Humanisation of pet foods helps Irish Dog Foods break into US market
Naas-based company’s supersnack bar and jerky product tapped into emerging trend
An innovative granola-style superfood snack bar and a nutritious chicken jerky product have helped an Irish food company break into the US market. Not necessarily all that surprising, but these healthy products are for dogs and the company in question is Naas-based Irish Dog Foods, part of the Queally Group of companies.
Founded in the mid-1990s the company produces a range of dry pet foods, meat-based treats, and natural bones for the domestic and export markets from its five manufacturing facilities which are accredited to the BRC international food industry standard.
“We had been growing at an exponential rate since staring up a little over 20 years ago, but we realised that we couldn’t continue producing ‘me too’ products,” says head of new product development Fran Dunne. “We understood that new product development was the lifeblood of the business, but we just didn’t have the time to spend on it because we were growing so fast.”
That changed in 2012 when Enterprise Ireland came on board with funding support for research, development and innovation (RD&I). “Enterprise Ireland offered us the opportunity to invest in new product development,” Dunne adds. “The support from enterprise Ireland was crucial in the development of new product ideas.”
The first thing the Enterprise Ireland support assisted with was the new product development process. “We were able to streamline the process and introduce new methodologies. We brought in a customer-centric approach to new product development. One of the problems companies can encounter is that they come up with lots of ideas and it can be difficult to select the best ones. We developed a risk matrix which we apply to new ideas in order to identify the ones which best fit with customer needs while offering the most benefits to the company. That all came about as a result of the assistance we got from Enterprise Ireland.”
Mimic human meals
Out of that process came the development of the snack bar and jerky product which tapped into an emerging trend known as the humanisation of pet foods. “This is huge,” says Dunne. “When I started in the pet food industry many years ago the products were pretty basic. These days dogs and cats are almost seen as child substitutes. It’s gone to extremes in America and people are calling themselves pet parents. People now want to give their pets the best food they can, and they think what’s good for them is also good for their pet. This isn’t always true, but we make honest, healthy foods for dogs and we are developing products now that mimic human meals even further. This is very much where the market is going.”
The impulse to develop innovative new products came from an acknowledgement that future growth would primarily come from export markets. “We developed the business in Ireland, then the UK, and then moved into mainland Europe. We include Aldi, Lidl, Tesco and M&S among our major customers. But the big step up for us was breaking into the US. We had our sights set on that market mainly because of its scale. One customer there is the equivalent of five or 10 in Europe. Our timing was opportune. Walmart took on the jerky product. There was an existing chicken product on the US market at the time but there were fears in relation to its safety owing to the food scandals that China encountered at the time.”
Since then, Walmart has been joined by Petco, Petsmart and Costco as customers in the US and the innovation has certainly paid off in terms of growth. The company now employs more than 200 staff, seven of them dedicated to new product development, and will have sales of more than €200 million this year, 95 per cent from exports – up from €23 million export sales in 2013.
“Enterprise Ireland also supported us with the introduction of lean manufacturing practices,” Dunne adds. “The way we work has changed radically and this has helped us achieve our growth targets over the years.”
Innovative new product development will remain central to the company’s success. “The humanisation trend will continue. We introduced our new comfort food for dogs at the recent Interzoo trade fair in Nuremberg and it got a great reception. There is now also a move towards the healthy side of things. Things that are popular in the health food shops will quickly find their way into pet food. You see turmeric becoming popular now and we will be able to incorporate that into dog food. We will keep looking at the next trend down the line and keep pace with it. We want to keep exciting our customers with new products that meet the needs of pet owners.”