Maribor, Slovenia – Who would have thought the answer to unemployment in the city worst hit by Slovenia's economic crisis could be meat, mint and peanut butter-flavoured snacks for pooches.
But that's just what happened for Nastja Verdnik, a 26-year-old journalism graduate who has opened the Balkan country's first bakery for dogs.
"I used to make biscuits for my dog, but never dreamt of making a career out of it," Verdnik told AFP in her tiny shop in the northern city of Maribor, where she sells home-made biscuits, muffins and cakes, including for dogs with allergies.
After graduating from Ljubljana University last year, her hunt for a job in journalism led nowhere. She had already made biscuits for friends' dogs and even sold small quantities to a local pet shop.
"I saw at the employment office a programme for promoting entrepreneurship among young people," she said, so put forth the idea for a dog bakery and got immediately backing .
"Hov Hov" - Slovenian for "woof woof" - was born.
"There are more dogs registered in Slovenia than children under nine. And owners, before getting a dog, know they will have the financial resources to keep it," said Verdnik.
Her confidence was boosted by research showing during a dog's lifetime, owners can spend the equivalent of the price of a car on their pet.
Dog biscuits are crisis-resistant
Since she opened in June, her business - strategically located at the entrance to Maribor's main park, a favourite playground for dogs - has not stopped growing.
"In September I will open a new shop in the capital, Ljubljana, and later might do it also abroad," she said, with eyes on neighbouring Croatia or Austria.
Once a major industrial centre, Maribor has struggled more than the rest of Slovenia with the economic crisis. Unemployment in June was 18.1%, compared with 12.6% in Ljubljana.
Anger over rampant corruption in city hall also prompted violent demonstrations last winter.
But dog biscuits have proven remarkably crisis-resistant, with people in and around Maribor willing to go the extra mile to indulge their pets.
"We are not from this neighbourhood, we live on the outskirts of Maribor, but we care about the quality of our dogs' food and we also like buying them home-made biscuits," Vera, the owner of two greyhounds, told AFP.
Hov Hov's selection ranges from the classic beef, lamb, venison, turkey and tuna to banana, peanut butter and even mint-flavoured biscuits to fight bad breath.
The snacks cost between $4 and $5.50 for a 150g package and are available in gluten-free and no-egg versions. She makes all shapes and sizes - bones being a favourite - and will even make special birthday cakes.
"I only use healthy ingredients as I would for my own pets," said Verdnik, who gets advice from a veterinarian friend and adds no artificial ingredients.
And it's not just the canines who are eating Hov Hov's biscuits, as some of their owners confess to nibbling the vegetarian treats, said Verdnik.
"This is our second visit: now we have returned with a list of orders for our neighbours and friends," said Marija, the owner of a German shepherd.
Keeping up supplies means baking at home an average of five kilogrammes of biscuits each day. To cope with increasing demand, Verdnik plans to rent a kitchen and probably hire one or two helpers in September.
"Two hands aren't enough any longer," she said.
She has not totally ruled out journalism. But if she did ever find a job, she would only use her skills "to write about pets, pet-food and related issues", she said.