Raw Hits the Mainstream

Players in the raw food category report rising awareness and demand for these products.

"Concerned pet parents are hyper-focused on nutrition as the key to whole body health and longevity," said Jen Loesch, general manager of Sojos in Minneapolis. "And raw food has become an important part of this movement—with pet parents looking for safe, convenient ways to feed their pets the freshest ingredients possible."

Industry participants agree that raw food has shifted from a fad or niche product to mainstream. They cite customers reading labels and researching manufacturers with the push for better products for their pets.

"Customers have come to want more than products that can honestly carry the label ‘healthy, all-natural,’" said Bette Schubert, co-founder and senior vice president of sales for Bravo Pet Foods in Manchester, Conn. "They want products that are going to deliver on that promise, so they’re also looking at where the ingredients are sourced and where the product is made."

This has helped drive the USA-made movement, improvements to processing and safety methods, and unique formats such as freeze-dried raw, she added.

Tracy Alford, owner of Animal Nutrition & Grooming Center in Roseville, Calif., specifically sees young people responding to raw.

"The younger generations are retraining their eating habits with whole, fresh foods as opposed to fast food or precooked freezer meals, and that is translating over to their animals," she said.

In particular, Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, co-founder and vice president of Radagast Pet Food Inc. in Portland, Ore., said cats are receiving more attention in the marketplace, specifically with millennials.

"We’re seeing a big increase in unique, innovative cat products, which will help grow the various cat-focused categories—not just food, but furniture, toys and products that enrich cats’ lives," she said.

Other trends seen in the raw food category include a focus on convenience and protein selection.

"Consumers converting their pets onto raw from feeding kibble and canned foods typically find that convenience is the biggest challenge to entering the category," said Kyle Frautnick, marketing director for Primal Pet Foods in Fairfield, Calif. "In response, raw food manufacturers have begun to offer kibblelike formats of both raw frozen and freeze-dried foods that deliver the ease of scoop-style portioning that the kibble consumer is accustomed to."

Frautnick and others reported seeing more alternative protein sources, which addresses rotation as well as allergy concerns, he said.

Diane Dewberry, owner of The Healthy Animal in Pembroke, Mass., has noticed manufacturers catering to smaller-breed dogs, which benefits the dogs that want meat as well as the industry because owners of small dogs often spend more on their pets; so raw is less expensive for them than for owners of large breeds.

Peculiar Proteins

The top things customers look for in raw diets, according to retailers, are palatability, complete and balanced nutrition, reliable/quality sourcing and variety in protein. Manufacturers are listening, as evidenced by the latest releases in the raw category.

Several companies added protein options to their lines this year. Radagast Pet Food Inc. in Portland, Ore., started the year off by debuting its Natural Pork Recipe.

"We always encourage customers to rotate proteins in their cats’ diet to help prevent food sensitivities," said Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, co-founder and vice president. "We have reliable, consistent sourcing for natural pork that is free from antibiotics, hormones or growth promotants."

To celebrate its 12 years on the market, the company debuted refreshed packaging this summer for the entire Rad Cat line of raw frozen cat food.

In April, Primal Pet Foods in Fairfield, Calif., added Rabbit in both canine and feline Freeze-Dried Formula lines as well as a feline Duck Formula. The company introduced 3-pound Feline Duck Frozen Formula Nuggets to its freezer assortment.

"Our raw frozen formulas are species-appropriate complete and balanced diets for dogs and cats," said Kyle Frautnick, marketing director.

Minneapolis-based Sojos launched its second shelf-stable, raw life-stage formula at SuperZoo in Las Vegas in July.

"Like Sojos for Puppies, new Sojos Complete for Seniors [is] blended to target a variety of age-related benefits," said Jen Loesch, general manager.

Freezers Are a Must

Industry participants recommend displaying raw diets in their own section, but some retailers find featuring the frozen fare challenging. So retailers, manufacturers and distributors are working together to bring attention to frozen raw foods through freezer programs, said Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, co-founder and vice president of Radagast Pet Food Inc. in Portland, Ore.

"Many retailers are opting to place glass-door merchandisers in their stores, which are visually appealing [and] display the packaging very well," she said. "Bright lights and colorful packaging certainly attract the attention of the customer, and it gives the customer the familiar feeling of shopping in the frozen aisle in their local grocery."

Kyle Frautnick, marketing director for Primal Pet Foods in Fairfield, Calif., agreed.

"Make it interesting. Make it fun. Have a point of view. And feature the freezer," he said, adding that "the future of raw is in the freezer."

For years, A Natural Pet Pantry in Osprey, Fla., had plain white freezers on the sales floor.

"But people didn’t really plunder through and look at product," said Michelle McConnell, co-owner of A Natural Pet Pantry. "Glass-front freezers were a great investment; people see the product and ask."

Newer freezers typically feature more storage capacity, which allows for less restocking, said Bette Schubert, co-founder and senior vice president of sales for Bravo Pet Foods in Manchester, Conn.

Beyond freezers and displays, Schubert suggested using social media to staying in touch with consumers and tell them about the latest products offerings or trending items.

"It’s a great way to get customers into their store to check out what’s new, or to attend in-store events," she said.

Samples are one way that Tracy Alford, owner of Animal Nutrition & Grooming Center in Roseville, Calif., entices customers to try raw foods.

"In addition, we run some kind of promo that incorporates raw into the deal," she said. "Other times, we will slip in a brochure or ask if they need anything else, like a raw bone for their dog as a treat."

Conversations Facilitate Education

Education is an essential part of selling and feeding a raw diet, according to retailers and manufacturers, and customers rely on store staff to counsel them on purchases.

"In terms of educating consumers, it is critical for the retailer and sales staff to be as educated as possible so they can pass along what they know," said Bette Schubert, co-founder and senior vice president of sales for Bravo Pet Foods in Manchester, Conn. "The sales team needs to talk knowingly about the features and benefits of a raw product and be able to distinguish between the various brands’ choices in order to be successful in terms of gaining sales as well as building customer trust and loyalty."

Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, co-founder and vice president of Radagast Pet Food Inc. in Portland, Ore., agreed, adding that "the more the store employees know, the more they can inform their customers."

"Mass marketing only goes so far," she said. "It’s the one-on-one interactions with customers that make the greatest impact."

Those new to the category especially need guidance and education, said industry participants. And for consumers making the leap from kibble or canned to alternatives such as raw, it can be intimidating, said Jen Loesch, general manager of Sojos in Minneapolis.

Both Diane Dewberry, owner of The Healthy Animal in Pembroke, Mass., and Tracy Alford, owner of Animal Nutrition & Grooming Center in Roseville, Calif., find people have received a lot of misinformation, including from their veterinarians.

"The FDA tells everyone that raw is bad because there are pathogens, and vets are not taught about raw species-appropriate diets, so people are hearing wrong information from their vets," Alford said, adding that resource materials, brochures and websites help with the conversation.

Dewberry said it would be best if retailers walked customers through the steps of feeding a raw diet.

"The conventional vet is all over them saying you can’t feed that, so a big part of the discussion when they come in here is about the raw," she said. "At least 85 percent of people need to have a little bit of education."