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Raw on the Radar

Raw cat food is getting a lot more attention from today’s pet owners.


There was a time, not long ago, when raw food was barely a blip on cat owners’ radars. But the tide has changed. Not only are more pet owners aware of raw food diets, but many are giving raw feeding a shot and seeing great success. This poses an excellent opportunity for independent retailers to shine, as there is a need for education and troubleshooting while cat owners transition their pets to a new diet.

Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, vice president and co-founder of Radagast Pet Food Inc. in Portland, Ore., said that, in general, there has been more of a focus on grain-free, high-protein, ancestral diets. And because raw is really the category that best fits that model, Hatch-Rizzi said it’s only natural that more pet owners are experimenting with raw foods.

“Cats’ unique physiology makes them carnivores, meaning high-quality protein and grain-free foods should be a significant part of their daily diets,” said Pete Brace, vice president of pet parent relations and communications for Merrick Pet Care in Amarillo, Texas. “That’s why many pet parents are now looking to feed an ancestral feline diet.”

While the interest in raw might still feel new, Hatch-Rizzi does not believe it’s a fad or something that will eventually pass. She said raw is here to stay.

“Some people have referred to raw feeding as a simple trend, but the positive results that are seen by pet parents have taken the category far beyond that,” she said. “Our company and the raw cat food segment have continued to grow well into the double digits for years, and I don’t see that slowing down.”

Showing the Benefits of Raw

Raw cat food is still attracting plenty of new customers to the category, and that means there is a lot of opportunity for education. The need for education is an excellent opportunity for pet retailers to showcase their knowledge, setting themselves apart from big-box retailers and online sellers.

“Generally, consumers need to be better educated on what types of foods are best for their cats,” said Kevin Malnor, vice president of marketing and sales for Vital Essentials in Green Bay, Wis. “Many cat foods include grains, fruits, vegetables, fillers and other types of carbohydrates that are not beneficial to their pet. Consumers and retailers need to be aware of the health risks these types of foods pose.”

Even if pet owners know they want to try a raw diet, they might be confused about their options, said Reed Howlett, CEO of St. Louis-based Nature’s Variety Inc., maker of Instinct Pet Food.

“While awareness and understanding of raw is growing broadly, pet parents are still very confused by the pet food landscape,” Howlett said. “The pet food space is cluttered and overwhelming for the consumer, and in many cases, the differences between the various options can seem confusing. Retailers need tools to cut through the buzzwords like ‘natural,’ ‘organic’ and ‘clean’ to help consumers really find the credible and simple information they’re looking for.”

Benjamin Richard, a sales associate with Four Paws & Co. in Longmont, Colo., said that educational opportunities often give him the chance to point customers toward a raw diet. When cat owners come to the store with questions or a health concern, he can suggest they change their cat’s diet.

“Cat owners will come in with a lot of questions about a certain problem their cat is having, and we’ll recommend that they try switching to a raw diet,” Richard said. “They often come back with a lot of positive feedback about how it worked. Word-of-mouth can then help encourage others to try it.”

Introductions and Brand Refreshes

This spring, St. Louis-based Nature’s Variety Inc., maker of Instinct Pet Food, launched Instinct Minced Cups, Instinct Stews, Instinct dry and wet offerings for kittens, and an expanded assortment of Instinct Healthy Cravings.

CEO Reed Howlett said that these innovations deliver on the company’s belief in nutrition that is inspired by raw—high in protein and made with real meat and other whole-food ingredients.

“At this year’s Global Pet Expo, we also announced our upcoming brand refresh, which launched this summer,” Howlett said. “At Instinct—‘The Raw Brand,’ we’re on a mission to transform the lives of pets through the pure, real nutrition of raw. Our new packaging and brand identity will better reflect our core values.”

This spring, Merrick Pet Care in Amarillo, Texas, expanded its cat recipes with Merrick Backcountry Cat Freeze-Dried Raw Meal or Mixers available in two recipes: Real Chicken Recipe and Real Salmon Recipe. Freeze-dried raw protein pieces give cats a nutritional boost, easy digestion and the fresh taste they love, and they can be served as a complete and balanced meal or as a topper, according to the company. The product was inspired by the freeze-dried raw pieces infused in Backcountry dry food recipes.

Radagast Pet Food Inc. in Portland, Ore., recently debuted its sixth variety—Natural Pork Recipe—which uses boneless pork shoulder, providing a balanced ratio of whole muscle meat to fat, said Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, vice president and co-founder of the company. This year, Radagast also is presenting a brand-new look for its brand.

“As a way of celebrating 12 years on the market, we have refreshed our design with a new, modern look,” Hatch-Rizzi said. “It has been in the works for a while, and we’re thrilled to be able to debut our new style. The new look ties in nicely with the old.”

Display Ideas

Jenna Wilson, owner of Patton Avenue Pet Co., which has three locations in Asheville, N.C., said that glass-front freezers are very important when it comes to selling raw. While signage can help, nothing compares to having a glass-front freezer, she said. Of course, she added, investing in them does mean committing to the category.

“It’s not the kind of category you can just dip your toe in and be successful,” Wilson said. “You can’t do it halfheartedly by buying just a few SKUs and sticking them in a regular freezer—it’s not going to go over well with your customers. We are all in when it comes to raw. We believe in it, so we’ve really invested in the category—including buying only glass-front freezers to store it.”

Dan Lavallee, manager of Pet World in Natick, Mass., agreed and said glass-front freezers are “well worth the money.” Just having the raw food on display in a freezer you can see in to is enough to draw customers over, he noted.

“With a freezer that you can’t see in to, you must hope that the customer is going to read your signs and be intrigued enough to look inside,” Lavallee said. “Plus, when you can’t see through the glass, it’s getting opened and closed a lot more. You run the risk that they’ll open it just to look inside and won’t close it all the way. That could thaw your merchandise. We think that displaying raw food within glass-door freezers is important.”

Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, vice president and co-founder of Radagast Pet Food Inc. in Portland, Ore., said that creating some “fanfare” around the raw category is one of the best ways to draw customers to the freezer section. At the end of the day, nothing beats one-on-one conversations with cat owners about raw.

Wilson said that being a small, independent retailer gives her the ability to have those conversations that big pet retailers can’t have. It’s all about consultation, she said.

“That’s something that sets us apart,” Wilson said. “Our staff is really well educated on raw, and we can take the time to talk our customers through it. They come to us for that support.”

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