Around the turn of the millennium, the organic foods industry was coming of age, natural products were going mainstream and the public was becoming educated on the dangers of consuming heavily processed, industrial food products. Almost overnight, millions more people started paying a premium for foods that would help them and their loved ones live longer, healthier lives. Strangely, the natural and organic meat and poultry sector was struggling. The problem was that while people would pay top dollar for the best cuts like the breasts and thighs of the chickens, and the tenderloins, rib eye and strip steaks from cattle, these premium cuts only make up about 20 percent of the animals. In the conventional meat business, every part of the carcass is utilized for everything from “mystery meat” products to pet food, which not only prevents waste in the industry, but because the costs are spread over a larger area, this utilization also brings down the retail prices for premium meats. As a result, the natural meats industry was on the verge of collapse.
A solution to this problem was sketched out on a cocktail napkin, late one evening in a bar in Boulder, Colorado. I was meeting with Dave Carter, the former chairman of the USDA National Organic Standards Board, and we were pondering the dilemma of how small farmers were producing the best meats, but their imbalanced business model was making it more difficult for them to compete with factory farms.
So what did we do? We imagined the complete package and founded an independent pet food company that would save small-scale farming, interface with the biggest players in the game, educate people on byproducts in pet food and the value of small farm products, and bring down the cost of organic and natural meat so it could stay competitive in the market, and essentially save family farms. Pet Promise was born.
Pet Promise grew into a team of very optimistic leaders on a mission to “let byproducts be bygones” and save the family farmer in the process. One of our main partners in the project was food giant Nestlé Purina PetCare Co. who owned a manufacturing plant that would allow Pet Promise to be privately manufactured in a clean facility, ensuring no cross-contamination of ingredients with other products that can easily occur with pet foods that utilize a co-packer manufacturing method. Nestlé Purina agreed to pull Pet Promise in under its umbrella of premium pet foods, allowing us to continue to lead and run the business under Natural Pet Nutrition, LLC, using our own entrepreneurial team.
Pet Promise was the first to partner with pioneer of integrative medicine, Dr. Andrew Weil on a licensing agreement. Weil bridged the audiences of pet lovers and natural health advocates, with his two Rhodesian ridgeback dogs supporting our marketing and public relations campaign. Pet Promise was also the first pet food company to sponsor Farm Aid, an annual concert run by Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews urging Americans to choose food from family farms. As part of the campaign I also wrote a book called, “How Dog Food Saved the Earth,” a fictional story based on the story of Pet Promise, which helped us make the connection between pet food and the environment. The book sold 80,000 copies with all proceeds donated to the Organic Farming Research Foundation.
Pet Promise was highly successful and became a major chain agent in the natural pet food industry and beyond. Our public relations and marketing focus on “byproducts” and “meals” in pet food gained significant traction, and substantially escalated in 2007, when one of the largest pet food recalls in history affected 5,300 pet foods and killed or injured thousands of cats and dogs. Pet Promise was not affected by the recall, validating its promise of purity, and as a result, over the next several years, many major pet food companies examined their formulas to eliminate byproducts and meal ingredients from their own brands. By our fourth year, Pet Promise earned a No. 1 market share in the natural pet food category, reaching $22 million in sales, resulting in a multi-million dollar sale to Nestlé Purina and paved the way for the current multi-billion dollar natural pet-food industry. In the end, Pet Promise accomplished its goal of supporting more than 3,000 family farmers by offering them a premium price for their non-prime meat products, making the raising of natural livestock more economically feasible. To date, Pet Promise remains the only pet food brand that paid a high premium for quality, natural and organic ingredients and privately manufactured the food to guarantee its purity claims.