Lisa Fortunato started Robbie Dawg in her Brooklyn kitchen in 2003. Now the company has 15 flavors, contract-baking clients, a new chief operating partner and will soon have a new, larger facility.
to any pet trade show and you can be nearly overwhelmed by the number of treats
on display. And no wonder: It’s an exploding market, with at least 88% of dog owners and 68% of cat owners buying treats at least once a year, according to the American Pet Products Association.
for Robbie Dawg, standing out has never been a problem. “It’s the detail, from
the packaging to the presentation to the flavors to the look of everything,”
explains Lisa Fortunato, president of the organic treat company. “That’s what’s
really important to us.”
Dawg started the way many small treat or petfood companies do: in the founder’s
kitchen. In 2003, Fortunato, then an event planning and graphic design professional,
decided to throw her dog a birthday party and couldn’t find the kind of treats
she wanted for the goodie bags. So she baked her own, creating a recipe based
on the lessons she had learned from her father: Always use fresh, wholesome
ingredients and make everything from scratch.
treats she made were such a hit with family and friends that Fortunato
eventually decided to make them for sale. By December of that year, she was
taking orders from stores in New York City. Since then, the company has grown
by leaps and bounds: It outgrew its original facility in Brooklyn, New York,
USA, and is in a temporary space while preparing to move to a new, larger
facility. Fortunato has added a chief managing partner, John W. Hickey III,
and has made such a mark with her treats that she’s now approached by other
companies for contract baking.
after that fateful doggie birthday party, Fortunato was laid off from her job.
“At that point, I said, ‘I’m never working for anyone ever again,’” she says.
“I made a list with 10 different things I could do. Somehow, I decided to
become a manufacturer of dog biscuits!”
was a timely decision. The New York International Gift Fair happened soon after, and
Fortunato was able to research her business idea by walking the show. “I went
to every single pet venue,” she says. “I did my homework. I knew I wanted to have
a high-end product, organic from the very beginning. Certainly I believe we
were one of the first companies that was organic.”
applied what she learned to roll, cut and bake organic dog biscuits by hand in
the 60-square-foot kitchen of her apartment. “It was all about the
presentation. I designed the packaging, I did the flavor profiles,” she says.
Product in hand, she started visiting local stores. “If I was able to meet
someone who could make a decision, I always got an order.”
spring 2004, wanting to validate her business concept, Fortunato exhibited at
the H.H. Backer Annual Spring Pet Industry Trade Show, then in Atlantic City,
New Jersey, USA. Robbie Dawg was obviously a success: “We still have about 40%
of the same customers from that show,” Fortunato says.
the company outgrew Fortunato’s kitchen. “It was either get a contract baker or
become a manufacturer. And because organic was so new then and the ingredients
were so expensive, and because it was my baby, I didn’t trust anyone else. I wanted
to make sure everything was done in accordance to what I wanted,” she explains.
So she refinanced her mortgage, found a former machine shop in Brooklyn and
renovated the space. “We’ve been there until now, we’ve exploded to the point
where we have to relocate to be able to fulfill orders.”
All Robbie Dawg treats are organic—some with a meat base (US Department of Agriculture grade A chicken or turkey), some with dairy (organic cheese) and some with peanut butter plus organic pumpkin, pears or berries.
Fortunato credits her company’s swift success partially to good timing. “It was
just at that time, say 2005, when boutiques started to emerge and we were the
perfect item, because it allowed us to segue-way into many different venues. It
wasn’t just the pet boutique, it was home furnishing stores, lifestyle stores,
a whole range from grocery to bigger stores to anywhere people go
shopping. So that really allowed us to build up the number of stores,” she
the biggest factor behind Robbie Dawg’s rapid growth is the product itself. “It’s
the flavor profiles that people know us for,” says Fortunato. “Because it’s
always the ‘mother’ of the dog doing the shopping, she’s attracted to the
packaging. She’ll pick it up and say, ‘Ah, turkey sausage and romano cheese,
that sounds really good. I like that flavor and therefore I’m going to buy it
for my dog.’ She’ll take it home and the dog loves it, and now we have a
flavors now number about 15, including the first, Peanut Butter and Carrot,
still one of the company’s best-sellers; seasonal flavors such as Little Lulu’s
Cranberry Crunch (named after Fortunato’s other dog, since Robbie had the
company named after him); and even two flavors for cats.
