CLAREMONT — Julie Baker occasionally has a hard time getting business advisors to take her seriously. She approached the Small Business Administration's small business counseling program to get help with scaling: how to plan for increasing inventory to meet increased demand, and how to manage her marketing in order to keep the demand manageable.
“It's not a joke,” she said. “It's a real problem.”
A home business that grew out of a homeschooling project, Pampered Poultry caters to a niche market that's growing all the time: pet chickens. Although Baker is always looking for ways to diversify, her biggest product is chicken diapers.
They're colorful, they're silly, and they make it so people can have chickens in their homes or apartments without poop getting all over the place.
“A lot of the people who message us have a sick chicken,” said Hunter Raymond, who's in charge of marketing and social media. “The chicken needs to be in the house for a while, and they don't want the mess. Chickens aren't as disposable as they used to be.”
Chickens have become popular urban pets, with cities such as Concord and Pittsfield passing zoning ordinances that allow backyard chickens within city limits. According to the USDA, 1 percent of all U.S. households now raise chickens, and that number was projected to skyrocket in the next few years. Not long ago, if your chicken got sick, it became chicken soup, but now people are becoming attached to their chickens.
“For a lot of people, chickens are crossing into that pet zone. For a lot of the people we sell to, it's a moral crime to kill and eat a chicken,” said Baker.
With 500 to 1000 orders of her product a month, Baker recently added a production space on Summer Street, instead of working out of her home. She buys all her cloth at Frank's in Claremont, sends cloth and patterns to the Dominican Republic, receives the finished products back in Claremont, then fills product orders with the help of her daughter and main employee Bridget.
“I keep thinking it's going to go away, but then it keeps on,” said Baker.
Baker owns a wine and cheese shop in Hampton. “This is pretty much my second full-time job, I guess.”
It all started as a homeschooling project for her daughter Bridget. They saw a YouTube video about someone who had put a diaper on a chicken, and they made a few. They had a flock of chickens at home, so they worked out the prototype, and then started selling a few. The demand for chicken diapers took them by surprise.
“I treated it as a joke for the first year, too,” said Baker. “It just kept building on itself.”
Meanwhile, Baker had been volunteering in the Dominican Republic, and she wanted to do something real for the women she met there. She decided she'd teach women to sew, and get them sewing chicken diapers.
“You can't get Americans to do this work; I tried,” she said. “If they could do it, after they did 10 of them they got bored, and left.”
For women living in the slums of Puerto Plata, however, the wages Baker paid could change everything. She bought electric sewing machines and taught a group of women how to use them. Even though the electricity goes out frequently, there's a lot of work that can be done by hand during in between times.
“When we first started, I didn't really tell them what they were making. I'd go over with patterns and cloth and we'd do a marathon week. They were just happy to be chosen to get the paycheck.” As time went on she worked out many of the initial problems. Letting the women take the sewing machines home didn't work, because the men would sell the machines if they wanted money.
“When we crossed over into, 'Let's run this like a business,' everything worked so much better. It's set up like a traditional manufacturing studio. They're paid by the hour, not by the piece, and they have production standards they have to meet. We have four women sewing around the clock right now — they're crazy busy — and a woman who has some education, who knows how to run the shop and meet production,” said Baker.
Although it's strange for women who are struggling to pay for their children's clothing and education to work making clothing for chickens, it's probably no stranger than making car parts or doing telemarketing. One day, the women in the shop decided to try putting a diaper on a Dominican chicken. They chased it all around, caught it, and attempted to wrestle it into one of the diapers, but the chicken fought back.
“They were like, 'Who does this?!'” said Baker. “It's such a First-World problem.”
Meanwhile, the chickens in the First World are thriving on special treatment, and Pampered Poultry has had to increase their diaper sizes. “People's chickens are significantly fatter than they used to be,” said Baker.
“It's definitely a niche market, but the world is a very big place.”