From the April 1999 issue of Startups

Rachel Rifat had global dreams. "I was going to be the diva of international trade between China and the United States," the 29-year-old recalls. But after getting her degree in international relations from the University of Southern California in 1997, a round of job interviews with corporate America left Rifat feeling, well, uninspired. "I wasn't very thrilled with the offers," she says.

In search of an alternative of the entrepreneurial variety, Rifat took cues from her dog, Miles. "I was in the kitchen one day eating a fortune cookie, and Miles looked up at me like `Please, share the wealth,' " Rifat recalls. Considering her retired racing greyhound's sensitive stomach, she opted to read Miles the fortune instead of feeding him the treat--and her business concept was born.

The beneficiaries of Rifat's quirky idea? The satisfied hounds nationwide who feast on her Foo Man Chews, the fortune cookies for dogs. Among the fortunes composed by Rifat: "You will soon receive a scratch behind the ear," "When the cat's away, rejoice" and "Good things come to those who sit."

Honing her manufacturing capabilities was a trying process. "I created a recipe, but it was just a disaster," says Rifat. "The [cookies] would bubble or break, or they wouldn't fold." Next, Rifat commissioned a machinist to build a cookie-making machine for her--a waste of $1,200 when the machine didn't work properly.

Nothing if not innovative, the Los Angeles entrepreneur called a Santa Barbara, California, convent to solicit use of their altar-bread machine on a part-time basis. "I said, `Sister, do you mind if I use it on Sundays when it's your downtime?' and she said, `No, but we'll definitely say our prayers for you.' "

The result? Rifat considers it a productive blend of heavenly intervention and her own dogged determination: Today, she works with a cookie manufacturer in San Francisco to make her Foo Man Chews, which are now sold in pet stores, Nordstrom department stores and gift shops. Her Hollywood Dog Co., which projects sales of $100,000 this year, recently released a second canine treat to rave bowwows--Bogey's Baguette Chews, miniature nine-grain French baguettes flavored with basil and garlic.

Hip Trips

Who says you can't reinvent the wheel? Determined to do just that, Dan Levine left his job at Simon & Schuster in 1997. There, he'd written travel guidebooks for more than a decade and authored some of the publisher's biggest sellers, from Frommer's Europe to Frommer's California. But eventually, says Levine, "I felt I'd taken that job as far as it could go. I could go on the rest of my life writing guidebooks for somebody else--or I could do my own thing."

Leaving the conventional style of his former employer behind, he set his sights on an entirely new target: "I wanted to write a guidebook series for my generation," Levine, 34, explains. Designed for Gen X travelers who want the "insider" scoop--and those who want to look like anything but Joe Tourist while traveling the world--Levine's Avant-Guide books sport a gritty, take-no-prisoners feel and a style that relies heavily on "fully wired," computer-enhanced graphics. "[Avant-Guides'] youth sheen is part of the marketing," he explains. "[The guides are] the ultimate travel fashion accessory." Bucking industry tradition even further, Levine refuses to accept discounts or payments in exchange for coverage.

The New York City writer-turned-entrepreneur called on colleagues in the publishing industry to invest in his start-up, Empire Press, and snagged independent book distribution powerhouse Publisher's Group West to ensure his products a place on the shelves of make-or-break retailers like Barnes & Noble. His first release, Avant-Guide Prague, hit bookstores in spring 1998, followed quickly by Avant-Guide New York City, Avant-Guide London and Avant-Guide San Francisco.

Levine's Web site (http://www.avantguide.com) is an important addition to the mix, providing up-to-date event schedules and currency exchange rates for the cities featured in his books. However, the information he's compiled actually serves a more ambitious purpose. Says Levine, "I have a fantasy that 50 years from now, in history classes, people will be able to look at an Avant-Guide book and get a sense of what a place was like."

Contact Source

Hollywood Dog Co., (877) MR-CHEWS.