The Sky's the Limit for Raw Diets
With more dog owners dialing into the benefits of feeding their pets raw foods, the freeze-dried category is taking off, fueled by these products’ nutritional value, ease-of-use and portability.
As more and more folks look for ways to power up the nutritional value of their diets, they are increasingly eschewing processed, refined products in favor of simpler and more natural foods. The thought is that the less processing a food undergoes, and the fewer ingredients it contains, the healthier it is. For this reason, raw foods are increasingly landing on consumers’ radar, both for themselves and now for the family pet.
Humans who follow a raw diet can derive their protein from many sources other than meat. However, because meat protein is so important for dogs, putting them on a raw diet can be a challenging and somewhat messy prospect. Fortunately, freeze-dried dog foods, treats and snacks offer a way around this dilemma, enabling pet owners to offer their little buddies a highly palatable and nutritious raw product in a format that is shelf-stable, long-lasting, easy to feed and extremely portable.
“When food is in its raw, natural form, it’s the most nutrient dense,” says Katie Berlin, brand marketing associate for Dogswell, a Los Angeles-based manufacturer of high-quality pet foods and treats. “As food is processed or heated, the nutrient content begins to decrease. Freeze drying raw foods enables each ingredient to retain more of its nutritional value, and the pet receives the nutritional value of a raw diet without the hassle of feeding raw foods.”
Freeze drying, which removes more than 95 percent of the moisture through pressure and low temperature, is a fairly straightforward process, says Stacy Milchman, salesperson for Pet Ventures—the North Hollywood, Calif.-based manufacturer of Pet ‘n Shape brand pet treats and chews.
“The product is first frozen, then the sublimation process converts the ice into water vapor, removing most of the moisture from the product while keeping the nutritional value virtually the same,” Milchman says, adding that this is a fairly recent innovation in food preservation, one that offers several benefits over other methods, such as using artificial preservatives or dehydration, which can affect the appearance and composition of products.
According to Berlin, the freeze-dried segment is one of the fastest growing in the pet food category, achieving approximately 75 percent growth as an overall category from 2014 to 2015. Lanny Viegut, CEO of Green Bay, Wis.-based pet food company Vital Essentials agrees that this segment is gaining momentum. “The freeze-dried category is welcoming thousands of pet parents every week,” he says. “Freeze-dried manufacturers, along with retailers who are already engaged with freeze-dried products in their stores, are experiencing growth of 30 to 50 percent annually, year over year.”
At this point, says Viegut, the freeze-dried category currently represents just one percent of the total pet consumables. However, he adds, mainstream consumers are starting to realize the benefits that raw freeze-dried foods and treats confer. “Nutritional bio-availability, reduced vet visits, reduction of skin, coat and dental issues, and overall pet happiness are just a few on a long list of benefits,” he says.
Obviously, raw freeze-dried products offer numerous and significant advantages to dogs—and subsequently to their owners—but pet specialty retailers that inventory these products stand to reap important benefits as well. For one thing, even though people are becoming more educated about and aware of freeze-dried products, the market has barely been tapped, says Dr. Chris Bessent, DVM/CEO of Herbsmith, Inc. Located in Hartland, Wis., the company manufactures high-end supplements and treats for dogs and cats, and freeze-dried and dry-roasted dog treats.
“The growth is pretty explosive,” says Bessent. “There has been a wonderful trend of natural that has been going on for years, and incorporating freeze-dried into that diet is the next big thing. We’ve stepped up our manufacturing, added equipment and expanded our facility to meet demand.”
The fact that these products are not yet found in every pet store or retail channel gives pet specialty retailers that carry them a big advantage, turning these stores into destinations for pet owners seeking out freeze-dried products, says Tyler Thielmann, director of marketing for SO Bright LLC, a family-owned dog treat company in Kiel, Wis.
