Posted: February 26, 2014, 3:30 p.m. EDT
Stocking frozen, fresh and dehydrated raw diets could add a new dimension to food category margins.
By Audrey Pavia
Ten years ago, feeding raw foods to a cat or dog was practically unheard of. Today, the raw pet food category is taking off by leaps and bounds.
Manufacturers are responding to recent consumer demand for raw diets by offering a variety of foods, including frozen, fresh and dehydrated. As pet owners become more educated about the benefits of a raw diet, many are choosing this type of food for their companion animals.
"The purpose of raw feeding is to offer pets species-appropriate foods that they are biologically designed to eat,” said Kyle Frautnick, marketing director for Primal Pet Foods in San Jose, Calif. "Dogs and cats are anatomically built to eat raw meat, not cooked and highly processed grain-based foods.”
Education is one of the crucial components in successfully selling raw pet food, according to manufacturers who specialize in this category and retailers who sell it.
"If you are going to carry natural and raw products, be sure to fully commit,” said Bette Schubert, co-founder and senior vice president of sales for Bravo! in Manchester, Conn. "Placing a few products on a shelf or in your freezer and saying ‘We carry natural’ and ‘We carry raw’ isn’t going to do it.”
Instead, Schubert recommends devoting a section of the store to all-natural products.
"Retailers will be more successful if they commit to a ‘naturals’ department that provides a good cross-section of products from several different manufacturers, so consumers know the retailer is serious about the category,” she said. "It also allows the consumer to compare across several different brands.”
Once retailers commit to natural products such as raw diets, they need to do a good job of merchandising the section and promoting it to their customers, Schubert added.
According to Gregg Bernhardt, owner of Bag of Bones Barkery, a retail store in Hamilton, N.J., raw food is a category that requires attention from both the store owner and the staff.
"There are still misconceptions and false information circulating out there about raw foods,” he said. "So if you aren’t ready to invest some time and marketing to selling raw, or if you are the type of store that expects items to sell themselves, raw is not for you.”
Lucy Postins, CEO of The Honest Kitchen in San Diego, has seen the best success with retailers who merchandise in a distinct category of alternative or next-generation products.
"Our foods can also be easily merchandised in the canned food aisle, and promote a fresher, more cost-effective alternative to heavily processed wet food,” she said.
Red Bandanna Natural Pet Food stores in Georgia use display to encourage customers to purchase raw diets for their pets, said Ashley Friery, regional manager.
"We display our foods along the perimeter of our stores and use newer freezers with glass-front displays so our customers can view what is in the freezer before they decide to buy,” she said. "These newer freezers are very open and well-lit. They really are a great tool to present frozen products to our customers.”—AP
Because dogs and cats are different, formulating diets for their specific needs makes perfect scientific and biological sense, Frautnick noted.
The newest raw food product from Primal is Primal Pronto, which offers the same formulation as the company’s other raw-frozen formulas in a bite-sized, quick-thaw, convenient format, he added.
Growing consumer knowledge about the importance of feeding a quality diet has positively affected the raw food category, according to manufacturers.
"We’ve been fortunate to have been experiencing explosive growth over the past several years, which we feel can be attributed to more and more pet parents seeking better-quality foods and treats for their companion animals,” said Bette Schubert, co-founder and senior vice president of sales for Bravo! in Manchester, Conn. "Consumers are reading labels, and they are learning to distinguish between good and bad ingredients. They’re concerned with where the ingredients are sourced and where the product is made.”
Bravo! products are made from hormone-free, grass-fed lamb, beef and venison; the company’s poultry products consist of chicken, turkey, ostrich and duck, which are raised without the use of antibiotics, Schubert said. The company’s raw diets come in fresh-frozen and freeze-dried formulas.
"What has worked for us is offering our formulas in as many different formats as possible so that consumers can have the products their pets love in the format that is most convenient for them and offers them the greatest value,” said Schubert.
Stella & Chewy’s has convenience and value for pet owners in mind, too, with its new for 2014 quick-thaw and -serve frozen Dinner Morsels, which thaw in as little as 8 to 10 minutes at room temperature, said Marie Moody, founder and chairman of the Milwaukee company.
"The Dinner Morsels for dogs deliver all of the premium quality of our current frozen patties, but some consumers may find the new nugget size convenient and more suited to their busy lifestyle,” she said.
"The Dinner Morsels for cats will appeal to consumers who may prefer frozen raw dinners and the lower cost per serving it provides vs. our current freeze-dried dinners.”
Improvement in the manufacturing process is another reason for the raw food category’s growing popularity.
"Raw has come a very long way in even just the past three to five years,” said Gregg Bernhardt, owner of Bag of Bones Barkery, a retailer in Hamilton, N.J. "The introduction of [high pressure processing] has allowed raw food companies to remove harmful pathogens from raw foods while preserving their vitamin and mineral potency. They do this by placing foods into a high-pressured water chamber that does not use heat.”
Greater product safety for both animals and humans has increased buyer confidence and, thus, sales in this segment, Bernhardt said.
"Furthermore, the introduction of raw ‘bites’ to the market—that is, small bits of raw food that mirror kibble—has provided the convenience factor that many consumers are looking for, allowing for easy pouring and mixing with kibble as well as eliminating the need to physically touch the food,” he said.
At Furry Face, a holistic and organic pet supply store in Redlands, Calif., the "just add water” versions of raw food are most popular with customers, said Lorin Grow, owner.
"We carry a number of raw products and are always looking for more,” said Grow. "Our customers want to feed better but not necessarily sacrifice convenience. Packaged options are a fix for that.”
Kira Garrett, marketing and PR specialist for Sojos in Minneapolis, agreed that convenience is important to consumers.
"Our products fall in the middle, between dry kibble and the raw freezer case,” she said, adding that Sojos pet food mixes combine the convenience and affordability of kibble with the natural nutrition of fresh, raw food.
Quality ingredients, the hallmark of most raw food diets, are touted by manufacturers and retailers.
The Honest Kitchen, a raw food producer in San Diego, offers a line of human-grade, dehydrated foods for dogs and cats, said CEO Lucy Postins. The products contain meats, fish and leafy greens, which are steamed to eliminate pathogens. They are then dehydrated to remove remaining moisture.
"Vegetables and fruits are dehydrated using warm air to blow away the moisture,” said Postins. "Consumers add warm water to the dry mix and wait 3 minutes for the food to reconstitute.”
Postins said she started The Honest Kitchen more than a decade ago to address her dog’s ear infections and skin problems using a homemade recipe.
"Pet owners love the convenience of being able to create a ‘homemade’ meal for their animals easily by just adding water and stirring,” she said. "People love the fact that they can see the individual ingredients, and they feel good about feeding a product that is truly human grade, as well as being of good value.”
Sojos offers a line of raw pet food mixes that are made exclusively with human-grade ingredients, Garrett said.
"All ingredients are human grade and free of GMOs, fillers, preservatives or artificial colors,” said Garrett. "Our pet food mixes are prepared and packaged in the USA, and monitored for quality and safety.”
The quality and purity of raw foods is clearly a draw for pet owners, according to both manufacturers and retailers.
"We teach our customers that there are a lot of health issues that a body can alleviate on its own, if fed the right fuel,” said Ashley Friery, regional manager for Red Bandanna Natural Pet Food stores in Georgia. "Natural, holistic and raw diets enable a body to heal itself with the lack of junk and chemical interference removed from the meal.”
It’s easy for her customers to see how even small improvements in their pets’ diets can make a difference in temperament, health and energy, Friery added.
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