Since its beginning in 1935, Evanger's Dog & Cat Food Co. Inc. (www.evangersdogfood.com) has grown from a primarily private label manufacturer to one now producing some of the most innovative products on the market.

Founder Fred Evanger raised Great Danes and decided to build a canning factory in close proximity to his kennels in Wheeling, Illinois, USA. Over the past 70 years, the company has turned over twice and is now owned and operated by husband-and-wife team Holly (president) and Joel Sher (vice president). The Shers purchased the company in 2002.

Joel was previously an independent supplier of meat and vegetable products to Evanger's, and when the chance to purchase the plant came about, he and his wife took on the challenge. Joel, having supplied Evanger's with raw meat for over 15 years, knew the company produced a quality product. Since Holly and Joel took over, Evanger's has experienced 300% growth and now produces about 50 products.

Private label history

Evanger's started supplying the private label market in the early 1960s, and that had become the bulk of the company's business over the years. The Shers have been determined to grow the Evanger's company brand into a significant player in the petfood market. Thus, they have developed many new and innovative products for the Evanger's line. Today, the Evanger's brand accounts for approximately 50% of the company's overall business, but not due to a decline in private label sales.

According to Joel, "Consistent, top-quality products and excellent customer service are just two of our strong points. Being a small manufacturing company enables us to work closely with our accounts to ensure their satisfaction." Most ingredients are sourced locally by Sher and are procured and processed in a very short time.

Formulating innovative products

With the help of consultant/formulator Joe McGrath, Joel has been the creative force behind the evolution of the Evanger's line. The innovative wet dog food products they've launched include Super Premium Gold Dinners, Hand-Packed Specialties, Organic, 100% Meat and Game Meats. According to Sher, they are made from high-quality, human-grade ingredients, with no additives, preservatives or by-products.

Evanger's superpremium Hand-Packed foods are indeed packed by hand in order to "maintain the shape and nutrients of each recipe's contents," according to the company website. The recipes include bones and solid chunks of meat, including whole fish. All recipes with bones undergo retorting, which softens the bones, rendering them edible, soft and digestible. The company's hand-packed line has a unique look, resembling a home-cooked stew. The products include Chunky Chicken Casserole, Whole Chicken Thighs, Whole Mackerel with Gravy, Roasted Chicken Drumette Dinner, Braised Beef Chunks with Gravy and Hunk of Beef.

Kosher, organic and more

The dog and cat foods from Evanger's offer Jewish pet owners an option at Passover. Evanger's food is suitable for kosher events or homes, according to Holly. The Chicago Rabbinical Council has even approved the food Evanger's has created suitable for all Jewish holidays, including Passover.

Evanger's also offers organic meals, such as the 100% Chicken and Turkey with Potatoes & Carrots Dinner and the Organic Turkey & Butternut Squash Dinner for cats. Evanger's production facility has been certified by the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) to produce 100% organic products. OCIA International is one of the world's oldest, largest leaders in the organic certification industry. A nonprofit, member-owned, agricultural organization, OCIA provides organic certification services and access to global organic markets, according to the organization's website (www.ocia.org).

Evanger's 100% natural Game Meat and poultry line (marketed as hormone and antibiotic free) supplements its dry dog foods: Dog Food with Chicken, as well as Pheasant and Brown Rice.

Future plans

With a 7,000-square-foot expansion of the original Evanger's manufacturing and warehouse facility, on the site where the founder's Great Danes once swam in their own private pool, the company has seen its sales triple (compared with 2002). The plant currently produces 60,000 pounds of product each day, manufacturing over 15 different product recipes in small batches. With a short turnaround time, the plant usually cans and labels the product for shipping the same day.

By the end of 2003, production was at full capacity for a single shift of 10 hours. This year, the company plans to staff another full line, nearly doubling its workforce of 45 employees. With future relocation and a new plant under discussion, the Shers have big plans ahead.

Talking to their customers helps Holly and Joel keep abreast of the trends that will do well in the marketplace. "We see the first glimpses of the industry and try to adapt to them quickly," said Joel.

Business basics

Headquarters: Wheeling, Illinois, USA.

Officers: Holly Sher, president; Joel Sher, vice president.

Annual sales: The company has grown 300% since the Shers purchased it in 2002. Total sales undisclosed.

Brands: Super Premium Gold Dinners; Hand-Packed Specialties; Organic; 100% Meat Classic Line; Game Meats; Complete Classic Dinners; Super Premium Cat Dinners; Gourmet Classic Cat Dinners.

Manufacturing: One canning facility in Wheeling; dry dog food contracted.

Employees: 45

Website: www.evangersdogfood.com