Grocery Pup takes fresh pet food in a new direction

Grocery Pup's sous vide-cooked recipes add a new dimension to the fresh/frozen pet food market.

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Grocery pup Co-founders Javier Marriott and Ruth Stedman were partially inspired by their desire to give their Pomsky (half-Pomeranian, half-Husky) Lola the best in fresh pet food. (Courtesy Grocery Pup)
Grocery pup Co-founders Javier Marriott and Ruth Stedman were partially inspired by their desire to give their Pomsky (half-Pomeranian, half-Husky) Lola the best in fresh pet food. (Courtesy Grocery Pup)

Grocery Pup is about as new to pet food as it gets: founded in May 2018 with an online inventory and subscription service, the Austin, Texas, USA-based company entered its first brick-and-mortar store in October 2018 and has truly hit the ground running.

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Grocery Pup’s subscription service sends pet owners’ chosen foods to them in refrigerated boxes with the recipes frozen. They can be defrosted overnight or in water in about 30 minutes. | Courtesy Grocery Pup

“Month over month we’re growing 40–50 percent,” says Co-founder and CEO Ruth Stedman. “This quarter (which carried through the end of 2018) sales are up over 300 percent.”

Naturally, a new company may expect to see growth right out of the gate. But the co-founders of Grocery Pup (Javier Marriott is Stedman’s partner) believe that they have found a new corner of a growing market — and it all started with a business class.

Looking for a new way to do pet food

While Stedman was attending Red McCombs School of Business (the University of Texas at Austin in Austin, Texas, USA), she participated in a contest where her group submitted a project on fresh pet food. When the group won second place, Stedman says she took the recognition as validation that she was on to something.

“It was me wanting to transfer my preferences for food down to my dog,” she says. “I thought it was weird that human food has changed so much in the last 15 years and dog food really hasn’t changed that much. But the passion behind it came from learning how pet food was made and the types of ingredients [used]. As a company, it’s up to you to decide what standards of ingredients you want to allow.”

Stedman, along with Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Javier Marriott, who was also attending the business school, decided they wanted to do better for their own dog, Lola, and any other dog they could reach.

“People treat their dogs as family members and Lola is no exception,” says Stedman. “We’re the poster millennial couple who haven’t had a child yet and have a dog.”

Raw food was out because Lola didn’t like it, says Stedman. So in 2016, she and Marriott turned to the growing fresh/frozen market, instead.

What does sous vide look like in pet food production?

Sous vide is a cooking process where raw ingredients are placed into BPA-free vacuum-sealed bags and then cooked with water for over an hour until the internal temperature of the food reaches 160 degrees (the temperature varies slightly depending on the protein being used) — just enough to kill pathogens but not more to retain the nutritional integrity of the food. It’s a fairly standard method of cooking in human food — but pet food?

“All of those healthy water-soluble vitamins and minerals that are usually lost to cooking water or steam remain intact — a significant improvement from boiling or other cooking methods that have been found to remove 20–40 percent of nutrients,” says Stedman. “Sous vide also retains healthy fatty acids better than traditional cooking methods that damage them with higher temperatures and oxidation. Lastly, sous vide cooking boosts the flavor of the food because the ingredients are effectively marinating in meat juices for an extended period of time as the food cooks. Overall, it makes for a food that’s both healthy and incredibly palatable to even the pickiest of eaters.”

One of the biggest challenges in producing fresh pet food is scaling up, and since Grocery Pup went from producing 3,000 pounds of food in June 2018 to 30,000 pounds in October 2018, scale was definitely an issue. Fortunately, Grocery Pup was able to find a human food processor who was willing to partner with the company, giving Stedman and Marriott access to a human-grade facility using the sous vide method and able to scale up their production to match their growth.

 “All of our recipes are cooked in a USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) human food facility,” says Stedman. “We only use ingredients that are good enough for human consumption and we follow the same safety and quality standards as human food. We also apply a ‘lock and hold’ policy: Every batch of food is tested for pathogens before it leaves the facility.”

So far, Grocery Pup has three recipes: Turkey Pawella, Texas Beef Stew and Porky’s Luau; the company plans to release a fourth recipe in the near future.

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Grocery Pup’s product line currently includes three recipes, each focusing on a different protein, and the company has plans for a fourth recipe in 2019. | Courtesy Grocery Pup

Challenges of a small start-up in a niche market segment

Every new company has its challenges, but Grocery Pup began as a two-person operation in a niche segment of pet food. How has the company managed to make itself known?

“As a startup, there are two big challenges,” says Marriott. “One is the awareness factor. There’s a lot of noise in pet food and there’s a consumer education factor [that comes into play with fresh pet food]. The other thing is Grocery Pup is a self-funded company — we’re really a two-person company. As two individuals we’ve been able to accomplish a lot.

“We’re the first fresh cooked dog food into retail, as far as we know,” he says. “We’ve done it all with our own means and we try to keep it that way. But it’s not like we have an unlimited bank account and unlimited time. So, it makes us more creative, more aggressive in our messaging and makes us more efficient in everything that we do.”

Being small does have its advantages, particularly when it comes to being nimble in a complicated market.

“Since we’re small, we can change things like messaging pretty quickly,” says Stedman. “The nice thing about where we make our food is we don’t have production capacity issues, whereas a lot of fresh food companies do, particularly if they’re making it by hand. For us it’s just a matter of getting distribution. The challenging thing is prioritizing our time and the cash flow, so we have to minimize mistakes. And being relatively new to the pet food industry, we’ve made our fair share of mistakes — we just have to fix them quickly.”

The future of Grocery Pup

This still-small company has a big mission statement: to make freshly cooked dog food as commercially available as processed dry dog food.

“In October 2018, we entered our first set of brick-and-mortar stores with our launch into Tomlinson’s Feed 15 store locations in Austin and Central Texas,” says Stedman. “We also teamed up with distributor Nelson Wholesale to service the southeast region.”

Grocery Pup also recently signed an agreement with SLA Brands to represent Grocery Pup to distributors and retailers nationwide and in Canada.  

“SLA Brands is among the most well-respected groups within the pet industry and with this agreement we are looking forward to accelerating our retail footprint with them,” says Stedman.

Grocery Pup plans to focus largely on the coastal areas of the U.S. through the middle of 2019, with a plan to expand inward as fresh pet food continues to grain footholds among pet owners. And whatever else, the company’s co-founders have an eye towards staying on top of their game.

“For us it’s really crucial timing,” says Marriott. “We wake up every day with the mindset that tomorrow there’s going to be another product similar to ours, so we need to be faster and we need to be more efficient. That’s why we want to get into as many retailers as possible, as fast as possible, and get that shelf space.”

 

Just the Facts

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Headquarters: Austin, Texas, USA

Facilities: Texas, USA

Officers: Ruth Stedman, co-founder and CEO; Javier Marriott, co-founder and COO

Sales: Sales consistently grow 40–50 percent per month. Up over 300 percent in the most recent quarter.

Brands: Grocery Pup

Distribution: Nelson Wholesale

Employees: 3

Website/Social Media: www.grocerypup.com; @GroceryPupTX on Facebook, @thegrocerypup on Instagram

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