True to its Roots
Twenty years after emerging in the pet industry, Zuke’s continues to do what it does best—produce healthy, natural treats.
For a small independent company in the pet food and treats industry, being bought by mega giant Nestlé Purina has got to be a game changer. However, nearly a year and half since Purina bought Durango, Colo.-based Zuke’s, the company’s founding executives are emphatic about one thing—the 20-year-old brand remains true to its origins as an innovator of natural pet nutrition products.
In fact, anyone who picks up a package of Zuke’s dog treats today will find a tribute to the brand’s beginnings—an image of Zuke the dog with a pet owner in a picture-perfect, natural locale. Whether the scene is set on a mountainside hike, a grassy meadow or a sandy shore, the depictions reflect founder Patrick Meiering’s two passions and the inspiration that spawned the company: the outdoors and pets.
Chris Meiering, Zuke’s director of innovation and Patrick’s brother, describes the seed of the brand’s conception as a “traditional, entrepreneurial light-bulb-goes-off” moment that occurred after an arduous hike Patrick took with his dog Zuke in Durango in 1995.
“He sits down at a beautiful overlook, pulls out his energy bar and his energy drink, and he starts nourishing himself,” Chris recounts. “He sees that two-year-old Zuke is wiped out, and the light bulb goes off in his head. He thinks, ‘I have this amazing clean, healthy nutrition, but I don’t think there is anything like it available for my dog.’”
Patrick returned to his home in Albuquerque, N.M., and promptly got to work at developing what would become the company’s debut product, the Powerbone—which also served as the company’s first moniker. Chris, who had just graduated with a degree in biology, contributed by researching carbohydrates and the rates at which different types of carbs burn. The result was a carefully thought-out formulation of meat and carbs designed to give dogs the energy they need before and after an active day—in essence, an energy bar for dogs. The prototype was hand-wrapped and produced in Patrick’s garage. Shortly thereafter, the Powerbone was produced in small runs by a co-packer, with Patrick selling them out of his trunk in New Mexico and southern Colorado.
In keeping with its great-outdoors roots, Zuke’s bypassed all the major pet trade shows of the day and made its debut at the Outdoor Retailer Market in Salt Lake City, outfitted with only a table, a tablecloth and the Powerbone.
“The brand was born at that first show in Salt Lake City,” recalls Chris.
Over the next several years, the brand blossomed and evolved. The company started selling online to consumers in 1997, and soon began expanding its product portfolio. During this development phase, it moved away from its focus on performance-based products, moving instead toward a broader take on nutrition. For example, the brand launched jerky treats and a hip and joint treat with glucosamine and chondroitin.
“We were developing cleaner and cleaner products that were more natural and more nutritious,” Chris says.
In 1998, Patrick also changed the name of the company to Zuke’s. It soon became known for wholesome, tasty dog and cat treats and products that provide the energy pets need during any heart-pumping activities that they and their owners may embark on.
Joining the Major Leagues of Pet Nutrition
The company has come a long way from its days as a small, garage-based entrepreneurial family venture. In 2009, Chris says, Zuke’s took on private equity investment. At the time, he explains, money was pouring into the marketplace, and the capital infusion allowed the company to shore itself up in an increasingly competitive industry. Then, in 2013, Zuke’s was acquired by Nestlé Purina. While there are clear advantages to being brought into the fold of an industry powerhouse such as Purina, the move did raise red flags for some of Zuke’s retailer partners.
“There was an understandable skepticism from small independent retailers about the acquisition,” he says. “What we asked, is to let us prove it to you; let us prove that our products are not going to change.”
Any changes that have occurred, according to Chris, are in alignment with the company’s original goals and values, and have come mainly in the form of operational efficiencies and perks associated with inclusion in a large corporation. “There are a lot of efficiencies in the marketing and consumer-data information side that has helped,” he says. “That has been the main focal point of any help from the parent company. We now have information at our fingertips that we didn’t as a small brand.”
Other than that, not much has changed, says Chris. Zuke’s has maintained a great deal of autonomy since the transition—everything from product development to packaging to ingredient decks remains unchanged since before the acquisition, he reports, adding that Purina has not demonstrated any inclination to tamper with Zuke’s winning formula.
The treat company has also remained stalwart in its approach to quality control—each lot manufactured is tested, and the brand has an unblemished no-recall history to date.
“Purina, they are amazing themselves,” he says of the company’s approach to quality control. “Both our brand and parent company are precisely on the same page.”
Of course, after nearly two decades of being known as a trusted and reputable independent manufacturer that produces high-quality treats for the independent pet specialty retail channel, continuity could not be more important in maintaining the brand’s good standing in the industry. The arrival of Zuke’s on the pet treat scene in the 1990s coincided with a turning point in the market. Consumers were becoming increasingly discerning about their pets’ nutritional needs, and the company’s perfect timing in meeting this demand helped fuel its success.
“We were one of the first companies to bring the health and natural aspects of human food into pet treats,” Chris says. “We wanted to feed pets like we feed ourselves. We were a pioneer in that movement, and in 1995, it was slim pickings in the natural space that we take for granted today.”
While the original product concept has morphed from an energy-bar-like product to bagged treats, the determination to ensure that every product does a pet’s body good continues to anchor the brand. Among its latest introductions is a line of baked treats called Skinny Bakes. Addressing the consumer demand for breed-appropriate treats with low calorie counts, Skinny Bakes comes in several varieties—two-calorie yogurt-based treats, five-calorie peanut-butter-based treats, 10-calorie treats boasting several flavors featuring pumpkin, sweet potato, peanut butter and berries, and 20-calorie Superfood treats with a variety of flavor profiles all based on coconut.
“They offer clean, healthy and recognizable nutrition that pet owners understand inherently,” Chris says.
Another new product that aligns with the brand’s focus on sound nutrition is its Genuine Jerky Steaks line. Made with grass-fed New Zealand beef that is supplemented with whole vegetables, the jerky treats offer simple ingredients that dogs are known to savor.
While nutritious dog treats have long been the Meierings’ main priority, the brothers have also devoted time to charity. In 2007, they created the Dog Care Cancer Fund (DCCF) after Patrick’s dog Zuke succumbed to cancer. The charity helps pet owners who cannot afford cancer treatment for their dogs. Although DCCF is run independently, Zuke’s helps support the organization through financial donations.
As for the future, Chris says the company has been in an aggressive innovation phase, the results of which will be unveiled next year at Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Fla. And while many retailers have lowered their red flags and are confident that Zuke’s has remained true to its roots, the coming year will give the brand ample opportunity to prove it once again, and perhaps win over any remaining skeptics.
As Chris points out, it is critical for companies that “start with a stroke of inspiration” to keep that flame lit. “We have done a great job of keeping that initial motivation true,” he says. “We are still a company in Durango, Colo., and Patrick still takes hikes with his dogs Trek and Ellie almost everyday. He still embodies and lives that lifestyle that inspires us. And Nestlé Purina has been incredibly supportive of maintaining that piece of our history and has kept our DNA in tact.”