Gourmet Revolution
By Lindsey Wojcik
With meaningful supplier partnerships and a wide selection of on-trend, high-quality ingredients, retailers will find success in the gourmet pet food category.

Health-conscious consumers are continuously on the prowl for more nutritious pet foods that boast high-quality ingredients, and many are discovering that gourmet foods not only pamper their pets, but also help sustain a healthier diet.

While there may not be just one way to define what makes a food gourmet, pet owners know a gourmet food when they see it. When consumers open a can of gourmet food, they know what they see is what they get. A plate of Petropics’ Tiki Dog Kauai Luau recipe, for example, features shredded chicken on brown rice with sweet potato, prawn, egg, garlic and kale prepared in lobster consommé—and each ingredient is identifiable. That visualization gives consumers confidence that their pets are receiving a nutritious and delicious meal.

“We don’t know what it’s like to be our pet and eat their food. The food companies will tell us our pets will love it—that it’s specially formulated to taste delicious—but it’s a mystery that we trust is true,” says Christine Hackett, president of Petropics, manufacturer of Tiki Cat and Tiki Dog gourmet food. “When we feed our pets a gourmet food or treat and receive a deeper response of satisfaction from our furry friends, we are hooked on that experience and are driven to repeat it.”

Manufacturers attribute increased consumer awareness to higher demand and sales in the gourmet pet food category—even in the down economy. “It seems that while consumers are less likely to splurge on an upscale restaurant meal for themselves, they’re increasingly willing to serve the equivalent every day for their pets,” says Rob Cadenhead, vice president of sales and marketing at Spring Naturals.

Consumers’ willingness to serve their pets premium dishes can be a boon for a retailer’s bottom line. “Understanding the benefits of a gourmet, premium pet food diet can transform a pet retail store into a pet solution center,” says Heather Govea, senior vice president of independent sales and corporate marketing at Natural Balance Pet Foods.

Adding New Flavors
The market is beaming with gourmet options that feature premium ingredients that can help pet owners treat dietary issues their pets may be experiencing. Popular ingredients include high-quality proteins like real meat, fish and poultry, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables. While these ingredients have long been staples in the category, in recent years, manufacturers have raised the bar, and have started to incorporate more unique proteins and ingredients in their products. “What used to be considered top-of-the-line, in terms of ingredients and flavors, is now considered middle of the road,” Cadenhead says.

Ward Reynolds, national sales manager at Weruva, manufacturer of Cats in the Kitchen and Dog Cuisine gourmet food, says the category has seen a surge in the use of novel proteins. “In the last few years, we’ve seen rabbit, pheasant and so many novel proteins take off,” Reynolds says.

Noting the trend and its popularity, Reynolds says Weruva is utilizing duck, lamb and venison in its recipes. The Peking 0 recipe in Weruva’s Cat Cuisine line has chucks of duck breast and chicken breast. A similar recipe is also available in the company’s Dog Cuisine line.

Weruva is not the only manufacturer incorporating unique proteins in its product lineup. Govea notes venison, duck, bison and rabbit as the unique ingredients featured in Natural Balance’s gourmet lines. The company’s L.I.D. Limited Ingredient Diet canned food for cats includes duck and venison recipes. Formulas with duck, venison, bison and rabbit are also available for dogs.

Tuffy’s Pet Foods is another company utilizing a broad selection of unique meats. Its Pure Vita line is a holistic, single-source protein line that provides a gourmet diet for pets experiencing difficulties with allergies or other food related issues. The line features duck and bison formulas, as well as salmon, turkey and chicken.

In addition to unique meats, Cadenhead notes chickpeas are also being used as another high-quality protein source. “While real meat, fish and poultry should always be the number one ingredient, chickpeas are becoming an increasingly popular high-protein source,” he says.

Outside of protein sources, manufacturers are incorporating different ingredients as a source of fiber, vitamins and essential fatty acids. “The inclusion of pumpkin has become a real solution for a lot of companies,” says Reynolds. “It’s a sweeter item that is also a nice source of fiber.”

Cadenhead adds that antioxidant-rich fruits such as cranberries and blueberries, as well as vegetables high in prebiotic fiber, like dandelion greens, are also popular ingredients in gourmet foods.

A Perfect Partnership

With a variety of flavors, ingredients and trends in the marketplace, tackling the gourmet category may seem overwhelming for some retailers. Therein lies the challenge to find supportive manufacturer partners and create enough selection to satisfy a store’s consumer demographic.   

“Retailers should always look to partner with products and brands they believe in,” says Tom Nieman, owner of Fromm Family Foods, which makes Four-Star Nutritionals, a line of artisan entrees for dogs. “If they are promoting a category like gourmet or premium/super premium food, they should always be sure they can speak on the history of the company, the food ingredients and why this brand or recipe is a great choice for pet parents.”

As consumers become more savvy and educated on gourmet foods, they are increasingly placing importance on where ingredients are sourced. “[Retailers] should have ironclad assurance that all products are manufactured in a trustworthy facility from ingredients that are reliably sourced,” says Cadenhead.

Retailers should ask suppliers where their ingredients come from, so they can confidently relay that information to consumers. Hackett adds that retailers should also look for suppliers that provide full disclosure on the company’s certifications, including human-grade certifications, USDA certifications, factory certifications and even percentages of each ingredient. “Food ingredients should be carefully sourced with documentation to support the origins of every ingredient,” she says.

While the gourmet category requires retailers to become knowledgeable about every product on the shelf, a solid selection with varying brands will help retailers succeed in the category. “Choice is important to the consumer, so offering a variety of products is important to support the type of buyer looking for a gourmet food,” Nieman says.  

Holly Sher, president of Evanger’s—a manufacturer of all-natural, meat-based gourmet foods—says it’s also important for retailers to have a gourmet selection at varying pricepoints. “You never know who is walking in the door,” she says. “What a consumer can afford today is not necessarily, in this economy, what they can afford tomorrow.”

Retailers that establish meaningful partnerships with suppliers and offer enough variety to meet the needs of its customers will find success in the category. “The heart and magic behind the gourmet category is that once retailers realize what they have and learn how to harness the power of gourmet in their stores, [they] will have incredible success and protect their survival as independent [stores],” says Hackett.