Nearly 20 years ago, John Gordon and Scott Whipple were working in independent pet retail when they say they realized brands weren’t supporting independent retail like they once had. The two had a vision to create a pet specialty product that would bring customers back to pet specialty stores—and keep them coming back for more. This vision led to Gordon and Whipple co-founding CANIDAE Natural Pet Food Company.
“The first product that we launched was an all-life-stage product, and that’s still our flagship product to this day,” says Whipple. “We tried to create a product that fed very well. The product absolutely performed, and it kept the customers coming back for more to pet specialty.”
Building on their initial success, Gordon and Whipple never looked back. “Working directly and only for pet specialty has been our only focus,” says Gordon. “Almost 20 years of doing the same thing, and that’s still our focus today. We’ve stayed the course.”
Selling specialty pet food products only to pet food specialty retail stores has CANIDAE operating in a niche within a niche. Given that, what have they done to grow their business? “About a year-and-a-half ago we reformulated our grain-free PURE line, and that’s been the push for us as of late,” says Whipple. “Pet specialty retailers having niche products containing niche proteins, and [having products] in the grain-free category, separates them from big box and mass retailers.” Products like Foundations PURE Puppy and PURE Ocean Indoor with Fresh Tuna cat food, both launched in the summer of 2014, play to the company’s strengths in the specialty market while expanding options on store shelves. CANIDAE also introduced 12 different 3-oz. cat cans, which have added single-serve options to the company’s canned cat food line.
CANIDAE's PURE grain-free line highlights the company's priority: specialty pet food sold in the specialty retail channel that provides quality nutrition options for pet owners.
To maintain momentum, the company has plans for continued line expansions this summer. “We’re currently getting ready to launch six new chewy treats with unique protein sources like wild boar and cherry,” says Whipple. “In the dog food dry line we’re expanding it to four new PURE formulas, which include Wild Boar, Weight Management, Senior and Small Breed. We’ll also have four new PURE cat formulas: Weight Management, Senior, Hairball and Kitten. We feel as though expanding on the PURE line adds differentiation to the pet specialty retailer, and the quality of the product and the uniqueness is unsurpassed.”
The pet specialty customer has always been CANIDAE’s priority. But the company realized that in order to expand in such a focused market, new consumers from outside the niche would have to be drawn in. “We realized several years ago that this industry was changing dramatically, and if we didn’t keep up with the changes in the industry we would become irrelevant,” says Whipple. “We hired our own internal marketing firm just over two years ago, and what we started doing was reaching out to customers with research and data to learn what was it our customers were looking for. We didn’t want to develop brands just for us, that were driven by profitability and return on investment. We wanted to build products around our customers’ needs. That has set our company on a different path the last couple of years.”
CANIDAE’s research led to the realization that the company was missing a significant consumer opportunity: the customer who wants to try specialty pet food, but is very price sensitive. So CANIDAE went to work developing an answer to the problem, and came up with a whole new product line. “Under the Sun is our new release this year,” says Gordon. “It’s for price-sensitive shoppers, but the important thing is that it still maintains the quality that we instill in all our formulas.” The aim, he says, is to get shoppers who focus on mass grocery for their pet food to try out their pet specialty options.
CANIDAE's Under the Sun line is a way for the company to introduce price-sensitive customers to specialty pet food.
Under the Sun is a grain-free formula for both dogs and cats made with proteins including farm-raised poultry, lamb or fresh-caught salmon. The line offers customers a high-quality, cost-effective option and can be found in more than 10,000 pet stores across the US, including Petco, says CANIDAE. In addition to high-grade protein sources, the formulas, available in both dry and wet food, contain farm-fresh fruits and vegetables. Under the Sun comes in Original Adult, Puppy and Weight Management.
Staying relevant while maintaining a focus on the specialty retail market is the company’s biggest challenge, say the co-founders. “Basically we’ve been able to hit all three sectors of the market—good, better, best, if you will—as far as affordability,” says Gordon. But in bringing each new product to market, the company strives to maintain its founding principles and keep its consumer-focused goals at the forefront. “What do [consumers] want? What do they need?” says Gordon. These are the questions CANIDAE has always asked, “we’ve just gotten more sophisticated at getting the data,” he says. “We always try to stay on the mark, and that’s our focus: that we’re giving consumers and their pets exactly what they want.”
Education is key to making sure CANIDAE stays on top of the game, says Whipple. “We’ve increased our sales force by 37%, that way we can properly educate the retailer and help them get our product in their store,” he says. “There are so many pet food choices on the shelves today, so the challenge is getting our products on the shelf. Once they’re on the shelf, they move. We just need to keep products in the channel.
“A lot of companies dabble in pet specialty retail and really focus on grocery and mass,” says Whipple. “We only sell to pet specialty, so we’re in the very smallest piece of the pie when it comes to retail sales. But that’s what we know, that’s what we believe in, that’s what we love and that’s what we support. I think that helps differentiate us and set us apart.”
Ethos Pet Nutrition
CANIDAE co-founders John Gordon and Scott Whipple had a dream bigger than their company. They wanted to open their own pet food manufacturing facility—being able to produce their product in-house, to control the process every step of the way and ensure the integrity and quality of the pet food they were putting on the shelves, was their overarching goal.
Three-and-a-half years ago, they opened Ethos Pet Nutrition, located in Brownwood, Texas, USA. “It’s a research and development center, so that we’re actually running products, feeding them to our own pets, before we launch them,” says Whipple. “We’re happy to be able to control every step of manufacturing, from ingredients and sourcing to testing and safety. Those things are highly important to us. We have a lab installed in the plant that tests all incoming ingredients before they’re ever off-loaded into the plant, we test every 10 minutes during a production run to ensure quality, and we test products before they leave the warehouse to make sure they’re free of Salmonella and other bacteria.”
The current plant isn’t the end of the dream, says Gordon. “We’re continuing to expand the plant,” he says. Current plans include expanding the quality control and production operations, and expanding the warehouse. “We just don’t stop.”
Just the Facts
Headquarters: Norco, CA
Facilities: Brownwood, TX
Officers: John Gordon, Scott Whipple
Sales: CANIDAE is seeing a tremendous growth year in 2015 that is driven by its differentiated grain-free PURE products with fresh meat, whole foods and simple recipes. It has also just launched Under the Sun, a value natural product designed to provide the pet specialty retailer with a differentiated product with farm fresh ingredients and whole foods at an affordable price.
Brands: CANIDAE Grain Free PURE, CANIDAE Life Stages, Equidae