Raw Food Made Simple
Sojos has made it easy for pet owners to deliver the high-quality nutrition that comes with feeding their dogs and cats raw pet foods.
While many pet owners have caught on over the past few years to the numerous benefits that can come from feeding their furry companions raw foods, the concept is not new to the pet industry. In fact, it was nearly 20 years ago when Ward Johnson got into the raw food business by buying a small, local company called Sojourner Farms.
Of course, when Johnson made the acquisition, both the raw food category and the company bared little resemblance to what they look like today. The company owner and president says Sojourner Farms was “basically a recipe and a handful of customers” in 1996, when he decided to leave his job at a holistic veterinary clinic to take the helm. Armed with just a couple of products, including that original recipe—a combination of grains, herbs, sea kelp and vitamins that was formulated to be mixed with a pet owner’s own raw meat source—Johnson started off as a one-man show, doing everything from answering the phones to creating the company’s marketing strategy. At the time, he was selling to retailers and consumers scattered around the country, which the company shipped product to via UPS.
Johnson’s first order of business after taking over Sojourner Farms—which does business as Sojos—was to build a loyal base of retailer customers and secure broader distribution through the industry’s wholesalers. The company also significantly scaled back the amount of direct-to-consumer business it was doing; and within 10 years, a majority of its sales came from pet industry distributors.
During the same period in which Sojos was growing its distribution on pet store shelves, the company was also expanding its product offerings. The first addition was a grain-free version of the Sojos Original Dog Food Mix that Johnson started with. Then, in what turned out to be a watershed moment for the company, Johnson made the decision to add freeze-dried raw meat—turkey meat, to be specific—to the Sojos grain-free mix formula, giving birth to the Sojos Complete line of pet diets.
“All the customers have to do is add water, and they have a fresh, raw pet food,” Johnson says about the Sojos Complete line, noting that these diets have since driven a majority of the company’s rapid growth.
Building on the early success that Sojos experienced with its first complete diet, the company broadened the line by adding beef as a protein source. Today, the Sojos Complete line comprises three canine recipes—turkey, beef and lamb—which come in four- and eight-pound sizes, as well as one feline recipe—turkey—in one- and four-pound sizes. While Johnson says the first addition of beef was made simply to add variety, subsequent options have been—and will continue to be—made for functional reasons. For example, he says that lamb was added because of the digestive benefits it can provide to pets.
“As we continue to add more products, it will be a matter of adding more nutritional benefits, as opposed to adding new formulas for variety’s sake,” says Johnson. “Also, our focus when adding items will continue to be on raw, freeze-dried products.”
In order to accomplish Sojos’ mission to “bring raw food to the masses,” the company is committed to producing products that are convenient and safe to feed to pets. Part of that commitment includes freeze-drying all of its own meat and formulating products in-house, as well as paying close attention to ingredient sourcing.
“We work very closely with our suppliers, and we don't get any of our ingredients from China,” says Johnson, noting that the company’s operations manager has a strong background in human-food production.
Once the popular Sojos Complete line of freeze-dried raw diets was in place, the company started looking in new directions for product development. This led to the creation of a line of oven-baked treats under the Good Dog brand, which Johnson says was made possible by a key investment in production equipment.
“When I bought the company, we already had two treats, which were made at an outside facility—we didn’t make any of our own products at the time,” he says. “The manufacturer who made our treats for us eventually decided to sell off all of its equipment, so we decided to purchase it and do the manufacturing ourselves.”
Production capabilities allowed Sojos to get more creative when developing new products. “We were able to experiment with different shapes and experiment with different recipes,” Johnson says. “That is how the Good Dog Treats were born.”
The company has since spun off of the Good Dog line—which includes recipes such as Chicken Pot Pie, Peanut Butter & Jelly, Apple Dumpling, and Blueberry Cobbler in eight-ounce boxes—with Big Dog Treats, which are basically a larger version of the original bone-shaped treat design. Big Dog Treats are available in Beef Stew, and Biscuits & Gravy varieties, both in 12-ounce boxes.
Rounding out Sojos’ baked treat offerings are Sojos Treats for Dogs—available in Bacon Cheddar, Peanut Butter & Honey, and Chicken Veggie varieties—as well as Sojos Grain-Free Treats for Dogs, which come in Lamb & Sweet Potato, and Duck & Cherry varieties. Both lines come in 10-ounce boxes.
The Sojos treat selection is not limited to baked products, however. The company’s newest product line, introduced earlier this year, is Simply Meat Treats, which are single-ingredient treats made from freeze-dried meat. Available in Simply Beef, Simply Turkey and Simply Lamb varieties, these treats contain no artificial preservatives, flavors and colors. In addition, as it does with all of its products, the company uses only the best-quality ingredients to formulate the highly palatable Simply Meat line.
“We only source human-quality meat—USDA human-grade,” says Johnson, noting that these treats, which are also made from meat that is freeze-dried in-house, have quickly become among the company’s most popular offerings.
Apparently, all of Sojos’ efforts in developing a line up of high-quality foods and treats that offer convenient access to superior nutrition are paying off. According to Johnson, the company has experienced double-digit annual sales growth for nine consecutive years, and it looks like 2014 will set a new high-water mark. “This year, we’re growing faster than ever,” he says.
Of course, it isn’t just a well-crafted product lineup that has driven Sojos’ success; Johnson also credits his company’s commitment to the independent pet specialty channel. “We’ve built a symbiotic relationship with independent retailers, and that will never change,” he says. “We are not sold in the big-boxes or national grocery chains. We employ local reps to educate retailers and conduct product demonstrations. And we provide tons of free samples, educational materials and POS displays.”
Looking to the future, Johnson says retailers can expect Sojos to introduce an exciting new product line in early 2015. It will be just the latest example of the company’s commitment remaining on the cutting edge of the raw-food trend, he says.
The ultimate objective for Johnson is to grow not only the company, but the raw-food category itself. “Our goal, is to grow health food for pets into at least one-third of the overall food category,” he says.