Natural Grows Wild
USA-made diets that have limited ingredients, contain exotic proteins, and are free from grains and synthetic ingredients meet customer demand in the natural marketplace.
With more than 40 years in the industry, Bob and Susan Goldstein, co-CEOs of Earth Animal in Westport, Conn., have watched pet foods evolve from kibble, canned and semimoist foods to raw-frozen, freeze-dried and air-dried varieties that use high-quality human-grade and organic ingredients.
Consumer education and demand is pushing the pet food market “toward better and human-grade ingredients, and organic ingredients when possible, toward higher protein, moderate fat and low carbohydrates that come from whole, human-grade sources,” said Bob Goldstein, VMD.
These days, people are also increasingly wary of scientifically formulated products with synthetic ingredients they’ve never heard of, said Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of Caru Pet Food in Vero Beach, Fla.
“For similar reasons, diets containing minimally processed, whole-food ingredients are in high demand, as well as products bearing a ‘made in the USA’ claim,” he said.
The result is a burgeoning natural pet food category that boasts “a lot more products entering the all-natural space that are USA-made, grain-free, with meat and poultry ‘first,’ that are made using clean, wholesome ingredients,” said Bette Schubert, co-founder and senior vice president of Bravo Pet Foods in Manchester, Conn.
Customers are reading labels and researching what the ingredients mean and how they interact with their pets. For example, Audree Berg, owner of Auggie’s Doggies Pet Supplies in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said when customers see there is pumpkin in a product, they want to know, “What is the benefit of pumpkin?”
At PetSage Inc. in Alexandria, Va., president and founder Terri Grow has witnessed two trends: “We’re seeing caution with costs and budgets, and people making conscious decisions based on food ingredients, sustainability and environmental concerns.”
Taking a page from human natural food trends, demand in natural pet foods includes premium ingredients, local sourcing, customized recipes and variety.
“Canned food will continue to grow faster than dry food, and innovation will continue to drive pet owners to pet specialty,” said Brad Gruber, president and COO at Health Extension Pet Care in Deer Park, N.Y. “Minimally processed and human-grade ingredients are driving this growth and are outpacing the overall category.”
Ward Johnson, co-founder of Sojos in Minneapolis, reported that raw food, in particular, has become important for pet owners looking for safe, convenient ways to feed their pets the freshest ingredients possible.
And Rashell Cooper, marketing director at Redbarn Pet Products in Long Beach, Calif., predicts the trend toward natural foods will not abate any time soon.
“Our research suggests that choosing natural products with easily understood, whole-food ingredients will continue to be a huge selling point for customers,” she said.
Covering the Essentials
Industry participants agree that consumer education is critical in the natural pet food market.
“Today’s consumers spend a great amount of time gathering information and educating themselves about a food before they actually purchase it,” said Brad Gruber, president and COO at Health Extension Pet Care in Deer Park, N.Y. “They look specifically at their pet’s needs and look to fill those needs by feeding a food they deem to be safe and healthful.”
Bette Schubert, co-founder and senior vice president of Bravo Pet Foods in Manchester, Conn., agreed, adding that “education becomes especially important if you have customers who are using food to help solve a medical issue.”
Gruber encouraged companies to post “relevant information on their websites that is easy to access, highly interactive and easily understood. That information has to be continually updated to keep pace with the changing consumer and their desire for specific information about their pets.”
Frances Schroeder, co-creator of Dogology, which has two locations in Connecticut, finds educating her customers incredibly rewarding.
“When you show them how their beloved pet can truly thrive, they make even better choices concerning their pet’s diet,” she said. “The ultimate way to educate your customers is to support and empower them to do research, ask questions and be the advocate for their pet.”
According to Schubert, retailers that train their staff to guide customers to the appropriate product for their pets create loyalty, earn repeat customers and experience the most success.
And providing associates with appropriate questions gives them an edge. Rashell Cooper, marketing director at Redbarn Pet Products in Long Beach, Calif., recommended questions such as: “Does your pet have any food allergies or sensitivities? What is your biggest concern about your pet’s health? Do they have a favorite protein?”
The Latest in Natural
Health Extension Pet Care in Deer Park, N.Y., recently introduced six Grain Free Canned Cat formulations. The recipes contain no gluten, grain or other unnecessary fillers, and they prominently feature grass-fed, free-range or wild-caught animal proteins, said Brad Gruber, president and COO.
The Grain Free recipes include: Chicken & Duck, Chicken & Salmon, Tuna & Prawns, Chicken & Tuna, Tilapia & Tuna and Chicken & Pumpkin.
