A Primal Craving
Primal Pet Foods is helping to bring the many benefits of feeding raw diets to more pet owners with a varied lineup of foods and treats formulated from carefully sourced, human-grade ingredients.
Like so many pet owners, Matt Koss, founder and president of Primal Pet Foods, came around to the concept of raw pet nutrition while looking for ways to help his ailing canine companion in 2001. At the time, pet store shelves were not filled with the wide variety of raw food options that exist today, so Koss went about creating his own. He was well prepared for the challenge, having a background in human-food research and development, as well as production, and living in San Francisco, where holistic veterinarians were already espousing the many benefits of raw diets for pets.
“I was using all of these wonderful ingredients [in human food], and I had an animal whose health issues I couldn’t solve,” Koss recounts. “So I took her to a holistic vet, who turned me on to literature from veterinarians around the world who were pro raw feeding.”
After doing a healthy amount of research on canine nutrition and feeding raw, and drawing on his experience with human-food ingredients, Koss developed his first raw dog food recipe for his ailing pet. The results quickly made him a believer in the concept.
“I saw an immediate interest in consumption, which she had lost,” he says. “Then, I saw a transformation of health in an animal that had otherwise taken a turn for the worse.”
Eager to share the benefits that this newly created raw food recipe with other pet owners, later that year, Koss launched Primal Pet Foods with a single recipe—the raw frozen Canine Chicken Formula that is still offered, virtually unchanged, in the company’s product lineup today. Despite his enthusiasm for his new creation, though, Koss had no idea that his fledgling company would grow up to become a leader in one of the fastest-growing categories in pet nutrition.
“The goal really was just to do a local delivery service here in the Bay Area,” he says. “Raw frozen pet food was not mainstream at all at that time—there was really only one [other] brand on the market.”
Once he had some experience with making the raw diet, Koss decided to present it to an independent pet store around the corner from his home to see if there was any interest in carrying it. As it turned out, the store was quite receptive, and Primal Pet Foods has been building a loyal base of retail partners ever since.
In 2004, Primal Pet Foods got a big boost in growing its presence on pet store shelves when its products were picked up by a local pet food distributor in Northern California. At that point, Koss began attending pet industry trade shows with an eye toward bringing his emerging brand to a bigger audience. “It kind of spiraled up from there,” he says. “We became nationally distributed around 2005/2006.”
Just as Primal Pet Foods’ distribution was expanding, so was its product lineup. Originally focused on developing frozen raw foods, the company first added beef and lamb recipes for dogs, and then it moved into the cat arena with combinations such as chicken and salmon, and beef and salmon.
“At the same time, the brand evolved from simple packaging that was similar to an ice-cream tub into what we call individually quick-frozen or portion-controlled products like nuggets,” says Koss. “We continued to refine the portion-controlled products because we saw that convenience was becoming more of a factor in feeding raw. We knew that if we were going to get to the larger market, we needed to deliver convenience to the customer.”
Primal Pet Foods further expanded its offerings to include recipes based on exotic proteins, the demand for which had grown significantly due to improving consumer education about the impact that nutrition has on a pet’s health—particularly in regards to food allergies. These exotic proteins, says Koss, proved to be a great fit for the raw feeding concept.
“At that time, raw was more of a solution-based food,” he explains. “People who were feeding traditional pet food products and could not resolve health issues in their pets started looking outside the box—or the bag—to see what alternatives they could turn to in order to resolve these issues. And what helped companies like ours to grow is that these [raw diets] actually performed.”
Still, in order to take the raw food concept to the next level, Koss realized that companies like Primal Pet Foods would have to do more to broaden the category’s customer base. “We started to look at how we could get more traditional pet food feeders to come over the line, because there were barriers—the handling of frozen raw foods required a little bit more [effort] from the consumer,” he says. “So, we wanted to see what alternatives we could implement to further break down those barriers, and that is when we started looking at freeze-dried products.”
Freeze-dried raw foods, which Primal introduced in 2011, turned out to be a perfect way to make feeding raw diets more convenient and less intimidating for the average pet owner because they deliver the same nutritional benefits of frozen raw products in a shelf-stable form. “It’s just a more approachable product,” says Koss, noting that the freeze-dried category has “absolutely exploded over the past few years.”
“It has really become the gateway for retailers to enable their customers to feel more comfortable about getting into the alternative food category,” he says.
While freeze-dried certainly delivered a convenience factor, Primal Pet Foods actually turned its attention back to the freezer when it came time for its next innovation in making raw diets easier for pet owners to feed. Last year, the company introduced its Primal Pronto line, which Koss says further breaks down the barriers of entry for consumers by offering frozen raw products that can be handled similarly to traditional diets.
“Many consumers that feed kibble are accustomed to scoop and serve,” he says. “So, we saw an opportunity to offer a kibble-like product in a raw format. We looked at how we could get the product to thaw more quickly, so the pet owner doesn’t have to thaw it ahead of time in the refrigerator. You basically do the same thing that you’ve been doing with kibble: you reach into the bag with a cup, scoop some out, let it sit and thaw for five to 15 minutes and serve.”
Although it is still a relatively new line, Koss says that Primal Pronto has quickly become popular with retailers who are looking to bring more pet owners around to the raw-food concept. “As we have rolled it out, it has been very apparent that retailers that have been doing raw for a quite some time and are making an effort to convert customers from kibble and canned foods go to Pronto right away [for this purpose]. And that is what it is there for. Pronto creates an opportunity for retailers to start the conversation.”
Even as Primal Pet Foods has come a long way in innovating the raw-food category by developing products that make it easier than ever for pet owners to convert from traditional pet diets, Koss ascribes most of the company’s success to a concept that has been in place since he developed that first recipe for his own dog—the use of only the best, human-grade ingredients.
“We built this company on the ingredients,” says Koss. “From the very beginning, we wanted to bring human-grade ingredients to the pet food market, and my background in the human-food industry gave me access to those high-quality materials.”
In addition to only using human-grade ingredients, Koss explains that Primal Pet Foods is very particular about the suppliers it partners with. The company looks for sources that follow strict animal-care and food-safety protocols, as well as proteins from antibiotic- and steroid-free animals. In addition, Primal only sources from the U.S. and New Zealand. “Our goal is to deliver the cleanest possible product,” he says.
According to Koss, a commitment to those standards is what has made Primal Pet Foods a leader in the category. “We’ve had 20 to 30 percent growth year after year for the past 10 years; and that is in a very small segment of the overall pet food market,” he says.
With so much opportunity to expand the customer base for raw pet diets, Koss sees unlimited potential for the category and his company. “The sky’s the limit, but we have a lot of work to do.”