WATERTOWN — A light mist blankets the blacktop in front of Piggly Wiggly here as Gracie Jagler jumps out of her parents’ minivan and heads inside.
It’s already dark on this Tuesday in late November — just before supper time — and the store is buzzing with the slamming of shopping carts and the beeping of checkout counters.
Gracie stops with her mom and dad at the store’s front counter to collect their payout — $260 in cash this week — and then the three haul a cardboard box to the store’s pet supplies aisle to stock five shelves that the store reserves for Gracie’s Doggie Delights, her family’s new business.
Gracie fills the shelves with dozens of shiny, square plastic containers festooned with white stickers showing a young girl with blonde hair and a little, grey miniature schnauzer. That’s Gracie, and the dog is hers, too — Frodo.
At 19, Gracie Jagler, with the help of her parents, has turned a lifelong affinity for her family’s dogs into a robust business that has made thousands of dollars for the young entrepreneur, who has Down syndrome.
Tuesday’s trip to her hometown supermarket is one of 370 orders she helped fill in November. John Jagler, a Republican member of the state Assembly, and her mother, Heidi Jagler, a registered nurse, are Gracie’s business partners. Her 16-year-old brother helps sometimes, too, her dad says.
“The money part, she doesn’t quite realize, but she does know she’s helping dogs,” said John Jagler. “So, every night before she goes to bed, we look at her photos on (the business’) Facebook (page) of all the dogs that have been mailed (treats).”
Gracie and her parents take freeze-dried meat like chicken, turkey and lamb hearts and beef livers (the best seller) that are all processed without additives and sell them to customers at Watertown’s Piggly Wiggly but also across the country through online orders.
The business’ Facebook page is bursting with photos from customers and their “G-Dogs,” or what Gracie calls her customers. And the Watertown post office sees the family every day.
On that Tuesday in late November, Gracie and her parents hit the post office just before it closed to mail more than a dozen packages to places like Fort Atkinson, Chicago and Johnson Creek.
Less than a year after starting Gracie’s Doggie Delights, the business has outgrown the family dining room with demand.
Responsibility, pride, stability
John Jagler said building the business with Gracie — which began earlier this year — has taught his daughter responsibility and a sense of pride, and it helped to answer a question he said he and his wife worried for years would be tough to answer: How would Gracie provide for herself as she gets older?
“I remember when Gracie was born and Heidi and I were like, what’s the future going to be? There were all kinds of questions,” he said.
There were still plenty of questions surrounding Gracie’s future until about a year ago, when Gracie was still in high school — and bored.
“When she got to be 19, she decided she was just done with school,” Jagler said.
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“Nah,” Gracie Jagler chimes in, flipping her hand dismissively as she sits on the floor of her Watertown home and fills an order for Madison’s Bad Dog Frida — 42 packages of beef liver and turkey heart treats.
Jagler said his daughter’s cognitive abilities are considered “in the middle,” which means she cannot live on her own and has limited verbal skills but is able to learn and do more than others with Down syndrome who also cannot live alone.
“The rest of her two years (of school) would have been vocational stuff anyway so I was like, forget it. It was a struggle every morning. She wasn’t getting anything out of it,” John Jagler said. “A lot of her school day was a lot of sitting and waiting. ... It just wasn’t working.”
But the pool of jobs Gracie could replace school with weren’t appealing to her father.
“Like unloading boxes at Kwik Trip at 5 in the morning when shipments come in,” he gave as an example. “There wasn’t much that I saw.”
So Jagler turned to a meat processing, catering and deli business owner in town that he had done some marketing for in the past. Glenn Roberts, owner of Glenn’s Market, sells his own freeze-dried dog treats and supplies other dog treat vendors.
Roberts offered to let Gracie work for him — filling dog treat orders — but that job offer quickly sparked an idea.
“And for about two hours, that’s what I was thinking,” John Jagler said. “Then I just, I don’t know, I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I can do this better than Glenn can.’ ”
Jagler asked Roberts if he could, instead, buy some dog treats at wholesale prices to sell on their own. Roberts also provided containers and a scale to help the business begin.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Roberts said at his market on West Main Street in Watertown. “I’ve never seen anyone be as successful as quickly as they were.”
Gracie’s Doggie Delights has grown from a Facebook page and a website to a dog treat business that has shelf space in pet stores in several cities in Wisconsin and in two stores in Illinois, including Chicago. The business has thousands of online customers, too.
Jagler said ultimately, the goal is to partner with Watertown High School — where Gracie attended until recently — and develop a program that would allow students in the school’s vocational program to work for the business.
“As soon as we get a location — we outgrew our dining room; now we’re in the basement — or if we just can’t keep up, they were talking about using her as part of the vocational program and have her be a boss,” John Jagler said. “That would be ideal.”
The neatest part about the business is connecting with families who also have a child with disabilities, he said.
“It’s happened a bunch of times,” he said. “We’ll get a post (on Facebook) and someone will say ‘Here’s my two dogs and here’s my stepson who is 16 and has Down syndrome.’ ”
New parents of children with Down syndrome, too, have connected with the Jaglers, he said.
“There’s these families who say, this is great, I wish we could tap into our child’s passion when they get older,” Jagler said. “That has just been so cool.”