popular product attribute is what Fortunato calls “snapability.” Robbie Dawg
biscuits are free of wheat or gluten, which tends to make some dog biscuits
heavy, she says. “Our biscuits are such that you can snap them easily. We make
a little treat that looks like a piece of kibble and is scored into four, and
you can actually snap it into the size of a kernel of corn. This helps whether
it’s an older dog that’s losing its teeth, a little dog that the ‘mother’
thinks can’t chew, a larger dog you’re giving multiple pieces for training or an
overweight dog that you want to give separate small treats rather than one big
adds that all Robbie Dawg products are still handcrafted, baked fresh daily and
also free of corn, soy, added salt, sugar, preservatives, flavors, dyes, colors
or anything artificial. “Also, we use a rotary moulding cookie machine that has dies so you can have a very definitive design and definite shape; it's a look that is different because it's not extruded. The
dough is almost like Play-Doh consistency. It goes into a hopper and gets
pressed into the roller, then cut with a knife.”
a fellow entrepreneur as a partner now to help her manage and chart the
company’s growth, Fortunato sees many opportunities. “We feel there are other
avenues to explore in the treat line: for instance, creating a soft treat that
doesn’t have chemicals or preservatives, creating treats with probiotics or
glucosamine that really do something,” she says, as opposed to products with
functional ingredients that may lose their efficacy because of the high heat
used during extrusion and other processing methods.
having a pet industry background, Hickey brings a renewed energy to the
company, Fortunato says. “His vision is all new, and he’s excited, and he has
that business sense to say, ‘Yes, this is the path, this is what we can
achieve, this is what we can do.’ Because when you’re a small business and
you’re doing it by yourself, you have to wear so many hats and it’s hard after
it seems unlikely that Robbie Dawg will ever get too big. “I always like to
say, it’s the smaller companies that change the world. They do something because
they see a need for it,” Fortunato says. “And people want to know that there’s
a face and a conscience behind a brand. We’re still the face and the conscience behind ours, and we always will be.”
Just the facts
Headquarters: Brooklyn, New
Fortunato, president; John W. Hickey III, chief managing partner
Sales: Has seen
quadruple growth in 2010, expects to reach US$2.5 million in 2011
Products: Organic dog
and cat treats in about 15 flavors, including seasonal ones
Distribution: Throughout the
US, plus Canada, Japan and South Korea; just earned approval to sell in the
European Union and Australia
Facility: Also in
Employees: 10 full-time, six part-time
some trivia you may not know: One in five Americans has ties to Brooklyn, one
of the boroughs in New York City. That’s the reason Lisa Fortunato named her
company Robbie Dawg (and pronounces the second word purposely with a Brooklyn
accent). Her dog Robbie is from Brooklyn, and she wanted to use that angle as “our
little hook,” she says. “On our packaging, we have a logo, Real Brooklyn, that
you’re only allowed to use if you manufacture in Brooklyn.”
being proud to be able to use the logo, Fortunato says she makes a point to
give back to the community. “When I was a teenager, I went to high school
across the street from a no-kill shelter called Bide-A-Wee that has three
locations in New York. From the very beginning, we’ve donated broken biscuits
to all different kinds of organizations. It’s really important for me to feel
that we give in ways that we can. Not necessarily monetarily, but we can donate
product to the dogs while they’re waiting to be adopted, we can donate product
to different organizations having fundraisers.”
Fortunato says the company donates mainly to organizations in the New York
City-Tristate area, it has made donations elsewhere, including to US military
service dogs in Iraq and Afghanistan. “These German Shepherds will lay down
their lives for their handlers. How can you find that kind of dedication
also sees a New York connection to the humanization trend driving the pet
industry’s growth. “Where I think the industry really took this huge leap and
turn was after 9-11,” she says. “But with 9-11, it was not six degrees of
separation, it was one degree of separation. It didn’t matter if you’re from a
small town in Maine, and this kid went off to work in New York City and died in
9-11; now this whole community is affected. It wasn’t just in my son’s school
with kids whose parents died.
lived through 9-11, you had more people wanting to be home with family and
loved ones,” she continues. “We found solace in our pets and now treated them
as such, as a very important part of the family. You could even see that after
Katrina; there were dogs rescued and it was a very important aspect. And now
even in New York City, the mayor has a division for emergency with a whole
program now for rescuing pets. We’ve only learned after 9-11 and Katrina how important
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Great article...shows that if you dream it...it CAN happen.
Because it's based in Brooklyn, New York, USA, Robbie Dawg is allowed to use a Real Brooklyn logo on all its packaging.
Robbie Dawg uses a rotary moulding cookie machine with dies that gives a very definitive design and definite shape to its products.
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