Treats for Tanks
Freeze-dried foods, manufactured with higher-grade freeze-drying equipment to preserve flavor and deliver a safe alternative to live food, are a great way for customers to “treat” their fish and enjoy a higher level of engagement.
Ever since the calendar turned to 2010, there’s been something of a renaissance in the freeze-dried aquarium fish food category. Industry insiders say it has something to do with the higher-quality and more-meaningful food options for their aquatic pets, which erased some of the negative connotations that were sometimes associated with the product segment.
Nick Kornblith, senior product manager, consumables, at United Pet Group in Blacksburg, Va., said just like for companion animals such as dogs and cats, there has been a recent increase in efforts to get fishkeepers to “treat” their fish by feeding them freeze-dried food.
“Treating the fish is good for them, providing variety and bringing out exciting natural behaviors,” he said. “It’s good for the fish owner, too, as they get more enjoyment from their fish.”
Freeze-dried foods had been an under-appreciated category over the years, primarily because the quality was bad, but it’s improved over time, said Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA in Hayward, Calif.
“We took a new approach almost 20 years ago, and with advanced technology, we were able to bring our Bio-Pure FD to the market,” he said. “Using higher-grade freeze-drying equipment, we are able to maintain the original taste, texture and color of the animal. So as an example, our bloodworms are actually red, not dark brown or black.”
Julian Sprung, owner of Two Little Fishies in Miami Gardens, Fla., said freeze-dried fish foods are a safe alternative to live fish food because of the treatment it undergoes before the freeze-drying process.
“Customers tend to like them because they aren’t as messy as other foods, they tend to float at the top of the tank for a very long period, and they have been decontaminated beforehand,” he said. “Anytime a new flavor comes out, it’s usually tried out.”
United Pet Group’s Tetra brand offers a number of freeze-dried/sun-dried new food options for fish and reptiles, including Baby Shrimp (gammarus), River Shrimp, Jumbo Shrimp, Brine Shrimp (in BettaMin) and the recently released Sun Dried Anchovies.
“Products such as the Tetra-Min S-A-F have been revolutionary in getting literally many thousands of new fishkeepers to experience the fun of feeding freeze-dried/sun-dried treats,” Kornblith said. “Feeding is one of the most enjoyable interactions with one’s fish. What could improve upon that better than a single can with three different feeding options inside?”
While there hasn’t been much change to freeze-dried food, the trick to lure customers is finding new flavors, said Andreas Schmidt, owner of San Francisco Bay Brand in Newark, Calif.
“It’s usually buzz that gets customers asking for something,” he said. “As far as going into production for these types of items, to start from scratch is a pretty tough scenario.”
The company has tried to market everything from apples to zucchini and in between. For example, brine shrimp, bloodworms, tubifex, plankton, mysid and krill have all made the rounds of late, Schmidt said.
“Things such as gammarus and rotifers and cyclops have all been tried, but few have stuck,” he said.
The real question, Schmidt said, is why does everyone look for the latest thing when these time-tested products have continued to prove themselves decade after decade?
Based on customer feedback, Hikari removed more moisture from its products, which reduces oxidation and provides more food by weight, which can translate to a better value for the consumer.
“This allows a medication user to dilute some medication in some aquarium water, add the Bio-Pure FD food to it to soak it up, and then feed a medication-infused food to their fish,” Clevers said. “This can speed recovery and improve efficiency of the medication.”
More Than a Treat?
Many retailers believe that freeze-dried food is more of a treat rather than an everyday food, and some companies are trying to change that belief. Still, others in the industry believe that there’s no need to change the perception.
“In most cases, freeze-dried foods should be used as a supplement, as they are not complete and balanced diets for fish,” said United Pet Group’s Kornblith. “What is great about our three-in-one cans is that we can provide consumers with the complete and balanced staple diet (like TetraMin) along with a supplement, like baby shrimp.”
Clevers said that for most competitive products, freeze-dried foods should not be thought of as the only food to use on a daily basis, as the lack of necessary vitamins makes it problematic for exclusive use without supplementation of a formulated diet (pellet or flake).
Many retailers have beefed up their efforts to generate greater customer interest in freeze-dried foods.
“We carry bloodworms; we really like the FD Brine Shrimp by Hikari, and FD Krill is better for the larger fish,” said Michael DeOliveira, fresh water manager of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J. “There’s some freeze dried meant for smaller fish, some for bigger fish, and we will guide our customers towards the one that is best for them.”
Sales of freeze-dried food has remained steady at the store, and Absolutely Fish tries to market it better by using soaks—liquid additives such as vitamin C or garlic—to drive interest, DeOliveira said.
“As with most things, education is the sticking point,” San Francisco Bay Brand’s Schmidt said. “If people who sell the product understood the value and could explain it better, it would help sales.”
David Jones, owner of Wet Pets in Gastonia, N.C., often leads customers to brine shrimp, which are popular with most tropical fish and give them more variety and a fresher food.
“Bloodworms are still our best-seller, and we need to order them weekly,” he said. “It’s merchandised along with all the other foods on the shelf, but we have a whole section of the freeze-dried food by itself. This lets people see all the options, and we’ll make sure to talk to them about the benefits.”
Offer a variety of fish treats at the store, said Kornblith. “This will increase your ‘ring’ from secondary purchases and increase your customers’ fun and success,” he said.
Stores should merchandise the products as treats for fish or reptiles, and offer “buy one (normal pellet or flake product) and get freeze dried 50 percent off” promotions to incite trial, Clevers said.
“Better visibility of freeze-dried items near fish-bagging stations will allow ready discussions about the benefits,” he said. “This is an easy way to mix up the food offering and staff spiff programs to get consumers to try freeze dried, as this is normally something that is not offered in larger-format retailers who are getting into fish food.”
Using freeze-dried foods requires a different feeding routine than a flake or pellet, he said, adding that most people think they have to crumble the freeze-dried food to feed it.
“This is the worst way to use this type of product,” Clevers said. “Putting the amount you will feed in a small cup of aquarium water and letting it rehydrate and then pouring it into the aquarium is the best way to use this type of product.”
Packaged to Entice
In an effort to better bring attention to its freeze-dried food, San Francisco Bay Brand uses a clear PETE jar.
“The reasoning is that people can see our product and the lack of powder in the jars, as we screen from 15 to 20 percent of material out before packing, adding value per weight purchased,” said Andreas Schmidt, owner of San Francisco Bay Brand in Newark, Calif. “It lends itself to critical inventory rotation as the product is sensitive to light.”
Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA in Hayward, Calif., said his company uses a patented oxygen barrier bottle, which reduces the chances of oxygen penetration, which can cause rapid oxidation of a freeze-dried food.
“These items are hydroscopic, and without proper packaging and surely once opened, they tend to want to return to their natural hydrated state,” he said. “This can readily cause oxidation issues, which could render the food unusable.”
“We feature a patented slide-top dispenser for some of our items, which makes the food easy to use and avoid human contact with it,” he added. “We also use nitrogen flushing and oxygen absorbers in the bottles to help maintain the high quality.”—KL