By Caroline Young

Renee Palmer, left, and Patsy McGirl, co-owners of CityDog Market in Brookhaven, say although they opened their store in a tough economy, they are “doing very well.”

Renee Palmer needed a career change. Lauren Janis was inspired by her dog, a stray she took in from the streets and named Big Daddy.

Jeff Zerelli just wanted a job that would let him bring his Siberian husky to work.

The three ended up running pet-centered businesses that offer fancy doggie treats.

And they say their businesses are doing fine. Despite the faltering economy during recent years, they say they’ve found a healthy appetite among north Atlanta pet owners for all-natural, high-quality dog biscuits.

“When I started my company, I figured if I was going to eat well, my dog should, too,” Janis said.

Janis opened Big Daddy Biscuits in January 2009. She uses only “human-quality” ingredients, bakes her biscuits from scratch, and sells them through farmer’s markets and pet shops around metro Atlanta.

“So many people visit us regularly at the farmer’s markets,” she says. “Many say they come just to get biscuits for their furry friends.”

Zerelli and Palmer opened stores specializing in all sorts of goodies for pampered pets. Zerelli owns Woof Gang Bakery in Buckhead and Palmer operates CityDog Market in Brookhaven.

“It’s a great little business, if you love pets and like working with the owners,” said Zerelli, who opened the Buckhead franchise of the Florida-based Woof Gang bakeries in 2010.

Woof Gang has 35 stores in six states, he said. “It’s more than just a bakery, it’s a full-service pet store with food, accessories, nutritional supplements and grooming services.”

Fresh dog biscuits are shipped in weekly from Florida, he said. The bakery turns out 60 varieties of biscuits, ranging from cheese to peanut butter and honey to pumpkin cheese and apple, he said.

For quality control, he does his own taste tests. “I personally taste test anything that comes in to stores except I don’t like liver,” Zerelli said.

Palmer says CityDog Market’s food is free of wheat, corn and soy. The shop’s treats also contain no meat byproducts. “There’s nothing that’s nutritious about these ingredients for animals,” she says, “They’re fillers and they’re put into pet foods to bulk up the food to make the dog feel full when they’re not.”

CityDog Market’s “Better than Belly Rub” bars and breakfast bars are made especially for the store. A couple of Atlanta bakeries make gourmet cookies for the store.

The shop also sells gourmet treats shaped as ice cream cones, sports equipment and martini glasses. Their popularity surprises Palmer, who has five dogs and two cats herself. Her pets, she said, are a main reason she left a corporate job and opened CityDog Market.

Jeff Zerelli, owner of Woof Gang Bakery in Buckhead, with his specialty dog treats.

“We opened in the worst economy of our lifetime in 2008 and we have done very well… It’s awe-inspiring,” she says. “People come from all over Atlanta, including Buckhead, Dunwoody, Norcross, Alpharetta, and I have a lady drive out from Canton regularly.”

Additionally, CityDog Market hosts several events in an effort to fundraise for local animal rescue organizations. Palmer’s goal is to create a CityDog Market Foundation, similar to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, but for animals, she says.

Janis also contributes to animal rescue groups and says her success baking dog treats means she’s “humbled every day.”

“I honestly never thought I would be making a difference,” she said, “by making healthy dog biscuits.”