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At first glance, Kevyn Matthews' cafe in Fells Point is attractive, but nothing unusual. With white walls, black accents, a glossy red floor and long glass cases holding a wide variety of tasty treats, it is inviting and cute.

But this isn't any average cafe. For one thing, there's a lot of barking.

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Matthews opened The Dog Chef Cafe on Fleet Street in 2014. He moved the business a couple of blocks down the street to its current location this past summer.

With years of experience as a personal dog chef and caterer making dog treats for events in Baltimore, Washington, and New York, Matthews has built a strong following and developed a clear philosophical approach to canine nutrition.

"Fresh is always better," he says.

Offerings at the cafe and through his website reflect that approach. Matthews, who goes by the professional name "The Dog Chef," sells a variety of dog food, all of which is made from scratch. The menu includes about 30 types of treats, some of which look like fun human food — doggie cupcakes, doughnuts, and frozen yogurt. Whole meals, too, offer impressive fare, like Indu's Chicken, a combination of garlic chicken, beans, vegetables, olive oil and turmeric, and Raven's Fish Pate, which pairs vegetables with codfish and fish oil.

Matthews says his interest in cooking for dogs was sparked about 15 years ago, when his Doberman pinscher puppy, Greta, turned up her nose at several bags of dog food he had purchased from a pet store.

"I went back to the store and found out both bags were part of a recall," he says.

With his pet's health in mind, Matthews started making Greta's food himself, using raw chicken as a base. "She loved it," he says. And that wasn't the only benefit. "I noticed her behavior was different. She looked amazing. People were stopping their cars to ask me about my dog."

Over the next decade and a half, Matthews traveled back and forth between New York and Washington, where he is originally from, acting as a personal chef and caterer for dogs, creating foods that he says helped ease his canine clients' health problems, from liver and kidney issues to itchy skin.

Now he has settled in Baltimore, opening the dog cafe and planning a future business enterprise based on its concept. He lives upstairs from the cafe and has four dogs of his own, including a two-year-old Doberman named Heidi, who he adopted after Greta passed away, and three more dogs of various breeds that he fosters.

Matthews' commitment to Baltimore's pup community, along with his pet foods, have earned him a loyal fan base.

Local author and animal advocate Jennifer Carle met him a few years ago at a Canton event raising funds for Show Your Soft Side, the volunteer-driven anti-animal abuse campaign. Shortly after that, Carle had reason to call on Matthews' expertise when the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter asked her to help with a severely neglected dog that had been delivered to the shelter.

"The dog was in terrible shape," Carle recalls. "Her skin was black, she had no fur and she stunk. Kevyn and I worked together to get her on a food program, and it worked. It got her right on track."

Carle then started working with Matthews to develop a plan for her own dog, a German shepherd and border collie mix she adopted in 2008. "When he hit middle age, he got itchy, started to lose weight and lost luster," she says.

But after two years of a steady Dog Chef diet, "his coat is gorgeous, he has a ton of energy, his weight is perfect and he doesn't itch. He just seems super happy!"

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For Carle's dog, Matthews prepares raw beef-based meals, often including carrots, chickpeas, kale and a variety of "secret" spices.

"I've tried to look through to see if I can identify all the ingredients and I can't," Carle says with a laugh. "It's a whole bunch of secret ingredients."

Joy Freedman, a Baltimore dog behaviorist and obedience instructor with a two-decade career, works frequently with Matthews. She says that what dogs eat can have a direct impact on how they behave. She believes Matthews' thoughtful diets improve overall health and behavior.

"Nutrition affects a dog's brain like a human's, in terms of healing and overall general health," she says. "Dogs have health issues that are mental and physical, just like people."

Poor nutrition can lead to skin issues, allergies and chewing problems, she says. "When you have those issues, you can have behavior issues. If you're itchy as a human, you're going to be nasty, too."

Freedman's own dog, a Labrador and shepherd mix, has diabetes insipidus, a metabolic disorder related to water balance. She has worked with Matthews to augment her dog's regular diet with foods that manage the condition by keeping her feeling full so she won't overeat and drink.

With more than a third of U.S. households owning a dog, the feeding of canines is big business. In 2013, U.S. dog food sales totaled $11.3 billion, with an additional $2.6 billion for treats, according to the Pet Food Institute.

The Dog Chef's products aren't inexpensive: at $19.99 for four 8-ounce containers, Matthews' offerings are pricier than mass-market options. But his clients insist the meals are worth the cost and that they have seen the effect his food has had.

"The bottom line is that, like with people, you need to be able to pronounce all the ingredients," says Carle. "If the first thing is corn or filler, it's not going to be good. Kevyn figured out what the best foods are and put them together."

Dr. Jessica Eavers, a veterinarian at Charm City Veterinary Hospital, echoes those sentiments, saying that pet owners buying mass-market food should look for ingredients that include recognizable proteins, not too much filler and that have been evaluated in feeding trials. "A well-balanced diet is vital to health," she says. "If there are any deficiencies, that will interfere with the organs and bone development."

Eavers advises pet owners who are considering going the homemade route to consult with a veterinary nutritionist before starting the diet. "Homemade is fine but you should have a little education," she says.

Matthews' creations aren't strictly serious health food, either. In addition to the doggie doughnuts and cupcakes he creates for the shop, he cooks custom items for events, including birthday and bar mitzvah cakes, doggie sushi and even "cocktails" – like a pup-friendly take on a margarita, complete with a flax seed rim.

"People freak out about the snacks," he says, laughing. "Always saying, 'That's cute! It's a smaller version of what I eat!'"

The cafe's hours vary now, but ultimately, Matthews hopes to be open for several hours each morning and evening, with a break in between.

In the morning, he will serve breakfasts of yogurt and fruit, which he says will help build dogs' immune systems, and in the evening dinner will be available. Not all dogs need to eat twice a day — his only eat once — but those that do eat more than once will appreciate the variety, he says.

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Matthews also plans to convert the back room, which is now a gallery featuring dog-related artwork by local artists, into a dog salon.

And Baltimore is only the first step in his master plan. "It's a franchise model," he says.

The Dog Chef Cafe is at 1712 Fleet St. in Fells Point. Cafe hours vary. Visit thedogchef.net or call 301-785-2998 for more information.

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