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January 27, 2012

Vermont Company to Supply Cat Toys to the Stars

Classic_w_LogoLast week, Milia Bell of Burlington packed up 300 Tickle Pickles and shipped them to California. The squishy green tubes, redolent of catnip, will go in swag bags offered to attendees of the 84th Academy Awards on February 26.

If any A-listers actually own cats rather than handbag-sized dogs, those Pickles will eventually end up where they belong — being clawed and embraced by frenzied felines. That could be a stroke of a luck for a two-person Vermont business.

Bell is the owner of Tipsy Nip Organic Catnip Products, which used to be PupCat Bakery. She's been baking treats for cats and dogs and selling them at local farmers markets since 2004. Since 2009, when Suzanne Podhaizer interviewed her for Seven Days, Bell and her partner have shifted focus — from dogs to cats. They changed their name and now sell only their cat toys and catnip wholesale, with 15 to 20 accounts around the country. (Their canine baked goods are still available at farmers markets.)

"We're trying to grow on a very small budget," says Bell, who also works at Burlington's ReSource. She hopes to start devoting herself full time to her business this spring, when Tipsy Nip will attend its first trade show.

The Tickle Pickle — a wholesome-looking toy with a saucy name — has become Tipsy Nip's signature product. It's not unique on the market — other companies make "sausages" full of catnip and the like — but its shape and aroma are cat approved.

"I have a 25-pound Maine Coon cat who is the love of my life," Bell says. Wanting to add "something for cats" to PupCat's dog-heavy line, she "knitted this little tube. He loved that the most." Today, green pickle skins manufactured in Buffalo have replaced the fuzzy yarn ones Bell made herself, but the product still has a crafty feel.

To market her product, Bell solicited reviews from cat bloggers. (Yes, cat bloggers are a powerful marketing force these days. Just ask Burlington-area graphic designer Sachie Tani, of Among the Pickle's fans was Joanne McGonagle, who blogs in the voice of her cat, Gracey, and raises money for big cats in the wild through her Tiniest Tiger Conservation Cub Club.

When the Academy invited McGonagle to come pitch her conservation work on Oscar Night — in the form of a "Tiniest Tiger Hipster Bag" — she asked Bell to contribute. Tipsy Nip's pickles will share the swag bag with products from giant pet-product companies such as IAMS and Bissell.

"At first I was like, 'This is crazy, are you kidding me?'" says Bell. But McGonagle "really wanted to support us. She's been a small business owner and knows what it's like."

McGonagle will be at the Oscars with Gracey and Jackson Galaxy, host of Animal Planet's show "My Cat From Hell," hosting a "#RedCarpetCat Twitter Party."

We prefer not to contemplate the image of a tweeting cat — mixed metaphor on a catnip high? Still, it's nice to know that celebrity felines could be mauling Vermont products in the near future.

Image by Mountain Dog Photography LLC

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