In April, the company launched a complete and balanced Large Breed Recipe in 1- and 30-pound sizes.
At Global Pet Expo, held in Orlando, Fla., in March, Caru Pet Food introduced the Daily Dish line of stews for dogs. The foods are made entirely from human-grade ingredients in a human-food plant, and the company reported that it prepares the stews in small batches without GMO ingredients.
“Caru Pet Food has gone through the FDA-verification process as well as various state verifications, all of which have confirmed Caru is able to make a human-grade claim for Caru stews and bone broths,” said Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of the Vero Beach, Fla.-based company.
Also at Global, Redbarn Pet Products debuted Redbarn Wildwoods Canned Food, featuring novel proteins such as trout, duck and quail in gravy. Premium protein is the first ingredient, and the USA-made stews include superfood functional ingredients and no soy, corn or grain, said Rashell Cooper, marketing director of the Long Beach, Calif.-based company. The recipes include support for weight control, healthy teeth and bones, and joint health, Cooper noted.
With plans to launch at SuperZoo in Las Vegas in July, Earth Animal offers Dr. Bob Goldstein’s Wisdom Dog Food, a high-protein, air-dried food that contains moderate fat and very low carbohydrates, according to the company. The grain-free food combines pure protein, such as turkey, chicken and beef, with fresh organic fruits and vegetables, whole eggs, sprouted seeds, and important vitamins and minerals, said Bob Goldstein, VMD, co-CEO of the Westport, Conn.-based company.
This fall, Bravo Pet Foods plans to expand the protein offerings in its Feline and Canine Cafe canned foods lines. Made in the USA and “reputably sourced,” the 95% Meat and Poultry Dinners and Meat and Poultry Fricassees feature “quality muscle meats, poultry and seafood first, as well as cranberries and a medley of garden greens, salmon oil, green-lipped mussels and turmeric,” said Bette Schubert, co-founder and senior vice president of the Manchester, Conn.-based company.
The foods contain no fillers, preservatives, artificial flavors, or meat and poultry meal or grain, and the canned foods are free of guar, carrageenan and cassia gum, Schubert said.
Many natural food makers recommend that pet specialty retailers set up a natural product section in their stores. This allows them to display similar products together and enables customers to easily compare several brands to find the products that are the best fit, said Bette Schubert, co-founder and senior vice president of Bravo Pet Foods in Manchester, Conn.
Brad Gruber, president and COO at Health Extension Pet Care in Deer Park, N.Y., recommended cross-merchandising the natural foods with treats, litter and toys to tie the entire purchase together.
“Offering packages or bundles of assorted products together at a promotional price excites the consumer with a thought of getting better value for their money spent,” he added.
To keep things interesting, Audree Berg, owner of Auggie’s Doggies Pet Supplies in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., stole a page out of Costco Wholesale Corp.’s playbook.
“We move stuff around all the time so customers have to look for it and see new stuff,” she said, adding that it has worked.
She also reported rising sales of raw diets after putting glass-front display freezers up front.
Natural Food Sales Still a Mixed Bag
When asked about sales of natural diets, many retailers reported experiencing an uptick in the category, while others cited online competition as a challenge to selling the category.
“Our store’s overall sales of natural products are stellar,” said Frances Schroeder, co-creator of Dogology, which has two locations in Connecticut. “We lead by example and always appeal to our customers’ innate instinct to make the best choices for their pets.
“[Our customers] trust us to explain the positive health and emotional benefits of feeding species-appropriate or natural foods to pets,” she added.
Trust is a major component, agreed Audree Berg, owner of Auggie’s Doggies Pet Supplies in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who also reported rising sales in the category.
“It’s because people are untrusting of some of the product that’s in the larger stores,” she said. “They don’t understand what’s in it.”
Berg credited Blue Buffalo and other large companies for leading customers out of the grocery store for pet food purchases, and the whole pet food industry for pushing toward holistic and natural foods.
“A level of cognition was brought out to the public and is promoted by larger companies, and then the recalls were heavily publicized,” Berg said. “All those things add to consumers looking for more healthful alternatives.”
Terri Grow, president and founder of PetSage Inc. in Alexandria, Va., is seeing lower sales due to many food companies favoring e-commerce stores over the independent.
“Even though they acknowledge the independent is responsible for getting products in the hands of their customers, the loss of independents is exacerbating because of this utter discrimination,” she said. “The sad thing is, I feel the animals are going to suffer in the long run, because who is going to be the educators and speak for the animal when the independents are gone?”