“Another great thing is that it’s very difficult to find dogs and cats that dislike [freeze-dried] treats,” he says. “These products are great for all different types and sizes of dog. They can be easily broken up into smaller pieces for training purposes, and they’re also great from the standpoint that pet owners can finally bring a whole-meat treat along with them on trips, walks or elsewhere without worrying about spoilage.”
Upping Sales Potential
Freeze-dried foods and treats also allow retailers to easily offer the benefits of raw without having freezers or refrigerators, says Bessent. Because these products are shelf-stable, spoilage is no longer an issue, as it is with refrigerated or frozen raw items, helping to better manage inventory and control costs. And since these products weigh less than other products, shipping is less expensive as well, she adds.
“Freeze-dried products also offer significantly higher margins than kibble or canned food,” says Ward Johnson, CEO and co-owner of Sojos, a Minneapolis-based manufacturer of raw, shelf-stable pet foods and treats.
“Even so, because the customer isn’t paying for water, freeze-dried foods are actually quite affordable,” Johnson continues. “Most important of all, freeze-dried foods offer retailers the opportunity to create long-lasting, loyal customers by giving them the path to a healthier, more vibrant pet.”
A dearth of product choices isn’t going to be an issue for pet specialty retailers. In fact, just the opposite could prove true. “When we first started, there were few companies manufacturing freeze-dried products and very few brands,” says Thielmann. “But now, the number of brands has exploded tenfold. Even some of the larger brands are starting to take notice and add products, when in the beginning freeze-dried was thought to be a fad.”
There is a potential downside to this abundance that pet specialty retailers should be mindful of, cautions Bessent. “Freeze-dried products are only as good as the ingredients in them, and what we’re seeing is manufacturers jumping on the freeze-dried bandwagon and freeze-drying products with poor-quality ingredients,” she says. “You can freeze-dry anything, so it becomes really necessary to closely examine the ingredients.”
Pet specialty retailers will also need to do a certain amount of educating if they’re going to overcome some of the obstacles and consumer misperceptions that could get in the way of sales. Johnson says some pet owners might believe these products are too expensive or not safe for their pets. They may also confuse freeze-dried products with frozen or refrigerated raw foods and therefore think of them as inconvenient, messy and hard to prepare.
“But knowledgeable sales associates can quickly break down those barriers with facts,” he says. “It’s important to ensure that retail team members are well-versed and ready to successfully educate customers on the unique [qualities] of freeze-dried foods—then make a clear, commonsense case for the unmistakable advantages of freeze-dried raw.”
Other tips retailers may consider to maximize sales in this category include:
• Explain the freeze-drying process and how it preserves nutrients in a natural, chemical-free way, being sure to stress their high nutritional value and the use of real, natural ingredients, says Milchman.
• Point out to customers that freeze-dried foods and treats are very concentrated and therefore they will need to feed their dogs less of it compared to non-freeze-dried foods, in order to avoid over-feeding, says Bessent.
• Offer entry-sized packages of freeze-dried options. Doing so is a good way to introduce consumers to freeze-dried products, says Thielmann.
• Use endcaps and POS materials to call out the benefits of freeze-dried products, says Berlin. Look for visuals and collateral that help you tell, and sell, the story.
• Remember that a pet’s entire diet doesn’t have to be freeze-dried, says Bessent. Lots of pet owners use freeze-dried as a topping for kibble, or they mix it with the pet’s usual food or give as a treat. The dog will still benefit from the nutrients freeze-dried fare provides, while owners will be able to keep costs under control.
• Although freeze-dried is generally nutritious for almost any dog, be sure to inquire about any protein allergies or other food sensitivities, Bessent advises. Also ask how much of the diet the pet owner wants freeze-dried to comprise.
Viegut describes the future as bright for his company and other freeze-dried category leaders. He says, “Increasingly, pet parents are learning the health benefits of feeding raw and are seeing firsthand the impact of a raw diet as they transition from traditional kibble diets.”