In Top Form
Whether they’re used to enhance taste, nutrition or variety, food toppers are increasingly popular and prove profitable for stores that make the effort to educate customers about them.
In the natural food category lives a segment often referred to as toppers, a portion of the industry that insiders report is gaining ground. There are three reasons for that, said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis.
“First is clearly the humanization of pets, which is really driving change in all food categories,” Hudson said. “Toppers are about mealtime engagement and the opportunity for pet owners to ‘prepare’ meals that indulge their pets.
“Second is the population shift from big dogs that will generally eat most foods to small dogs that are typically more finicky, or at least perceived to be,” she said. “Owners are used to feeding the dogs smaller bits of food as a topper to a main meal.
“The third reason is our ability as manufacturers to gain shelf space and successfully introduce ‘alternative’ products,” Hudson added. “Specialty brick-and-mortar retailers are embracing new ways to differentiate themselves from other channels, mass and online. Products like toppers are unique and can foster an in-the-aisle conversation with pet owners.”
The demand for high-quality, high-meat, human-grade, grain-free, superfood-inclusive, USA-made and even USA-sourced options continues to rise and is showing up in all areas of consumable pet products, including toppers, said Stefanie Lash, training coordinator at Pet Food Warehouse Ltd., which has two locations in Vermont.
“One of the biggest recent trends is the marketing toward toppers,” she said. “More and more companies appear to be noticing what used to be a fairly untapped market and seem to be jumping on the bandwagon.”
As seen in human health trends and products, innovative food preparation processes—freeze dried, air dried and raw—are becoming more prominent in the topper category, said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass. She also said more grain-free toppers are hitting shelves.
Lucy Postins, founder and chief integrity officer of The Honest Kitchen in San Diego, agreed.
“The current trend is really about embracing the ‘less is more’ philosophy—minimal processing, minimal ingredients and grain free,” she said. “Minimal processing may be in the form of freezing, dehydration and air drying or freeze drying. [Limited-ingredient diets] are also hugely popular with dogs and cats who have multiple food sensitivities and, therefore, need to avoid various ingredients.”
Ultimately, dog and cat owners want products that their pets enjoy eating and they feel good about feeding them. As Karen Conell, owner of The Bark Market LLC in Delavan, Wis., sees it, “the trend is toward adding whole, raw products to a pet’s diet, without the expense or commitment of ‘raw,’ in order to improve health and longevity in our pets.”
High content of novel proteins lead the focus in natural food topper product releases. Boo Boo’s Best in San Francisco launched Boosters! Food Toppers for Dogs and Cats during the first quarter of the year. Featuring novel proteins such as goat, kangaroo, alligator, rabbit, and pork and wild boar, the dehydrated bites include antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, vitamins, minerals and fiber, and are made in the USA, according to company officials.
Introducing its first “kibble plus” recipes, Tewksbury, Mass.-based WellPet offers Wellness Core RawRev, which combines high-protein, grain-free kibble and 100 percent raw meat. It comes in three flavors: Original + 100% Raw Turkey, Wild Game + 100% Raw Lamb and Small Breed + 100% Raw Turkey. The line is formulated for use as a complete and balanced meal, or to complement wet food as a crunchy, raw meal topper, according to the manufacturer.
For cats, WellPet introduced grain-free Wellness Core Simply Shreds, each containing four high-quality ingredients or less and formulated to serve as a protein-rich snack, side or topper, said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience.
Earlier this year, The Honest Kitchen in San Diego added a new variety to its Proper Toppers line: the Grain-Free Beef Proper Toppers, which is a limited-ingredient product formulated to help boost taste and nutrition in a dog’s meal.
Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis launched two items at SuperZoo in Las Vegas in July. Tiki Dog Aloha Petites Morsels are 100 percent meat morsels made from USA-sourced chicken and New Zealand-sourced lamb, and Tiki Dog Aloha Petites Bisque products have a meat-based gravy and chunks of pork, beef, lamb and chicken.
Next month, Plato Pet Treats will add Small Batch Bone Broth in three proteins: beef, lamb and pork. The Fresno, Calif.-based manufacturer slow roasts the broth for 24 hours with whole, human-grade, locally farmed ingredients, said Nichole Nonini, marketing director.
Stage Toppers with Diets for Success
For many categories, retailers and manufacturers recommend giving products their own section. However, with toppers, most recommended keeping them with foods.
“Pair toppers near everyday wet or dry diets with signage indicating how toppers can be integrated into pets’ mealtime routines,” said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass.
At both Pet Food Warehouse Ltd. locations in Vermont, the staff stock pet food toppers by food type.
