"I never forget that my name is quite literally on every container that leaves our building," says Jeni Boniface, founder of Aunt Jeni's Home Made. "That's a very strong motivation to accept no compromise on safety and quality."
"Several other companies started because a well-meaning owner had a sick pet, discovered the healing power of raw foods, and then started making it at home for their friends," 'Aunt' Jeni Boniface says, as she explains the beginnings of her own petfood company, Aunt Jeni's Home Made , who recently celebrated their ten-year anniversary. "What makes us different is our educational background; I have degrees in Animal Science/Nutrition, while most members of my staff have similar degrees and training."
It's not only the staff's impressive academic backgrounds that set Aunt Jeni's apart from other similar holistic and natural companies, but also the quality of their ingredients. "Our recipes are all based on whole-food ingredients," claims Boniface.
"What I mean by that is that we use absolutely nothing synthetic: no vitamin/mineral pre-mix powders; no preservatives or flavorings, etc. We approach the manufacture of petfood from the standpoint of the nutritional best interest of the pets we make it for, rather than from a marketing or business standpoint."
The company believes strongly that raw food is the best way to feed companion dogs, cats and ferrets. Boniface continues, "Because of our academic, scientific background, we are able to formulate our own complete and balanced recipes as well as answer any questions customers may have about the recipes, ingredients, or which is the best selection for their own pet."
After obtaining a Bachelors degree in Animal Science (University of Maryland, 1985), Boniface held a series of positions within the USDA. Then the day came that one of her dogs fell seriously ill, necessitating a visit to a teaching vet hospital. This event reminded Boniface that her true calling lay in working with animals, not numbers, as she puts it. Soon after that, she received her Masters in Animal Nutrition Science, where her research with Maned Wolves resulted in the development of a special diet, later manufactured by Purina Mills.
Boniface then began doing consulting work for pet owners whose dogs or cats were facing health issues. "Whenever I could persuade someone to prepare their own homemade petfood, the pet would show remarkable improvement," attests Boniface. "The challenge lay in convincing busy people to cook for their dogs. I soon realized there was a need for someone to do the work of preparing the food, and that started me on the road to manufacturing." With her background training in the academic/scientific community and her gravitation toward the world of holistic care, 'Aunt' Jeni Boniface found herself in a position to combine the best of both worlds into something special and different - and Aunt Jeni's Home Made was born.
"We continue to grow and expand, adding new products and finding new ways to manufacture them efficiently," says Boniface. "Our treat division has experienced the most growth in the last couple of years, with the addition of a state-of-the-art custom made dehydrator that has allowed us to dry a wide range of fruits and meats as healthy, low-fat snacks." Aunt Jeni's Home Made manufactures products for pets in 3 categories:
Aunt Jeni's has recently started to branch out into offering more Raw Meaty Bones from their current product line. "We currently have Ostrich Necks, Duck Necks/Feet, Chicken Necks/Feet and Rabbit Legs; and the newly introduced Alligator, which has been quite popular," says Boniface.
Aunt Jeni's has recently started to branch out into offering more Raw Meaty Bones from their current product line. "We currently have Ostrich Necks, Duck Necks/Feet, Chicken Necks/Feet and Rabbit Legs," explains Boniface. "Last summer we introduced a new treat made from dehydrated Alligator meat that's been very popular so far." This year the company will be adding some new frozen food recipes: Ostrich and maybe Bison or possibly Duck.
"We like to offer products that are not readily available elsewhere," continues Boniface.
"We're also phasing in new frozen food packaging, changing to something more "green" and eco-friendly." Aunt Jeni's already changed their packaging on their Raw Meaty Bones to something more user friendly and less breakage-prone, according to the company. Home Made may also seek greater distribution as petfood distributors become more adept at distributing frozen foods properly.
A hands-on approach
Owning and operating their own manufacturing facility right outside of Washington D.C., Aunt Jeni's Home Made does no co-packing or contracting out of the production of their petfoods and treats to someone else. Their facilities are regularly inspected by the FDA as well as the state's agricultural department, says the company.
"While this has always been a point of pride with us, it has become even more important in the wake of the petfood recalls of a year ago," explains Boniface. "We maintain complete control over each step in the production process. We have established one-on-one relationships with our vendors such that we know exactly where our ingredients originate, and we are able to inspect -and reject, if necessary-ingredients on arrival."
Beth Thibodeau, a Home Made staff member had this to say, "We research all of our suppliers to determine the origin and growing conditions of all our ingredients. We know that our customers will demand straight answers to these questions, and we need to be equipped to provide those."
Aunt Jeni's likes to have complete control over all aspects of their products, from the selection of ingredients to the final product. There is less chance of alien ingredients or tampering when everything is done in-house, the company claims. "We even do our own microbial testing in-house; that way we have instant access to the information in the unlikely event we would ever need to destroy a batch, although that has never happened," says Thibodeau.
And in the long run, it's all about customer satisfaction and trust. "I never forget that my name is quite literally on every container that leaves our building," says Boniface. "That's a very strong motivation to accept no compromise on safety and quality."
Read an Online Extra! on Aunt Jeni's.
Keys to growth
"It may sound oversimplified, but we listen to our
customers," Jeni Boniface explains, when asked about the
success of her company. "We're large enough to compete but
still small enough to care." Boniface has this other
advice to offer on why her customers keep coming back:
A raw deal: 3 challenges raw and
frozen petfood manufacturers must face
There are constant challenges in operating any business,
some of which are universal across industry borders, but
there are certainly some especially unique to manufacturing
raw petfood. In starting the company, Boniface says her
biggest challenge was figuring out what type of equipment
was right for the job. "Our frozen food is not like
any traditional petfood - there is no cooking, extruding,
or pelleting. We need to grind meat and bones, puree
vegetables and fruits, and pack special containers."
The next biggest challenge, according to Boniface, has
been and continues to be, marketing a petfood that must be
kept frozen at all times. Finding reliable, affordable
transportation is an ongoing issue, and maintaining
freezers is an extra expense that many stores were not
willing to take on. "Luckily, that viewpoint is changing
now, but we still have a ways to go before frozen raw foods
The third challenge involves setting prices
successfully. Making frozen petfood is definitely a labor
of love, not a get rich quick scheme! "The premium
ingredients we use carry a big price tag. Plus by the time
the product has gone through the layers of distribution,
each with its own additional markup, the end user is paying
a pretty penny for petfood," says Boniface. "This may sound
strange, but I really stress over raising our prices.
Throughout all of last year when our costs on everything
were skyrocketing, I refused to raise prices to our
customers." Though Boniface admits she worried a lot, the
company has only ever had one price increase per
year. "It's one less thing to worry about in an
economy gone wild; at least the family pet can still eat
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