Here’s a prescription for just about anything ailing the pet food industry or its members: Visit with pet food entrepreneurs, startups and smaller companies, and you’ll quickly get a healthy reminder of why this industry is so vibrant, inspiring and fun.
Recently I attended the P3 pet trade show, a new show in Chicago. Though it was small and rather barebones—a startup itself—I was encouraged by the number of new and smaller, regional pet food brands that were exhibiting. Talking with some of them proved even more invigorating (which was very welcome considering that I was dealing with jet lag from a trip to China).
P3 stands for Progressive Pet Products, by the way. I can’t say I saw any truly progressive pet food or treat products, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t very interesting ones. For example, novel ingredients were well represented, including cannabidiol (CBD, the non-high-inducing compound in hemp) oil in Rush Direct’s Cani Bits dog treats, as well as exotic proteins like brushtail, wild boar, wild kangaroo and goat in jerky treats and wet dog food from Walk About Pet Products, one of the newer companies. Raw pet food also had a presence, from Raw Bistro’s frozen products to WellyTails’ dehydrated ones.
But the interest really spiked in talking with representatives of these and other pet food companies, especially the new ones—because by bringing in new people, ideas, perspectives and infusions of passion, these companies keep the pet food industry fresh and growing. In my view, they are the industry’s lifeblood.
For a while now, it seems the story behind most startups entering the pet food market has followed a familiar pattern: a pet owner/enthusiast starts making a pet food or treat in their kitchen to treat a beloved pet’s ailment or simply because they don’t like the choices on the market. The pet seems to do well on the food or treat, the owner shares it with other pet parents whose pets respond positively, and the owner decides to take it to market and turn it into a business.
This pattern still seems to be the foundation behind many pet food or treat startups, but now the stories are taking on new nuances and twists. For example, Great Lakes Pet Food, based in Holland, Michigan, USA, originated from a desire of the owners and founders to support local farmers (especially livestock) and businesses. “The graphic designer who created our logo and packaging design is just down the street from our offices,” said Sue Flowers, business manager. The fact that all involved are longtime pet lovers and owners played a role, too.
In the case of K9 Salute, founder Jessica Harris had retired after 20 years as a combat medic with the US National Guard and relocated for what she considered her “dream job,” but was laid off after only 10 months and had difficulty finding another job. Facing the question of what to do next, she thought of what she was really passionate about: pets and veterans. So she combined the two and started a new dog treat company that seeks to source all ingredients from local farmers who are veterans and also donates a portion of all proceeds to groups that find and train service dogs for veterans. Other beneficiaries include police dogs; K9 Salute donates to organizations that provide protective vests to them. (Each package of the treats highlights a fallen police dog.)
K9 Salute’s story is one of the most inspiring, but others add to the industry’s vibrancy, too. Those include Rush Direct starting a new brand of treats, ResQ Naturals, to also give back (in this case to support pet adoption and rescue); Almo Nature, a manufacturer from Italy specializing in wet pet food and making an aggressive push to expand around the world, including the US; Mid America Pet Food, whose owners literally built their own pet food manufacturing plant 10 years ago, now reviving a dormant brand, Victor, into a superpremium line; American Pet Nutrition, a well-known contract manufacturer, buying and relaunching the My Little Wolf brand as a grain-free, shelf-stable, semi-moist line; and Dr. Gary’s Best Breed, a veterinarian-developed line of holistic pet foods sold in the Midwest US and now looking to expand its distribution (one of several companies we talked with seeking such expansion).
These are just a handful of the companies and narratives driving pet food’s progression and growth—and the examples highlighted here are not intended to slight the innovation and activity happening at larger pet food companies. That includes when those bigger companies acquire some of the startups and smaller companies, another driver that keeps the industry moving and shaking.