In May 2010, Shawn Buckley founded JustFoodForDogs with the idea of providing “life-changing” food for dogs. Restaurant-grade ingredients with no preservatives would be cooked, in nutritionally balanced recipes backed by feeding trials, in kitchens all over the U.S. and each kitchen would be accessible to pet owners who wanted to see what their pets were really getting.
But then, in 2014, the company opened up a pantry — JustFoodForDogs’ name for a space about 125–250 square feet that operates on a “store within a store” concept — inside a veterinary clinic in Orange County, California. Quite unexpectedly, the pantry idea took off.
“It was ridiculously successful,” says Buckley. “And we thought it might be an anomaly, so we opened another pantry in downtown L.A. (Los Angeles, California, USA), and it was also ridiculously successful. So we just kept doing it.”
The “hub and spoke” model of JustFoodForDogs
A revised business growth plan was born, and the company currently operates on something that resembles a hub with many spokes branching out to reach everywhere there’s a demand for JustFoodForDogs’ products.
“If you were to look at a map of the U.S., and you were to see southern California and Delaware, (USA), those would be home to our two master kitchens,” says Buckley. Those spaces are more than 20,000 square feet each and combined produce nearly 70,000 pounds of food per day. “And then if you were to branch out from there, you would see a certain number of retail kitchens,” he says. “Those are the kitchens people are generally familiar with when they think of JustFoodForDogs — of walking into a format of about 2,500 square feet where it’s very much like a restaurant kitchen but we’re making food for dogs and cats, and you can see it being made.” Those kitchens find homes in places like Seattle (Washington, USA), New York, USA, L.A., San Diego (California, USA) and San Francisco (California, USA). There is also a 3,000-square-foot kitchen under construction in Chicago, Illinois, USA, directly in front of animal shelter PAWS Chicago, due to open in mid-November 2020 (around the time of publication).
JustFoodForDogs’ concept of having kitchens like this one spread throughout the U.S. means pet owners can see how their animal’s food is being made, right down to the ingredients being used, while they pick up fresh meals. | Courtesy JustFoodForDogs
After that you drill down even further to the pantries, which can be found in veterinary offices, in Pet Food Express in northern California, and in Petcos across the U.S. The pantries are staffed by JustFoodForDogs employees and are autonomous within the stores they’re located at.
Fresh, whole food: a health-driven product line
One of JustFoodForDogs’ strengths is its staff of veterinarians. That combined knowledge has allowed the company to not only provide health-based formulations, but to continue to make inroads as partners with veterinary clinics.
“Once upon a time, veterinarians had a really tight relationship with certain brands,” says Buckley. “But I think that has waned. We’ve had a tremendous amount of success with veterinarians because of the efficacy of our line of prescription food. We’re the only company in the U.S. that makes a line of prescription food that’s not in a can or a bag, and we’ve been doing it for nine of our 10 years. We have a chief medical officer (Dr. Oscar E. Chavez, BVetMed MRCVS MBA) who’s been with us for nine years, five full-time veterinarians on our staff, and 8 or 9 part-time veterinarians." Three of those veterinarians are board-certified with specialties in nutrition, toxicology and dermatology, and a fourth (with a specialty in nutrition) would have completed his boards earlier in 2020 had the testing not been delayed due to COVID-19.
JustFoodForDogs’ Veterinary Support Rx line, which requires a prescription from a veterinarian, includes formulas for renal, hepatic, metabolic, joint and skin, and critical care support. What’s more, the company focuses heavily on internal education to ensure any employee who might interact with a customer can speak intelligently on pet health and JustFoodForDogs products.
“We have our own curriculum, created in part by Dr. Chavez (who is currently also an adjunct faculty and researcher, and professor of veterinary clinical nutrition, at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona). And if you come in to a JustFoodForDogs facility, whether it’s a pantry or a kitchen, all of those employees have gone through our curriculum taught directly by veterinarians. And they’re trained on our products.”
Obviously no one comes out of that training a working veterinarian, and employees don’t dispense medical advice. But the company’s veterinary staff are also just a phone call away, says Buckley, and both they and those trained by them can help build a customized nutrition plan for any dog whose owner might call in. JustFoodForDogs even offers a “do it yourself” option, where pet owners can order a kit that includes a meal recipe, a shopping list and a specially formulated nutrient blend in order to make the food in their own kitchens.
JustFoodForDogs focuses on fresh, whole, human-grade ingredients in all their formulas. Turkey and whole wheat macaroni (seen here), for example, has UDSA-certified ground turkey, whole wheat macaroni, zucchini, carrots, USDA-certified turkey liver, cranberries, omega plus fish oil, and a multivitamin and mineral blend. | Courtesy JustFoodForDogs
“If you want to make your own food — let’s say you want to make our recipes — we’re the only pet food company in the U.S. that gives away our intellectual property,” says Buckley. “We’ve done it since day one.”
Feeding trials are also a significant part of the company's philosophy, since JustFoodForDogs is one of only a handful of companies in the industry that has conducted peer-reviewed and published feeding trials. That number goes down even more once you take out the "big dogs," so to speak.
"I don’t believe anybody else is doing third-party, peer-reviewed research in veterinary journals, aside from the big guys," says Buckley, and he said to his knowledge JustFoodForDogs is the only fresh pet food company to do so.
Segment growth and looking to 2021
Buckley said he believes that the fresh, whole food segment of pet food is perhaps the fastest-growing segment, and it has definitely come a long way from when JustFoodForDogs was founded.
“It’s absolutely on fire, driven by consumers,” he says. “When we started this business, the number of people who were open to a fresh, whole food diet were much smaller, obviously, than today. And since then we’ve also picked up competitors, and that’s exactly what we need. In fact, we need more of them. If we’re going to shift from dogs eating feed-grade, highly processed kibble to eating fresh, whole food — low-processed, refrigerated or frozen food — we’re going to need a lot more people doing what we do.”
JustFoodForDogs plans to continue its expansion into 2021, including playing a little catch-up from slowed-down projects due to the global pandemic.
“We have 219 locations open today,” says Buckley. “By the end of the year we'll be up to 242 locations total. This year is going to be a monster growth year for us, but I don’t think it’s going to be as big as what it would have been without COVID-19. The pandemic impeded our ability to open as many locations from a construction standpoint and a planning standpoint, as what we had originally planned. Basically, [remaining 2020 plans] get pushed to the end of this year and into the first and second quarters of next year.”
As for new formulations, the company currently has one formula for cats (JustCats fish and chicken) and would like to add more.
“Cat [formulas are] super interesting,” says Buckley. “We were supposed to come out with three cat diets back in the day, and we came out with one instead — cats just didn’t like the other two. Dr. Chavez and his team are working on two more cat diets, and we’re expecting them to come out in 2021.”
Overall, even with the ups and downs of 2020, Buckley says he feels positively both about his company and the growth of fresh food for pets overall.
“I see it coming, and we will not be the only ones doing it,” he says. “We’re not now. There will be lots of different companies. Some will be subscription only. Others will be all organic. Others will be freestyle buying — go online and buy what you want. Maybe others will open up kitchens like ours. It’s the future of pet food.”
Headquarters: Irvine, California, USA
Officers: Shawn Buckley, founder; Carey Tischler, president; Dr. Oscar Chaves, chief medical officer
Website/Social Media: www.justfoodfordogs.com; @justfoodfordogs on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
Notable: The company’s pantries inside veterinary practices boast an annual per-square-foot sales that ranks them in the top five retailers in any industry.