Phelps Pet Products is currently best known as a contract manufacturer of specialty meat-based dog treats. The company’s particular focus is in such areas as organic, USA-made (it’s based in Rockford, Illinois, USA), “smokehouse”-style meat and jerky treats. While it has two treat lines of its own that it introduced in 2020—a functional dog treat line called Phelps Wellness Collection and a clean label dog treat line called Callie’s Kitchen—Phelps’ proudest accomplishments are in helping other companies stay on top of the latest pet treat trends with the ability to create recipes that support a full spectrum of product claims.
In fact, “the company has evolved tremendously over the last 55 years,” says Rick Ruffolo, CEO and president of Phelps. “There was a time when Phelps competed in all different market segments — including chews, toys, hard goods, etc. — and this included a significant amount of importing. While there are many companies who still have a wide portfolio of items, we changed our model to focus specifically on jerky-style dog treats that are made in the USA with clean-label ingredients. While we can make a national brand equivalent as well as anyone, we usually leave that business to our competitors so we can focus our energies on what’s next in the category.”
Then, Phelps started talking to Disney — yes, that Disney — and a whole new opportunity opened up.
Conversations with Disney
“Phelps is way on the forefront [of trends] from a contract manufacturing standpoint,” says Ruffolo. “We’re bringing solutions to many retailers and brands today because we feel that’s where the innovation is. What we like to do is say, hey, have you ever heard of (for example) 100% plant-based jerky, or have you heard of upcycled ingredients?
“We were the first to introduce 100% plant-based (meatless) jerky dog treats to the market when we debuted them at the February 2020 Global Pet Expo, and it has become the single-biggest new product trend in the dog treats category,” he says. Upcycling is a growing idea in both the human and pet food spaces: to take ‘imperfect’ or ‘ugly’ produce, for example, that would normally end up discarded and redirect it for use in other ways, whether it’s back to consumers at a discounted price (via subscription services such as Imperfect Foods) or as an ingredient in an eventual end product. In short, upcycling = rescuing nutritious foods, says Ruffolo.
“When we went to Disney, they were looking to try and do something in the dog world and recognized that the brand had incredible resonance there,” says Ruffolo. “Of course, there are so many Disney characters and Disney dogs across all the movie franchises, but they didn’t want to just be a ‘me too.’ They really wanted it to be strategic and appropriate. When you think of all the initiatives Disney has taken on over the years around trying to do good for something — the environment, people, your health, diversity — this was a great intersection of what they’d like to and had no capability of doing — they don’t make the treats, we do — and it was a great fit.”
Aligning with trends and staying ahead of the curve
Disney has been looking to get into the pet treats space, and Phelps has the industry knowledge. It’s also a good opportunity for Phelps to step out from behind the private label business a bit more.
“We’re always this behind-the-scenes character,” says Ruffolo. “But this is an opportunity for us to maybe take a little bit more of an on-the-stage role and leverage some of the things we’re really good at, including some incredible proprietary recipes that we’ve developed over the years, and put them into a brand that you just can’t beat. It’s this great connectivity of a brand that has so much meaning and so much content with products that are simply outstanding. The Disney line features all of the latest humanization trends that you would love to see with organics, superfoods, Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) salmon, plant-based jerky and upcycled ingredients.”
That’s a lot of ground to cover, but it’s something Phelps excels at because they’ve already been hard at work on the various trends in their private label business. Now, all that knowledge is getting funneled into a single line with a lot of power behind it.
“All of our dog treats are going to have upcycled ingredients in them,” says Ruffolo. “Some of the recipes are going to have U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-certified organic [ingredients]. One is Marine Stewardship Council-certified salmon. And two of them are 100% plant-based. You have these great stories going on with each product. It’s not a label slap — put Disney on it and it will sell — it was a lot more thoughtful than that in terms of product development and the activities that brought it all together.”
Table Scraps: the Phelps-Disney partnership
From the new partnership has come Table Scraps, a dog treats line with eight SKUs, eight different characters and eight different stories.
The new Table Scraps line includes 8 SKUs, each depicting a different Disney character attached to a different recipe (fittingly, for example, Winnie the Pooh’s recipe includes honey). | Courtesy Phelps Pet Products
“It’s crazy the amount of content they have,” says Ruffolo. “And one of the coolest parts of what they offer is the consumer engagement to the Disney brand. No matter who you are or what your life stage is, you have the potential to connect with Disney. Disney has an amazing ability to keep their properties relevant. Pet is just one more touchpoint to their audience.”
The eight initial products feature characters such as Patch from 101 Dalmatians (Organic Chicken Tender Recipe), Pluto from Mickey and Friends (Hot Diggity Dog Recipe) and Slinky Dog from Toy Story (Meatless Meatloaf Recipe), covering ground including USDA organic chicken, beef and upcycled sweet potato.
“We’re so excited because it’s almost limitless in terms of the number of characters that can get involved in the dog treat market,” says Ruffolo. “There’s a character with a story that fits almost any positioning that we would come out with from a recipe perspective.”
Disney’s many properties make for myriad opportunities when it comes to pet treats, though some were no-brainers for the initial launch! | Copyright Disney
Upcoming trends in the pet treat space
Pet treats had a very good year in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic found people spending more time home with their pets than they perhaps ever had. And as the idea of where and how to work continues to remain in flux and new habits remain, Ruffolo says he believes treats are set up for continued success as an integral part of consumers’ relationships with their dogs.
“I think the same trends are still here,” he says. “Dog ownership is up. People are still going to be spending an inordinate amount of time around the home relative to historical norms. The cool thing about treats, unlike food — you don’t feed your dog more food. That routine hasn’t changed. However, by being at home more often you are going to have more interactions with your dog, so treating becomes more frequent and more fun. Of course, your dog loves you when you feed them their meals, but they love you that much more when it’s a treat because treating typically involves greater emotion, physical connection, training or some type of shared adventure. Those kinds of things I envision as being very prevalent again in 2021. I really think it’s going to be hard to turn the dial back to 2019. I don’t believe there will be a 2019 version of the future.”
Just the Facts
Headquarters: Rockford, Illinois, USA
Officers: Rick Ruffolo, CEO and president; Tedd Ellis, vice president of sales and marketing; Melissa Lee, financial controller; Rich Bartuska, director of operations; Chris Evans, director of quality, regulatory and innovation
Brands: Table Scraps (Disney Licensed Collection), Phelps Wellness Collection, Callie's Kitchen, Glad Wags
Notable: Our founder, Dick Phelps, who is still on our board today, was college baseball teammates at Yale with President George H.W. Bush.