justfoodfordogs setup inside petco
JustFoodForDogs sets itself apart by offering fresh, "clean" meals for dogs created in open "exhibition" kitchens with certified nutrition consultants on-site. — JustFoodForDogs

It was the kitchen — not the corner office — that enticed Carey Tischler to take the helm as JustFoodForDogs’ CEO. And it’s a unique business model that bolsters his confidence that sales at the small-batch, fresh pet food business will double in the coming 12 months.

The brand’s pet meals are sold in 180 locations today, and the company projects its retail footprint will grow to 500 locations in four years.

The ambitious milestones are attainable, Tischler said, given sales momentum, new market entries and JustFoodForDogs’ signature “kitchens,” where pet food recipes for dogs and cats are prepared and cooked in open-to-the-public exhibition spaces. “The kitchens operate almost as a showroom, a point of discovery for our brand,” he told CO—.

The company’s nine kitchens produce about 50 million pet meals annually, and Tischler aims to double that output to 100 million meals in the year ahead. The newest exhibition kitchen will open in Chicago this fall with more kitchens opening in Boston and Texas next year.

Tischler said the kitchens serve as a hub for JustFoodForDogs’ retail ecosystem. Outfitted with gleaming, state-of-the-art stainless steel appliances, the open-design kitchens attract consumers — some traveling great distances — who are curious about transitioning pets from commercial food to entrees such as Venison & Squash and Turkey & Whole Wheat Macaroni, prepared with fresh ingredients that are USDA-certified for human consumption.

Other retail locations, such as shop-in-shops inside Petco, Pet Food Express and at veterinary clinics, are strategically located within an expanding geographic radius of the kitchens, giving shoppers options to purchase JustFoodForDogs meals closer to home. Online ordering and home delivery complete the ecosystem for the Irvine, Calif.-based company.

I saw a wide chasm between what was being said on TV, shelf packaging and messaging and what was really going on in [pet food] product development and into the products.

Carey Tischler, CEO, JustFoodForDogs

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JustFoodForDogs sets itself apart by emphasizing human connection, providing qualified pet experts for pet parents to consult. Read on for more ways your business can connect further with your customers.


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The ‘aha’ moment

With degrees in engineering and experience in private equity and military settings, Tischler is measured and precise when it comes to word choice. The timbre in his voice is subdued even as he recalls the “aha!” moment when founder Shawn Buckley introduced him to the kitchen concept.

“I took one step into the first kitchen in Newport Beach [Calif.] and I was utterly convinced that this was the future of how people were going to feed their pets,” Tischler told CO—. “It was a question of ‘when’ — and not ‘if’ — this was going to happen.”

Displays of golden squash and bright green broccoli provide vivid reminders that produce and meat ingredients are USDA-certified for human consumption. On-duty nutrition consultants freely banter with consumers to answer questions and explain how to wean pets off a highly processed diet and transition to a whole-foods regimen.

Tischler said the company’s commitment to whole foods and nutrition advice available at every customer touchpoint intrigued him. Still, he said he was uncertain whether the shift to fresh pet food would catch on quickly — or in 20 years, not because he was ill-informed but because he was well-acquainted with production of commercial pet food, what some call “Big Kibble.”

Prior to JustFoodForDogs, Tischler was a go-to pet expert at L Catterton, which frequently dispatched him to pet companies funded by the private equity firm. His job was to become embedded and get an insider’s look at L Catterton’s investments. Through focus groups and tours of 25 pet food factories in the U.S. and across Europe, Tischler got an insider’s view to mass-produced dry kibble, canned, freeze-dried and raw pet food. The takeaway: While “fresh” and “premium” claims were heavily promoted, commercial pet food ingredients and processing fell short of that promise, he said.

“I saw a wide chasm between what was being said on TV, shelf packaging and messaging and what was really going on in [pet food] product development and into the products,” he said. “It was heavy on marketing topspin, very light on true change.”

“That was the big ‘aha’ for me,” Tischler said. JustFoodsForDogs could usher in that change, he said, and following that kitchen visit, he resigned from his senior vice president post at L Catterton to become JustFoodForDogs’ CEO in 2015. Two years later, his former employer would invest capital in the company.

 justfoodfordogs kitchen in new york
The small-batch pet meals created by JustFoodForDogs include produce and meat ingredients that are USDA-certified for human consumption. — JustFoodForDogs

In short order, Tischler would learn the momentum of fresh, “clean” eating for pets would grow faster than he expected as upstarts like Ollie, NomNomNow and PetPlate entered the market. Sales of fresh pet food sold in U.S. stores rose 70% to more than $546 million between 2015 and 2018, according to Nielsen, and $33 million was spent on pet food made with human-grade ingredients in the past year. Total U.S. pet food sales in 2018 were $30 billion, according to the American Pet Products Association.

Terms like “fresh” and “human-grade” ingredients give some pet authorities pause because the words are imprecise about ingredients, cooking processes and quality controls. It is on this point, Tischler said, that transparency and education are vital and why all JustFoodForDogs locations — including in-store shops at Petco, Pet Food Express, veterinary clinics and online customer service staff — are educated in pet nutrition. Staff receive 25 hours’ training with JustFoodForDogs’ chief medical officer to start, with periodic updates that follow. Eleven on-staff veterinarians formulate nutritionally balanced meals and supplements.

Tischler said the company routinely declines to partner with retailers that are eager to carry its products, but unwilling to accept on-duty nutrition consultants in stores.

“This is a new way of feeding pets that requires a transition, a ‘detox,’ as we like to say, so it really helps to have someone there to walk pet parents through what it means to feed with fresh, whole food,” Tischler said.

Research is another priority, Tischler said, and the company’s protocols for testing new recipes exceed industry standards. While guidelines from the Association of American Feed Control Officials call for six months of testing, JustFoodForDogs tests new food formulations for a full year, he said.

“There are a lot easier ways to do what we do,” Tischler said. “We don’t have to have certified nutrition consultants on-site and answering the phone. We could have robochat. But the human connection with someone who is uniquely qualified to help the pet parent — that takes a significant investment.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Published October 21, 2019