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Nulo Pet Products: Where Pet Nutrition Meets Love


Michael Landa, co-owner of Nulo Pet Products, wants to reduce pet obesity through his company’s high-protein foods.
By Marissa Heflin

Natural Pet Product MerchandiserNulo Pet Products is the brainchild of Michael Landa and Brett Montana, founders of The Pet Staff, a Los Angeles-based pet care company. The pair launched Nulo three years ago with the goal of combating pet obesity by sticking to nutrition fundamentals. To them, this means foods high in meat- and fish-based proteins, dehydrated fruits and veggies that survive the cooking process, and complex carbohydrates such as oatmeal and brown rice that fall lower on the glycemic index and deliver sustained energy.

Michael Landa

Michael Landa thinks grain-free is a gimmick. “It’s incumbent on companies like ours to educate people about how to read a bag of food,” he said.
Natural Pet Product Merchandiser spoke with Landa about his interest in pet obesity and how the company fits into the natural pet food market.

NPPM: Where does the company name, “Nulo,” come from?

Landa: Nulo is a portmanteau for “NUtrition meets LOve.” There needs to be a healthy balance between the two. Too often in our society, love is interpreted as facilitating another’s indulgence. For pets, that can mean overportioning meals, giving too many treats, feeding people food, etc. All of which can lead to obesity and dire consequences for the very furry family member one’s trying to love.

NPPM: What was it about pet obesity that struck you?

Landa: In 2001 I founded The Pet Staff, which is now one of the nation’s largest pet care companies. We’ve performed nearly 1 million pet-sitting visits since we opened and are very much on the front lines of feeding dogs and cats—thousands of them every month. I’ve seen the effects that “big pet food” marketing tactics can have on their health. As our business grew, we experienced a dramatic increase in the amount of clients needing pet sitters who could administer insulin shots for their diabetic cats and dogs. I’ve personally administered thousands of these shots. Some call this trend a silent epidemic. In 2008, I decided enough was enough. I hired one of the world’s leading animal nutrition scientists and worked with him for almost two years to develop our own line of nutritionally powerful dog and cat foods. Not surprisingly, pets eating Nulo have shown tremendous results in terms of shinier coats, better digestion and overall energy levels.

NPPM: Have pet owners’ perceptions on this topic changed much since the company launched?

Landa: In terms of America’s pet obesity epidemic, or “feeding disorder” as I call it, no. Since we started, obesity in dogs has gone up nearly 5 percent, from 20.6 percent of all dogs to 21.4 percent. In cats, it’s escalating even higher: a 15 percent jump in the past two to three years to nearly 25 percent of all cats being considered obese. We see a lot of pet owners falling for marketing gimmicks and hot trends, leaving pets holding the bag.

NPPM: Give an example of a marketing gimmick.

Landa: “Grain-free” was created by a couple of manufacturers in an effort to create more shelf space. And it worked very well. A major distributor told me that the reason it worked was because there were several small sound bites that pet owners could pick up on. One was: “Your cat and dog are carnivores. Carnivores don’t eat grain. Therefore, they need grain-free [food].” There’s so much more to it than that. Unfortunately, people get these sound bites and just run with them. It’s incumbent on companies like ours to educate people about how to read a bag of food. Our revamped website is going to be a lot about education.

NPPM: How does Nulo fit into the natural pet food market?

At a Glance

Nulo Pet Products

Location: Austin, Texas

Owners:
Michael Landa, CEO; Brett Montana, CFO

Employees:
10+

Years in business:
3

Distribution:
National

Annual revenue:
$3 million to $4 million (2012 estimate)

Mission:
“To maintain the courage that gives us the pioneering spirit to create healthier food products for dogs and cats.”

Product categories:
Dry and canned recipes for cats and dogs
Landa: Quite well, actually. We’ve gained the support of a number of key natural retailers with our Nulo Naturals product line, including national agreements with Whole Foods, Sprouts, Earth Fare, New Seasons, Fairway, Mrs. Greens and others. Our nutritional principles, ingredient traceability, smaller-batch production and gluten- and GMO-free recipes resonate with their core consumers very nicely. In July we launched a dedicated product line for independent specialty retailers called Nulo Lifestyles. It is a groundbreaking line—lifestage based—with recipes containing 72 percent to 86 percent of their protein from meat- and fish-based sources. We’re the new, American version of Orijen.

NPPM: How does Nulo differentiate itself from competitors?

Landa: The Nulo Lifestyles line has several key advantages over other premium natural foods. First, it is high meat content. Second, we have created a line that’s eliminated the major allergenic irritants as outlined in “The Merck Veterinary Manual,” including chicken and egg. That’s in addition to not having corn, wheat, soy or beef ingredients. Third, we take ingredient survivability to an entire new level with not only our dehydrated fruits and veggies but a new, patented strain of probiotics that survives the extrusion process and shelf-life challenges that face other probiotics on the market.

NPPM: What do you think about today’s natural pet food market and where do you see it in the future?

Landa: We believe independent pet retailers are a key channel for consumers seeking deeper information about their pets’ nutrition and food product offerings. They are a great resource for pet owners who may be overwhelmed with the marketing hype—from the Internet to review sites to packaging and TV ads. They can help pet owners cut through the clutter and recommend a product that’s right for a dog or cat. It’s our goal to help them become more competitive by forming direct relationships with them, allowing independent retailers to order fresh food at a competitive price.

NPPM: What is on the horizon for Nulo?

Landa: We’ve demonstrated with a number of key retailers that we’re able to grow their overall pet category with our product portfolio and support programs. We recognize that it’s not enough to simply get on a shelf. We need to work with our partners to help educate consumers on a deeper level. As we gain more traction in the market, we will continue to add new recipes that support our nutritional platforms and philosophies. To help get us there, we’ve hired longtime industry veterans John Ray [former vice president of sales at Nature’s Variety] and Jeff Morehouse [former Western sales director at WellPet] to help us execute our sales strategy and to work closely with our retail partners to create and implement dynamic sales programs.

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of Natural Pet Product Merchandiser.

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