Posted: October 22, 2013, 12:50 p.m. EDT
Grain free is a huge trend, but industry experts report that the focus on variety and quality has given cat owners—and the stores that serve them—an unprecedented array of choices.
By Karen Shugart
Retailers have wider stocking options than before, thanks to an ever-increasing variety of premium cat foods.
"There’s so much new stuff coming down the line,” said David Masur, co-owner of Animal House Pet Store in San Diego. "It seems like everybody’s stepping up and buying better-quality stuff.”
The key, then, is knowing what customers want. And that, retailers and manufacturers said, can be expressed in a few adjectives: natural, grain free, high quality. Maybe not all three descriptors will apply, but at least one will.
"People are becoming more conscious of what actually goes in their animals’ bodies,” said Amanda Meadows, retail manager for Cat Connection in Dallas, adding that grain-free, all-meat, all-natural diets free of corn, wheat and soy are a current trend.
Widening Grain-Free Options
Several manufacturers are addressing that raised consciousness by offering grain-free foods.
Wild Calling! Pet Foods in February launched nine flavors of canned grain- and gluten-free paté cat food, said Jeremy J. Petersen, executive vice president for the Greeley, Colo.-based manufacturer. The flavors, unveiled this year at Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Fla., include rabbit, chicken, buffalo, pheasant, salmon, beef, duck, turkey and lamb, and salmon and chicken.
Sherry L. Collins/ i-5 Publishing at Kriser's
"Our canned diets are 96 percent meat, poultry or fish,” said Petersen.
Cat owners are seeking diets low in carbohydrates, rich in meat and high in moisture, Petersen added.
"Cats are natural carnivores, so our diet is…similar to a diet a cat would eat in the wild,” Petersen said. "We add vitamins and minerals to make the diet complete and balanced—it’s not just a supplemental topper.”
Also, he said, the new products offer moisture, which cats need but don’t necessarily get from kibble, as well as affordability for cost-conscious customers.
"Pet owners don’t seem to want to spend as much on their cats, so they are looking for healthy, affordable diets,” Petersen said.
Demand for Variety
Another new grain-free offering comes from Fromm Family Foods, a manufacturer in Mequon, Wis. Bryan Nieman, brand director for Fromm, said the company last spring added Grain-Free Game Bird and Grain-Free Salmon Tunachovy to its Four-Star Nutritionals line.
Game Bird includes duck, turkey, quail and pheasant with real Wisconsin cheese and assorted hand-selected fruits and vegetables, Nieman said, adding that Salmon Tunachovy is a Mediterranean-inspired recipe with a blend of wild salmon, tuna and anchovy with tomatoes, spinach, zucchini, eggplant and olive oil.
"Four-Star Nutritionals is a variety-driven line and as such allows us to continually create unique recipes to complement the rest of the menu,” Nieman said. "As grain-free continues to be in high demand, we also wanted to satisfy the requests of our customers.”
The company wanted to offer something that would appeal to finicky cats and those with dietary intolerances while also appealing to pet owners’ concerns about how the food is manufactured, he said.
An Educated Customer Base
"Some of the main trends we’re seeing include an increasing demand for a variety of foods and flavors along with customers looking for quality products made by companies that own and operate their own manufacturing facilities, like Fromm,” Nieman said. "This is in part because the consumer is more educated thanks to online resources, news and social media.”
Meadows said she’s found that customers are finding higher-quality foods, particularly those that are grain free, are successfully addressing their cats’ health issues.
"Absolutely,” she said. "A lot have IBS issues, allergy issues, kidney issues or all of the above.”
Concern about how food is made—and where it’s made—has led many customers to seek out U.S.-manufactured products, Meadows said.
"That’s a humongous change, especially in the last year,” Meadows said. "American made is definitely the path people are going toward.”
Melissa Werges, brand manager for St. Louis-based Nature’s Variety, said the company’s new Pride by Instinct line of grain-free canned food carries labels indicating its U.S. origins.
"Pet parents are well-educated these days on the ingredients in their pets’ food and where it is manufactured,” she said.
The new recipes include chicken, duck, lamb, rabbit, salmon and tuna, as well as omega fatty acids to help with skin and coat, Werges said.
"Finding a brand they can trust and that has multiple forms and proteins is extremely helpful, as it gives a wider range of variety their cats can try,” Werges said. "Our goal was to create a product that delivered high-quality nutrition in a wide variety of forms and proteins but also celebrate the fun and unique nature of cats.”
Against the Grain launched single-serving cat foods at Backer’s Total Pet Expo in Chicago this year, said Chelsea Sher, president of the Wheeling, Ill., company. With an eye on making something new, the line’s creators ventured to Thailand to find ingredients.
"My dad went into the farmer’s markets to find unique ingredients that were native to Thailand, sustainable and packed with ‘superfood,’” Sher said. "He hand-selected about 20 different ingredients and started making prototype samples with various combinations of these unique ingredients.”
After blind taste tests, the company selected seven flavor combinations that include ingredients like Acacia pennata, Cucurbita, mango and even cockroach berry ("which sounds strange but is an up-and-coming superfood,” Sher noted).
The new foods come in single-feeding 3.5-ounce tubs, so cat owners can peel back the foil lid and serve without a spoon or bowl.
"Against the Grain wants to be known for its uniqueness and convenience,” Sher said.
The company’s founders—including Sher—eat the foods they make, she added. The cat foods are made at the same plant that makes StarKist tuna, she said, "so consumers have the confidence that everything is human grade with the highest standards in materials and production.”
A Promising Premium Market
Customers are feeling somewhat more comfortable about the economy, said Animal House Pet Store’s Masur.
"They want to treat their pets right, and they feel a little bit more comfortable about spending their money,” Masur said.
Marketing premium foods to customers can be a lot easier once they realize the benefits of buying higher-quality food.
"Better-quality foods are more digestible,” said Brandon Roberts, assistant manager of Panhandle Pet Supply in Tallahassee, Fla. "Cats—or dogs—get fuller faster. With the cats, a lot of people are going with grain free because they are finding out that the grains don’t treat the cat well.”
Cat Connection’s Meadows agreed.
"You’re going to end up feeding a lot less than you would other things,” she said. "You do start out with more money spent, but in the long haul [you spend less].”
"I’ve been getting a few new customers that I’ve changed over from some of the mass-marketed foods,” Masur said. "I can upgrade them from there. In the last few years or so everybody’s wanting a bit higher quality.”
"The next few years are going to be exciting in dog and cat foods,” he added.
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