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Business Observer Wednesday, Mar. 9, 2022 3 months ago

Healthy pet food firm chews on bigger market

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After a pandemic-forced sales tumble, The K9 Kitchen considered shutting operations down. A customer-turned-investor helped give the startup new life.
by: Beth Luberecki Contributor

Kendra Locke and Corene Petitpren first met while on travel health care assignments in Michigan, where they’d frequently see each other walking their dogs. The lifelong animal lovers are now married and living in Cape Coral — where their four-legged friends are at the center of their burgeoning business venture, The K9 Kitchen.

It all began when they were working in California several years ago and observed their dog walker making her own dog food. They wanted to get out of health care (they worked in sterile processing in operating rooms) and thought something dog-related would be a good move. So they began playing around with their own recipes for dog food and trying it out on their pets.

“We were noticing a huge difference just by taking away some kibble and adding fresh fruits and vegetables,” says Locke, 40. “Their energy levels got better; our black dog got rid of its dandruff. That’s sort of when it clicked and we were like, let’s do a dog food business.”

It’s taken a lot of research and plenty of trial and error to grow the business, but today The K9 Kitchen is on the verge of big things. It’s now selling its all-natural, antibiotic-, hormone-, and steroid-free fresh dog food nationally via its website (thek9kitchenllc.com) and is putting various pieces in place for future growth.

“Our slogan is ‘for the love of dogs,’ and we make them this really healthy food because they give us so much love,” says Locke. “That’s why we do it. We don’t want to be the biggest company; we just want to be the best. We’re not in it to be millionaires. We’re in it to help dogs have a healthier life.”

Conquer challenges

Locke and Petitpren started by going to LegalZoom and setting up a business name, then researched dog food and labeling requirements. “We basically learned along the way,” says Locke.

Their veterinarian recommended contacting a vet nutritionist to help them refine their recipes. After researching options, they went with one based in North Carolina. Locke and Petitpren provided the ingredients they wanted to use, and the vet nutritionist made sure the recipes were nutritionally balanced and completely safe for dogs. “It’s super, super expensive but totally worth it,” says Locke.

Next up was all the required registrations and licensing for running the business. Locke and Petitpren originally self-funded everything with their savings. The K9 Kitchen officially launched in September 2019, and the company kicked off sales in January 2020 by selling its two dog food recipes at four Southwest Florida farmers’ markets.

'We don’t want to be the biggest company; we just want to be the best. We’re not in it to be millionaires. We’re in it to help dogs have a healthier life.' Kendra Locke, The K9 Kitchen

That was a start-small approach that made total sense at that time. But then the pandemic, of course, shut everything down. “The world went upside down, and we had to figure out are we going to close the business or move forward?” says Locke.

They decided to use that time when the markets were shut down to come up with a third dog food recipe; two kinds of dog treats; and six flavors of “pup-sicles.” “We just took that time and sent everything to the vet nutritionist, got all the labels made and registered each product through the Florida Department of Agriculture,” says Locke. “By the time we could start getting out there again, we had more products to offer. So COVID really hurt us, but it helped us at the same time.”

The company developed some loyal customers. But sales weren’t as strong as they needed to be to sustain the business. The K9 Kitchen had a website, but it didn’t function as well as it should have. So last summer, Locke and Petitpren found themselves at a turning point: they had to assess the viability of their business.

They started the process of closing up shop, taking down the company’s website and Google listing. But when one regular customer couldn’t find them online anymore, she gave them a call and asked if Locke and Petitpren would be willing to talk with her and her husband about their business.

“We had never seen these people; they just placed orders,” says Locke. During their phone call the husband asked questions like why they started the company and what kind of equipment they needed. “I was like, what is this guy getting at?” recalls Locke. “Then they said, ‘We’re investors. Don’t shut the business down. Here’s a chunk of money to keep it open.’”

The arrangement’s still in a trial phase and the investors prefer to remain in the background. But if all keeps going well, they’ll put a formal plan together. “Basically the ball’s in our court,” says Locke.

