The First Family of Pet Food
A fifth-generation family owned and operated company, Fromm Family Foods has been innovating canine nutrition for nearly a century.
In today’s pet food market, where manufacturers often thrive or fail based on their ability to stay on the cutting-edge of the latest nutritional trends, Fromm Family Foods is proving that deep roots can provide the best foundation for innovation.
In fact, it would be difficult to find anyone with a more extensive background in pet food than the Nieman family, which has been involved in canine nutrition for five generations. The family first started delving into the subject as far back as the early 1900s, while searching for a better way to feed the foxes that they farmed for the fur trade.
“My ancestors were looking into how to raise the foxes better, and one of the important areas was nutrition,” says Bryan Nieman, brand director and member of the family’s fifth generation in the pet food business. “So, they developed their own food and eventually built our Mequon [Wis.] plant in 1925 just to produce that food for them—we had, at the time, more than 1,000 acres that were fox farms.”
After building their own food production plant, the Niemans began looking at the inherent similarities between the nutritional needs of foxes and pet dogs. Under the guidance of chief nutritionist Dr. Willard Roberts, Ph.D., the Niemans set about creating the first complete and balanced commercial dog food. “We hired Dr. Roberts, who started doing feeding trials, which are still to this day the largest [dog food] trials ever conducted,” says Nieman. “As a result, we were able to develop the method and recipe to cook pet food, which led to our first commercial dry dog food in 1949.”
Marketed under the Fromm Family Nutritionals brand, the food was one of the first modern pet diets available on the market. Previously, pet foods basically consisted of grain mixes that were meant to be combined with fresh meat. “There was just no convenient way to feed your pet [before],” says Nieman. “Dr. Roberts was able to figure out the process of cooking the meat and grain together to produce an all-granular pet food, which we called Fromm Complete Dog Meal.”
Armed with the company’s first marketing slogan, “50,000 foxes can’t be wrong!”—a nod to the massive feeding trials conducted by Dr. Roberts—Fromm began selling its Complete Dog Meal through farm and feed stores, as modern pet stores simply did not exist at the time. It wasn’t long before the new dog food enterprise started booming, just as the fur business was declining.
In fact, the Nieman family steadily divested themselves of their fur business over the years that followed, focusing instead on building the burgeoning food market. This included diversifying the range of foods that Fromm offered to cater to various pet lifestyles, including the development of a high-stress diet for working dogs. Also during this developmental phase, the company became one of the first food manufacturers to start using natural preservatives in its products in the early 1980s.
In 1984, the bridge between Fromm Family Foods’ past and present took shape under founder Edwin Nieman, Sr.’s, grandson Tom Nieman (Bryan’s father). Returning to the family business after earning a degree in chemical engineering, Tom took the reigns during a turbulent time for the company, which had lost both Edwin, Sr., and his son (Tom’s father) Edwin, Jr., that year. It was a challenge that Tom was up for, despite his relative lack of experience in the pet food business.
“My father didn’t go to school to make pet food, but he happily took the reigns and jumped right in,” says Nieman. “I suppose entrepreneurship runs in our blood. Dating all the way back to the 1800s [when the Nieman family immigrated to the U.S.], we always take what we have and make something better out of it.”
Under the tutelage of Dr. Roberts, Tom continued to take Fromm Family Foods down the path of innovation that his predecessors had started cutting decades before. That included coming up with a new cornerstone formula in 1990, which would become the basis for Fromm Classic Recipes. “It was a food that had fresh chicken as the first ingredient, as opposed to using a meat meal or grain as the first ingredient,” says Nieman.
To go along with the new formula, Fromm began to focus its marketing message on the quality of the protein used in its foods, instead of the quantity of protein. “Even in 1990, our competitors were focusing on how much protein their foods contained—with the message, more protein is better,” says Nieman. “We were saying that the quality of the protein was more important, because you can actually get better results and better digestibility if you use a better-quality protein.”
Armed with the hands-on education that came from studying under Dr. Roberts, Tom took his first solo crack at developing a new food formula in 1999. The resulting Fromm Gold line is the company’s multiple-protein diet, which combines duck, chicken and lamb with Wisconsin cheddar cheese and other wholesome ingredients. “That is when we started moving into the upscale, artisan strategy with our foods,” says Nieman. “We started focusing on using more exotic proteins and fresh ingredients from local suppliers.”
Over the years, the Fromm Gold line has grown to include seven dry and two canned formulas for dogs, including small and large breed varieties for different lifestages, as well as three dry feline lifestage diets.
In 2003, Fromm introduced another pet food line—Fromm Four-Star Nutritionals. “My father had this idea that we could mimic how people go out to eat or serve a different meal every night, which was the basis for developing the Four-Star line,” says Nieman.
Starting out with three recipes that could be rotated in a pet’s diet (Whitefish and Potato; Duck and Sweet Potato, and Chicken A La Veg), the line represented the first time that Fromm used fresh fruits and vegetables in its diets—a concept that was well-received by consumers. The Four-Star line now includes 11 dry and three canned formulas for dogs, as well as seven dry and four canned formulas for cats—including recipes such as Pork & Applesauce and Surf & Turf. Seven dog treat recipes, including Chicken with Carrots & Peas and Lamb with Cranberry, are also part of the line.
Today, Tom is preparing the fifth generation of Niemans to succeed him at the helm of Fromm Family Foods. His sons Bryan and Dan are currently getting a first-hand education on all facets of running a successful pet food business through what Bryan describes as an immersion program. “Over the past year, we’ve hit every specific part of the plant, spending six weeks in each area, including receiving, blending, meat and vegetable processing, extrusion, maintenance, and so on,” he says. “It’s just so interesting to see how everything comes together.”
Through this learning process, both brothers have found that they share the same passion for pet nutrition as the previous four generations of Niemans, and Bryan says that this passion, along with the company’s family-oriented approach that makes Fromm Family Foods the perfect partner for independent pet stores. “It’s in our blood,” he says. “What drives us is our passion for our business—not making a million dollars so we can retire on an island somewhere. We are very interested in food and how things are made, and we love to develop products based on how we feed our own family and how we feed our own pets.”
Looking forward, Nieman expects Fromm Family Foods to continue the “phenomenal” growth that it has experienced, particularly over the past several years. This is due, in large part, to the fact that the family has used this success to further invest in the company’s future. Fromm has plans in place for the next two to three years, which include refining its existing lines while adding new ones.
While they are still being groomed to someday take over the business, the fifth generation of Fromm’s family ownership is already playing an important role in the future of the company by bringing a fresh perspective to the table. This includes providing valuable insight into how Fromm Family Foods can reach the next up-and-coming generation of pet food buyers. Says Nieman: “We have some really big ideas for connecting with consumers while staying true to our heritage.”