“We have a section for cans and a section for dehydrated/freeze dried,” said Stefanie Lash, training coordinator.
This placement helps “sow the seed for consumers that there are easy ways to boost the taste and nutrition of their kibble,” said Lucy Postins, founder and chief integrity officer of The Honest Kitchen in San Diego.
Counter placement helps showcase food toppers and creates a natural way to spark a conversation with customers to encourage them to try something new, said Nichole Nonini, marketing director for Plato Pet Treats in Fresno, Calif.
In addition to displays, industry participants said samples go a long way to promote sales of natural pet food toppers.
“The biggest single thing we did to increase sales is to offer samples of several different products to our clients,” said Karen Conell, owner of The Bark Market LLC in Delavan, Wis. “Giving the pet a taste while they are in the store is a home run every time. Rarely does a dog refuse!”
Michael Levy, president and founder of Pet Food Express, a multistore chain in California, will break open bags and offer samples to people who bring their dogs into the store. He also lets customers know that they guarantee everything in the store, which develops the trust factor and community.
Pet Food Warehouse also offers a guarantee.
“If a customer is interested in trying something or we feel that a certain product would be a good fit, the customer has our 100 percent satisfaction guarantee in their back pocket,” Lash said. “If they or their pet aren’t satisfied, we take it back for a full refund.”
Consumers Need to Know Why with Toppers
A key challenge in the natural food toppers segment is consumer confusion about what the products are, said several industry participants. Jocelyn Rosenthal, owner of Boo Boo’s Best in San Francisco, finds dog and cat owners are uncertain about the reasoning for adding a topper and the benefits that go along with it.
Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis, agreed. She urged retailers to differentiate products for customers and educate them on how toppers can be used.
“These are not treats that might be given throughout the day, but rather part of the meal,” she said. “Toppers can be part of a healthy meal, if you make the right choice.”
There’s no question that shoppers closely scrutinize labels, so it’s critical for retailers to truly understand product benefits and communicate them to customers. According to Nichole Nonini, marketing director for Plato Pet Treats in Fresno, Calif., this creates trust, and consumers will ask more questions and be open to more product recommendations.
Michael Levy, president and founder of Pet Food Express, a multistore chain in California, has found that to be true in his stores. Because 98 percent of the time customers think of toppers as food-palatability enhancers, he said a conversation is necessary.
“The benefit is that by having these conversations, customers are more bonded to the independent pet stores, and you’re creating more of a reason for the customer to have trust in your pet store and come back to your store,” he said. “It’s a way of building your business—not just a larger ring, but greater loyalty—which is key to growth and survival these days.”
At The Bark Market LLC in Delavan, Wis., owner Karen Conell said the store’s employees spend a lot of time educating clients.
“We sample out many products, we hand out literature and, most importantly, we feed these products to our own pets,” she said. “We continually teach people the basics of proper pet feeding and how a topper can benefit.”
Toppers Come to the Forefront
In the past year or so, industry professionals report natural pet food toppers have begun to emerge from the shadows. For example, when Pet Food Warehouse Ltd. first opened its doors 35 years ago, the term “topper” in the pet food industry didn’t really exist, said Stefanie Lash, training coordinator at Pet Food Warehouse Ltd., which has two locations in Vermont.
“Now the options are endless,” Lash said.
Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis, agreed.
“I remember when toppers—in the form of gravy—first came out, and they weren’t embraced by consumers,” she said. “Back then, humanization was less of a factor, and toppers were clearly an indulgence.”
Now retailers and manufacturers see increased demand for these pet food enhancements.
“Toppers have become an increasingly important part of mealtime for cats and dogs,” said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass. “Mealtime is a special moment between pet and pet parent, and toppers are a convenient and nutritious way to add excitement to this special part of the day, helping to enhance the human-animal bond in the process. Pet parents see meal toppers as a fun way to introduce variety into their pet’s diet for enjoyment and also nutritional benefits such as hydration or nutrients.”
Along with this demand is a consistent focus on the products being healthful and beneficial for pets.
“The public’s knowledge of proper feeding of dogs and cats is far ahead of what it used to be,” said Karen Conell, owner of The Bark Market LLC in Delavan, Wis. “People know that dogs and cats need a quality and variety of meats to be healthy, and the topper category has made it easy and pretty affordable to do.”
Jocelyn Rosenthal, owner of Boo Boo’s Best in San Francisco, also reported an emphasis on natural toppers, sometimes raw, to get more natural foods into the pet’s diet.
“The knowledge about the importance of whole foods/products has been gaining more traction and visibility,” she said. “Many owners cannot feed whole or raw, so toppers are a nice way to add extra and healthier food without the expense of it being the pet’s entire meal.”