, and the reaction was positive from the start, both from two-legged customers and their four-legged counterparts.
“I was like, ‘What are you talking about? [The biscuits are] actually good?’” Renee says. “It is unbelievable, the response.”
Now, each week, Renzo shops for, bakes and packages about eight pounds of dog biscuits. The all-natural treats come in a variety of flavors—the most popular are bacon and peanut butter—which Renzo mixes up in the family’s kitchen (“When he bakes, it’s like a Lucille Ball episode,” his mom says with a laugh).
His dog, Karma, a Bernese Mountain Dog/Australian Poodle mix, serves as the primary taste-tester.
The Novelles are planning to turn a section of their garage into an industrial kitchen in order to give Renzo a sense of ownership of Uniquely Pawfect, as well as to more easily allow him the opportunity for sensory breaks.
In addition to baking, Renzo helps sell the biscuits at local pet expos and events, hands out treats at dog parks, delivers bags of biscuits across the Chicagoland area (they’ve been everywhere from Homer Glen to Lake Geneva, Wis.), and posts information on the Uniquely Pawfect’s Facebook page. By next spring, they hope Uniquely Pawfect will be a full-fledged bakery, with a website and a production calendar.
Uniquely Pawfect also works with some other individuals who are as “uniquely perfect” as Renzo, including an older man with Alzheimer’s and some of Renzo’s friends who also have autism.
The whole idea for Uniquely Pawfect came about due to Renzo’s impending 22nd birthday and Renee’s desire to instill some life skills in her son. With the help of his ABA therapist, he scoured Pinterest for recipes, which he would then make for the therapist. But the variety of recipes made it difficult for him to repeat and replicate.
The dog biscuits, on the other hand, follow the same process with only slight ingredient variations. And while he’s baking, Renzo is also gaining much-needed skills with numbers, organization, crisis management and interpersonal interactions.
“This all started as a therapeutic program, as a chance for him to exercise his deficiencies,” Renee says. “I needed something in the home that he can do, that I can monitor, that I knew I was good at. … [As a parent], you have to look in the mirror and figure out what your strengths are and what their talents are.”
Although Renee says Renzo still needs to work on things like money management, she has seen the great improvement in his confidence, especially when interacting with people.
“I think he’s happy. I think it gives him value,” Renee says. “The long-term goal is really for him to find some sort of job that fulfills his soul as much as it fulfills his pocketbook.”
And chances are, there will probably be some sort of animal friend along for the ride.