Discerning pet owners are on a quest to feed their companion animals the most healthful food possible, and natural food toppers, from freeze-dried raw options to bone broths, offer consumers an easy way to upgrade their pets’ kibble or canned diets.
"Many pet parents are curious about the benefits of feeding their dog a raw diet but don’t know where to start," said Jen Loesch, general manager of Sojos in South St. Paul, Minn. "Our ProteinPlus toppers offer an easy way to ‘plus-up’ the foods they’re currently feeding with an extra measure of protein and superfoods."
Jessica Rogers, a buyer with Chuck & Don’s Pet Food & Supplies in Aurora, Colo., said freeze-dried natural toppers continue to be a growing category.
"With brands like Nulo entering that department and brands like The Honest Kitchen launching single-serve cups for trial, there’s a plethora of options to suit any customer’s needs," she said. "Bone broth is the newest trend we’re seeing, with brands like Plato [liquid], The Honest Kitchen [powdered], and Primal [frozen] all offering palatability, nutrition and ease of use."
Samantha Henson, clinical pet nutritionist for Premier Pet Supply in Beverly Hills, Mich., said freeze-dried raw toppers and mixers are here to stay because dogs and cats love them, they’re healthful and they’re incredibly easy to use.
"I carry four different brands, and all of them outsell any other type of topper combined," she said.
Pattie Boden, owner of Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va., noted she’s seeing a lot of growth of freeze-dried raw toppers, which are popular not only for meals, but as a treat.
"The ones that have some kind of pebble, disk or ingot-type shape work best for us, but I know that some companies are using their ‘leftovers’ and packing and branding them as a topper," she said. "It works great for the manufacturer as they cut down on waste. It’s also a great way to introduce more ‘real food’ into a kibble-based diet."
Anthony Bennie, founder and chief nutrition officer for Clear Conscience Pet in Cape Coral, Fla., said that seven years ago, pet food toppers hardly existed, but in 2018, the "kibble topper" category has grown exponentially and includes a broad range of options.
"A prevalent trend is that more companies whose primary business has been selling freeze-dried foods or treats have repurposed their products as a line extension and are marketing them as mixers or toppers," he said. "Another trend is selling flavored waters with added vitamins as kibble-topping broths. Also, lots of companies that are selling canned and ‘juice box’ wet foods haven’t necessarily created a new product; instead, they have altered their online descriptions to include ‘use as a kibble topper’ and similar phrases to get keyword search hits in the topper category."
In the Stores
Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va., displays its natural topper selection in both the treat and kibble sections, as well as the area where it offers digestive enzymes and items used to entice picky eaters and seniors to eat.
At Pawz On Main in Cottonwood, Ariz., all food topper products are displayed on the same shelves as pet food so customers always know where to find them, said co-owner Denise Strong.
Chuck & Don’s Pet Food & Supplies in Aurora, Colo., displays its natural toppers within corresponding departments, such as freeze-dried toppers with freeze-dried food.
"But we also cross-merchandise," said Jessica Rogers, a buyer with the retailer. "We put The Honest Kitchen cups and other trial sizes with canned foods to give more visibility and allow the customer to see more options."
Premier Pet Supply in Beverly Hills, Mich., has dedicated 16 feet to freeze-dried raw and dehydrated foods.
"The section starts with all the mixers," said Samantha Henson, clinical pet nutritionist. "I also start the canned-goods aisle with other various toppers as well."
Pet specialty retailers should take advantage of the category’s growing momentum by creating freeze-dried, health-focused shelf sets and featured endcap displays, said Jen Loesch, general manager of Sojos in South St. Paul, Minn.
"Consider allocating space for freeze-dried toppers in the kibble and canned aisles and at point of purchase," she added. "This is an opportunity to reach pet parents who otherwise wouldn’t venture down the aisle to shelf-stable, freeze-dried diets."
Anthony Bennie, founder and chief nutrition officer for Clear Conscience Pet in Cape Coral, Fla., said multiple in-store placements are key to retail store success, but while creating an actual topper section is a good idea, most stores don’t have the space available, and consumers need to see toppers near foods.
"Place [them] by your natural dry foods and canned foods, since more and more consumers are adopting toppers as a more cost-effective, convenient, lower-calorie, and far more eco-friendly alternative to adding canned food on top of kibble," he said. "If these key locations are utilized throughout the store, then one can also place [toppers] with the dog supplements."
Freeze-dried toppers offer retailers the opportunity to create long-lasting loyalty by putting their customers on the path to a healthier, more vibrant pet, according to experts.
Jen Loesch, general manager of Sojos in South St. Paul, Minn., said the company is doing everything it can to make the transition to raw food and toppers easy, affordable and safe.
"Certainly, that includes supporting our retail partners with the training and tools they need to make a clear, common-sense case for the unmistakable advantages of uncompromised farm-fresh nutrition," she said. "But it also means continuing to broaden our appeal with relevant and welcoming new products."
Heidi Nevala, founder of Natura Petz in Minneapolis, said there are many ways to support marketing, from product discounts to educational seminars/webinars and more.
"Social media is a great avenue for us, as we have a variety of educational pieces from videos to written articles to infographics to audio clips," she said. "We really like to use creative and interactive marketing efforts, as they seem to not only inspire a purchase, but also a positive interaction with the store and our brands, and usually result in a better chance at positive outcomes for pets."
On the Market
Heidi Nevala, founder of Natura Petz in Minneapolis, said the company introduced Dog & Cat Kryptonite, a meal topper format that helps address glandular issues in dogs and cats, as well as a nutritional topper called Life’s An Itch to help address all types of allergen triggers.
Anthony Bennie, founder and chief nutrition officer for Clear Conscience Pet in Cape Coral, Fla., said the company recently completed a major expansion and reimagining of its SuperGravy line from the original Au Jus brown beef gravy to a line of three artisan-crafted holistic gravies.
"Each is made with a single protein to provide options for dogs with allergies, and all now include live probiotics and digestive enzymes," he said. "To capture the joyful spirit of gravy as ‘comfort food,’ we gave the new recipes fun and memorable names. For example, Au Jus brown with beef liver is now Paw Jus."
Sojos in South St. Paul, Minn., recently launched a new line of toppers.
"Sojos ProteinPlus Toppers provide a simple and nutritious way to add a raw boost of flavorful protein to an otherwise ordinary mealtime routine," said Jen Loesch, general manager of the company. "With just six ingredients in every irresistible spoonful, each recipe combines 90 percent turkey, beef or lamb with select superfoods including broccoli, green peas, apples, cranberries and blueberries."