Zach’s Quality Dog Food was founded in 2003 with a simple mission: formulate and provide high-quality, affordable dog food.
“I stick to the basics,” says Daniel Willis, founder and CEO of Zach’s. “My food is more of a meat-based dog food, with three different meats and oatmeal and rice for digestibility. I feel like that helps dogs stay healthier than they would if you try to feed them the way you’d feed you.”
One of the problems Willis said he sees in the pet food industry is a trend toward more complicated ingredients, catering to the desire of pet owners to feed their animals like they feed themselves. “Dogs on my dog food seem to perform better and have higher energy levels,” he says. “And that’s why I stick to my formulas.” He says his theory is that it’s okay to focus on simple, quality nutrition rather than the pet equivalent of “a high-dollar restaurant.”
Pitbull Samson belongs to a long-time customer of Zach’s and has eaten Zach’s dog food since he was a puppy. | Rachelle Jones | Rachelle Jones Photography
The path to Zach’s Quality Dog Food
Willis grew up in a small ranch town in Texas called Hamlin, which at the time was home to about 1,500 people, a feed mill and not much else. In junior high Willis started working for the owner of the feed mill, and that’s where his path to pet food really began.
“I learned how to make cattle feed, pig feed — the slogan the feed mill had was ‘everything to feed anything’” says Willis. “So I’ve been around the feed business since I was in school. When I graduated I started working for the feed mill and they put in a dog food plant, and that’s when I started learning more about dog food.”
Willis says he got an idea of what dog food companies were doing and how they were making their foods, and while he left Hamlin to work in the oil industry he eventually came back — and that’s when Willis decided to start his own dog food business.
Challenges to success: getting in the door
When Zach’s was founded, getting space on feed store shelves seemed like a natural fit for Willis, given his roots in the feed industry. But he says he immediately ran into roadblocks.
“When I first started out, I went to every feed store that you could think of in the state of Texas,” he says. “And they wouldn’t give me an opportunity. They said well, you’re not well known, and they passed on me. And then I thought, well you know what I’ll do, I’ll start doing home deliveries. I started going to dog parks, and whenever I saw someone I’d pass out samples and brochures. And by doing that, eventually I picked up around 200+ regular customers.”
Those customers, all gained through personal interactions with pet owners, led Willis to try for something bigger a second time.
“Eventually, in the Dallas (Texas) area, I had enough people that I asked for a meeting with the buyer of Costco, and they gave me an opportunity to put my product in their stores,” he says. “After a few years in Costco I went back to the feed stores and said hey guys, will you give me an opportunity now, and they said well, you’re in a big box store now so we can’t use you. That’s the reason I ended up in the big box stores … no one in a feed store would give me an opportunity.”
Zach’s currently has two dog food formulas made for all life stages: chicken and rice, and beef and rice. Willis hopes to get a puppy line of products and a lamb and rice senior formula out on shelves soon. Rachelle Jones | Rachelle Jones Photography
Being in Costco was a huge opportunity to expand, but more challenges hit Zach’s just as momentum was picking up.
“My food did really, really well [in Costco],” says Willis. “But I had some issues with my manufacturer — they went out of business, then another manufacturer took over and they went under, and a third also went under. And then we went into a bit of a slump, because I had nobody in Texas who could make my food.”
Willis considered his options and went to Cargill to establish a new partnership. Things fell into place and the company started producing Zach’s product and getting it back onto Costco store shelves. Now, a year into working with Cargill, Willis says Zach’s is in the process of rebuilding and expanding. His food is now being manufactured in Ohio, which he says adds another layer to things. The additional logistics make it more difficult to keep stocking in Texas at prices people expect.
Being a Black-owned business in the pet food industry
As far as Willis knows, he is the first Black founder of a dog food business in the U.S. and one of only a handful currently operating. Being Black, he says, has added an extra layer to his difficulties in getting Zach’s off the ground that others in the industry just don’t have.
“If I sit back and tell you that being Black isn’t part of the issue, I’d be lying,” says Willis. “Because I’ve had some [instances] when I’ve walked into a feed store and asked to speak to a manager about my product and they immediately say ‘I’m not interested.’ And I just thank them for their time and turn around and go. I’ve had doors closed in my face plenty of times, but it’s never deterred me from continuing. In fact, it gives me energy to keep trying.”
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the United States has both drawn more attention to such disparities in the business world and provided unexpected opportunities to end up in the spotlight.
“This current situation, that’s been going on with the Black Lives Matter movement, has kind of changed the course of things for my business,” says Willis. “At one point I had about 50 bags of product sitting in my building for local customers, and when the movement gained ground, those bags were gone online. People suddenly want to buy from Black-owned businesses, and they researched and they started calling me.”
That it took a countrywide movement to acknowledge what Willis and other Black business owners have knows for decades is frustrating, to say the least, according to Willis.
“I try to go in as humble as I can, to give people the opportunity to hear me,” he says. “And the doors are shut. The challenges I’m dealing with are different. It’s a whole different ballgame and it’s real. I would love to be out there just like the rest of them, but the Black Lives Matter movement has made the world aware that they’re not really catering to Blacks in a lot of areas. And pet food is one of them.”
What does he want the pet food industry to look like?
“Colorful,” says Willis. “I want people to recognize that people of color can produce just as good a product as any other company. We’re just asking for the same opportunity. I try to go in on the merits of my product. I don’t want anybody in the country to buy my product because I’m Black. I want my product to sell itself. And being Black, I’ve had to put together a formula that will sell — my product has to be superb. I want it to be a top-notch product so that customers will say, hey, my dog loves this and it’s healthy. Not because ‘a Black guy owns it so I bought a bag’.”
Headquarters: Breckenridge, Texas, USA
Officers: Daniel Willis, founder and CEO
Brands: Zach’s Quality Dog Food
Notable: Zach’s is named after Willis’ grandson, Zachary. Willis’ wife, Katheryn, a retired teacher, is the company’s accountant.