Spread the Word

The K9 Kitchen currently prepares and cooks its products at the Florida Culinary Accelerator in Immokalee. Its chicken, beef, and turkey recipes are all made with fresh meat, grains, fruits, and vegetables that are human grade. “You could take a bite out of any one of our foods,” says Locke.

The company uses ingredients from local farms whenever it can and is working on getting its products certified as organic. “I want people to know that when they see our logo or see The K9 Kitchen, they know it’s quality,” says Petitpren, 52. “Kendra and I strive to keep chemicals out of our food. That’s why all the meats we use have no steroids, hormones, or antibiotics. We love dogs and want years added on to their already short life — happy and healthy years.”

Stefania Pifferi.Kendra Locke and Corene Petitpren founded The K9 Kitchen in 2019.

The company will soon be moving to a bigger space at the Culinary Accelerator when another business moves out. That will give Locke, Petitpren, and their part-time employee more space to make and store food — an important element since everything is made fresh and without preservatives — and allow them to ship orders from the commercial kitchen, too. (Right now that’s done out of the owners’ house.) The investor relationship includes the possibility of finding space and putting together the company’s own commercial kitchen at some point down the road.

There’s a huge potential market out there for the company. According to data from the American Pet Products Association, 69 million U.S. households have a dog as a pet. And it’s estimated that pet owners spent $44.1 billion on pet food and treats in 2021.

Locke and Petitpren declined to provide specific revenue figures. But from December 2021 to the end of February, website sales were up 261%, email subscribers were up 436%, Facebook engagement was up 115% and Facebook followers were up 11%. “In the last few months we’ve definitely grown, which is just awesome,” says Locke.

A new focus on marketing efforts is helping to drive that growth and introduce more people to the company’s products. In 2021 The K9 Kitchen began working with Jennifer Leach, president of Screaming Fans Marketing in Naples. “They had already created a great line of products and they had loyal customers, but they were really struggling trying to get the word out to the larger audience,” says Leach.

Since then the company’s done a pricing analysis, revamped and improved its website, and created new brand documents to better market itself. “We had to present our message to everyone in a clear and consistent way,” says Leach. “That way people who see us can understand the brand and what it’s all about…Getting our messaging straight and consistent has really been a big part of the key in helping buyers understand the benefits of The K9 Kitchen, how to buy it, and why they should buy it.”

The company is also getting a new program off the ground to partner with social media influencers. “We know that people who are customers of The K9 Kitchen are big fans,” says Leach. “So we wanted to give those people an avenue to spread the word and earn a little bit while they’re doing it.”

Locally The K9 Kitchen products are sold at Farmer Joe’s in Cape Coral, several Dog Perfect locations, Little Paws Bakery in Fort Myers and Burnt Store Animal Hospital in Punta Gorda. Darlene Sumner, owner of Little Paws Bakery and a certified canine nutritionist, appreciates that The K9 Kitchen’s dog food is human grade and made from high-quality ingredients.

“They took the effort to find the most nutritional sources for their food, and it’s formulated and balanced,” she says. “You can’t have a healthy dog if you don’t feed your dog healthy food. I like the fact that they are local, and I like to help out small businesses because I am a small business.”

“It’s nice to know that the science is behind it, so you know that your dog is getting a complete diet,” adds Nicole Kenedy, senior manager of Dog Perfect. “What I tell a lot of people…is yes, you’re spending more money on their diet [than with traditional dry or canned dog food]. But you’re not spending money on illness. So with feeding fresh or raw or a nice half-and-half mixture, your dogs are less prone to allergies and less prone to stomach upset. They have reduced shedding and cleaner teeth. There’s a lot of benefits to feeding fresh.”

Now with the company’s improved website and ability to serve customers nationwide (except Alaska and Hawaii), the future looks bright. “Since we built the new website and launched it, it’s gaining more and more traction every month and sales are growing,” says Leach. “I’ve got really high hopes for them.”

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