Two entrepreneurs have found their passion, both personal and professional
By Renee DiNino
It was an awkward first date in 2003 at Mohegan Sun that left Amy Kenkel wondering if there would be a second. Laurie Surprenant, the more talkative of the two, was uncharacteristically quiet. Kenkel, the “quiet” one, was uncharacteristically talkative and carried the conversation. However, it was Surprenant who called Kenkel right after that first date and from there, it was clear these two would stay together. Both grew up in supportive, loving families, and both had a passion for animals.
Surprenant’s first pet was a dog named Scooby Doo and Kenkel’s was an orange tabby cat named Tiger. By the time they would share their lives together, Kenkel had two rescue cats, Buddy and Tizzy. The couple later rescued Jack (a Beagle-Terrier mix), Jill (a Jack Russell), and Hemi and Zelda (both Parson Russell Terriers). In 2008, the two were their way to see Melissa Etheridge in concert, about an hour’s drive from their home. During this drive, the women – both at their wits’ end with their respective jobs, neither very happy – started to think, “What are we doing with our lives?” They discussed their lives, passions and goals, and the one thing they decided without hesitation was that they both loved hanging out with their dogs. Within an hour, while Surprenant drove, Kenkel wrote fast and furiously on random napkins found in the vehicle. They came up with the name, bakery concept, logo and business plan. Leaps & Bones LLC, a pet supply business, was born. Once they later visited The Promenade Shops at Evergreen Walk in South Windsor, and were surprised to find a pet-friendly place with no pet store, they quickly leased space in the upscale plaza. Kenkel left her general management position in the hospitality industry to craft what would become their signature recipes for the bakery. Surprenant continued to work in the corporate world until 2014, then joined the business full-time. In the meantime, they made their love legal and were united in a civil service ceremony. They were later “upgraded” (as the two women describe it), when marriage became legal for same-sex couples in Connecticut on October 1, 2010. Both share the responsibilities as business owners, with Kenkel in charge of operations, purchasing and serving as head baker, and Surprenant in charge of marketing and IT. Kenkel worked out the flavors of her recipes for four months in their home, researching different flavors, pet food safety concerns and testing them on all their dogs and the neighborhood dogs. Theirs became the popular house on the street. They tried making cat treats, but decided they would sell some cat food and toys and leave the bakery for the dogs. They now boast more than 300 specialty baked goods, some specific to the seasons like gingerbread biscuits and their Talkin’ Turkey treats. In addition to being loved by pets, everything is made with natural and human-grade ingredients so curious pet owners can share. They also offer an array of specialty celebration cakes, including the Bacon Lovers’ Cake with fresh bacon and the dog fan-favorite Ice Cream Cake, made with house-made peanut ice cream. All cakes are made fresh to order and can be personalized. They also donate a free cake to any K9 officer or for a K9 first responder’s birthday or retirement. The ladies do everything with passion and love for people and pets, and it shows in their store, which carries all kinds of pet products, toys, food, treats, and pet-related gifts for humans. Kenkel also honors Surprenant’s Italian heritage with some specialty treats they can barely keep on their shelves: Parmesan Bread Twists and the K9-Knolli. If you see them, grab them; your dog will thank you.
Ten years into the business, Leaps & Bones has eight employees who share their passion for pets. Many of them volunteer at local animal rescue facilities. The shop has a loyal clientele, whom the owners and staff view as extended family. Customers are often greeted at the store by Surprenant’s and Kenkel’s pets or employees’ pets and, of course, well-behaved dogs are always welcome to visit. Surprenant and Kenkel have never hidden their love for each other, and continually express their true devotion to serving their customers products they would give to their own pets. They feel very lucky, and understand this is not the case in all situations, but they have never faced any adversity as LGBTQ business owners. “Understand, you will never make everyone happy, target your audience and hold true to who you want to be and how you portray yourself to others,” Kenkel says. Leaps & Bones supports many community causes, mostly focused on animal rescue. The store hosts multiple events, from pictures with Santa Paws to a Halloween Pet Parade and vendor fair, as well as in-store days featuring different rescues to create awareness. “We are proud to not only be a thriving business, doing what we love, but also a strong, women-owned business, not to mention being without intention, solid role models as a married lesbian couple and leaders in the community,” Kenkel says. Surprenant and Kenkel don’t view themselves as different from any other couple. They laugh, cry, argue, annoy each other, work together – and sometimes need to take a break. This loving couple lives their lives with respect for one another and with love and understanding for all. But mostly, for those with paws.