He decided on a vision for a new company: "We make memories affordable."Though none of Pup E. Luv's products were recalled, Gardone says, "Any company with a soul has been affected."

A couple years ago Glenn Gardone, then an executive with Del Monte Foods, visited a pet store with his young son. When the boy asked how much a particular bag of treats cost, Gardone replied US$4.79. His son said, "That's a lot of money."

Gardone thought, "You know what, that is a lot of money." He began talking and planning with a team of colleagues, and soon they created a dog treat, Shak E. Bacon, made with real bacon and priced at US$1.99 for a 6-ounce bag. He decided on a vision for a new company: "We make memories affordable."

And thus Pup E. Luv was born. (Gardone's younger son came up with the name and spelling.) That was in 2005. The company incorporated in 2006, then spent about eight months developing more products, a supply chain and distribution system and a manufacturing plant for dry products in Sabetha, Kansas, USA.

Those first products, a line of seven dog treat flavors all priced at less than US$3 retail, launched in December 2006. After only six months, the company had already reached its first-year sales goal. Now it is gearing up to launch Natural Bites, a line of natural dog and cat foods and treats priced at about 80% of competitive products.

"I love the fact that almost anybody in America can walk in and buy a dog treat and not have to take out a mortgage," Gardone says.

Bringing smiles

Gardone's career includes stints with several consumer products and petfood companies, including Del Monte. His time there coincided with its acquisition of other petfood producers, and that helped spur the idea for starting his own company. He describes a scene during a conference, where the facilitator asked the audience to close their eyes and think of their first pets. Gardone says that when he opened his eyes, everyone was smiling.

"That's what I bring: smiles to people," he continues. "How could I not love this industry? And that's when it hit me. This is exactly what I need to do; I need to take the passion and love I have and grow it into a business. That's what really started the thought process, and then I had the event with my son, and it was like the stars and moon aligning."

In creating Pup E. Luv, Gardone brought along a core team he had worked with before and during his years at Del Monte: Sharon Taylor, office manager/lead musher ("the one who keeps the rest of us in line," Gardone says); Dave Najim, the "top dog" who helps make sure pet retailers have all the tools they need to successfully sell Pup E. Luv products; and Jeff Cohen, the "big dog" who works directly with the company's 12 regional pet specialty distributors.

Growth through distribution

Partnering with those distributors is a key part of the company's business model. Pup E. Luv doesn't ship directly to retailers, nor does it dictate to whom distributors can ship. Just since last December, Cohen and the distributors have placed Pup E. Love products in 4,000 to 5,000 pet specialty stores. "We're very satisfied with where we're at, but of course we always want more," Gardone says. "The best way for a small company to grow is through distribution."

As an example of the partnership, Gardone describes sitting down with the distributors, showing them what the company was planning with the Natural Bites line and listening to their feedback and suggestions, especially for packaging.

"The idea behind Natural Bites is it's just like Pup E. Luv in its simplicity. It's color coordinated," Gardone explains, with a different color for puppies, kittens, indoor cats, large-breed dogs, small-breed dogs, etc. "The idea is to work with the lifestage system, so you know what supplements you need, what food you need, what treats you should buy, all by knowing the color for your pet."

Quality and safety are key

To develop these products and the Pup E. Luv treats, the company originally worked with Dr. Angele Thompson of PetTech for formulation and other advice. While it still consults with her, the company now has its own formulator on staff, who oversees the quality control people.

Besides getting the product attributes right, testing for quality and safety is key for Pup E. Luv, especially in light of the recent petfood recalls. Though none of its products were recalled, Gardone says, "Any company with a soul has been affected. We were; we got thousands of calls to our toll-free number."

To assure consumers and retailers of its products' safety, Pup E. Luv gave its distributors a list of all the ingredients it uses and their sources. Two of its products include wheat gluten, and the company wanted to make sure people knew it came from the USA and was not part of the recall. "All our sourcing, because of the size of our company, is done in the USA, none outside, so it's a very quick chain of events," Gardone says.

Then extensive testing ensues. When ingredients arrive at the plant, they're tested. As products are manufactured, they're pulled off the line and tested. The finished goods are palletized and put in what Gardone calls a "holding cell," and one case from every pallet is tested again. This last testing, a lab analysis, takes about 10 days. "We didn't start this process because of the recalls; we started it a year ago because it's the right thing to do," Gardone says. "It's for safety."

It's also for truth in labeling. "As a small company, we only get one chance, if we're lucky, to talk to the consumer. I want to make sure what we say is absolutely true." Gardone says the company also does six-month feeding trials before every new product is launched to ensure palatability and digestibility.

Doing what's right

Gardone promises Pup E. Luv will continue this stringent process as it develops more products: additional Pup E. Luv treats, more Natural Bites snacks and a new Kit E. Luv value line of cat food and treats, scheduled to launch the beginning of 2008.

As products develop, so will their packaging, especially toward more eco-friendly forms and materials. Natural Bites products are packaged in burlap bags with a 100% recyclable paper bag lining. "We went with that because burlap is made from one of the most renewable sources in the world, jute," Gardone explains. "The bag is a very expensive piece, and a lot of larger companies probably wouldn't use it. But we're doing it because it's right."

Doing things right is part of the company's long-term goal, which is to have Pup E. Luv as a legacy. "I think if you talk to each person here, 12 from 15 years from now we want to be proud of what we were able to accomplish," Gardone says. "So we're taking steps each and every day everything from how we can help the environment to how we can help pets live happy lives to how we can help consumers, whether that be financially or with what they feed their pets."

Business basics

Headquarters: West Chester, Pennsylvania, USA

Officers: Glenn Gardone, president/kennel master; Sharon Taylor, office manager/lead musher; David Najim, retail relations/top dog; Jeff Cohen, distributor relations/big dog

Annual sales: Reached its first-year sales goal in only six months, projects 50% to 65% growth over the next five years. (As a private company, does not divulge sales figures.)

Brands: Pup E. Luv dog treats, launching Natural Bites dog and cat food and treats (29 SKUs) this month

Facilities: Dry production plant in Sabetha, Kansas, USA, which also does a small volume of private label manufacturing. Wet products are being made by Evanger's Dog & Cat Food Co.

Distribution: Available in pet specialty stores in all 50 United States and soon in Canada. Projects European distribution within two to three years.

Employees: 37

Website: www.pupeluv.net

A future of label readers

Asked to speculate about the future of the petfood industry, Glenn Gardone of Pup E. Luv answers with a question of his own: "Will we be all natural/organic in 25 years? Perhaps, if we can figure out what the costs are, if we can figure out what is truly organic," he says. "I think there's a lot of gray area the industry needs to clear up."

More pertinent, Gardone believes, is that the industry is moving toward what he calls label readers. "The wave of the future is natural and organic, but waves come from the ocean, and the ocean will be a very clean label. What I mean by that is a label where you can read the ingredients and understand what they are," he explains. "Is there a vitamin K? Is there a vitamin E? Is there the omega I'm looking for?

"I think if you ask average consumers, they'll tell you, I just want a product that's safe. I want to be able to make sure that when I feed my dog or cat, it won't kill him or her,'" Gardone continues. "And I think that's a fair and reasonable enough thing for an industry to do."

He adds that the recent recalls are speeding up this need for clearer labels, but "there are already people who want to understand what's going into their pets' tummies. They want to know what's in the food."