Sometimes, inspiration strikes when you least expect it. Such was the case with Paula Savarese and Dawn Ward, for whom an afternoon snack of homemade baked kale chips led to a burgeoning, outside-the-box pet treat business.
“As we were eating the kale chips, our dogs started going crazy for the smell and hearing the crunch, so we decided to let them try some,” says Ward, noting that the appeal that kale had for the canine palate was clear immediately. “They just wanted more and more.”
After doing some research on the many nutritional benefits of kale, as well as establishing that it is safe for pets, Savarese and Ward—who, at the time, were partners in a successful business that made gourmet, gluten-free, high-protein, low-sugar cupcakes for human consumption—decided that they had a new winning concept on their hands.
“We were so excited to test it out that we started with just one flavor—peanut butter,” Ward recounts.
After a few months of trial and error, the pair settled on a recipe, dubbed “Peanutty,” which was as healthy and palatable as possible. “We wanted to make sure that we made something with limited ingredients and no fillers,” says Savarese, noting that they were not willing to sacrifice quality in order to keep costs down.
In early 2014, that first treat made its debut on the shelf of a single local pet store, where it was a resounding success. However, it wouldn’t be long before the product lineup and awareness of the Dogs Love Kale brand expanded. “We decided to see who else we could sell to, so I contacted Bo [Nelson] at Wholesalepet.com,” says Savarese. “He loved the concept and the ingredients, but he said that one SKU doesn’t make a company. We had to come up with more flavors if we really wanted to get into this.”
On Nelson’s advice, the two women set about expanding their offerings with two new flavors—Apple Crisp and Punkin—while also making other valuable connections within the pet care market. “Just connecting with different people in the industry through LinkedIn really helped,” Savarese says.
It was during this phase when Ward and Savarese learned about BarkBox, a monthly subscription service that delivers dog toys, treats and other “goodies” to pet owners. This would turn out to be an important step in the early development of Dogs Love Kale, as the company’s first purchase order from BarkBox was for 30,000 bags of peanut butter-flavored treats.
Unable to handle such a large order in an incubator commercial kitchen on their own, Savarese and Ward turned to the Tennessee-based co-packer that they had utilized in their cupcake business and found that it was a good match for their new pet-focused venture. “After that, things really started to take off,” says Ward.
Today, the company offers its treats in eight varieties, including Peanutty, Apple Crisp, Punkin, Tropical Delight, Sweet Tater, Chicka’ Chicken-Blueberry, Moo-Moo Beef-Carrot and Gobblers Turkey-Sweet Potato.
Dogs Love Kale certainly hits many of the major points of the overall movement toward healthier pet nutrition. The company’s certified sourced- and Made-in-the-USA treats use all-natural (including organic) ingredients and are made in a human-grade facility without wheat (and in some cases, without any grains at all). But one major way in which they stand out from other on-trend products is in their use of kale—a point of differentiation that is far from a novelty.
“Kale is a super antioxidant,” says Ward. “It’s high in vitamin K and vitamin C. It has calcium, potassium and magnesium, and it is a great source of fiber. These are all wonderful things for our pets.”
Although kale serves as a base for the company’s treats, they also feature a variety of other healthy ingredients such as all-natural peanut butter, apples, pumpkin and sweet potatoes, as well as organic meat and poultry. However, it’s not just what is in Dogs Love Kale treats, but also what’s not in them, that makes these products stand out from many other products in the market.
“Our first three flavors were wheat-free, so we used whole oats, which is a grain,” explains Savarese, noting that the company’s subsequent product introductions were all wheat and grain free, replacing rice flour and oats with chickpea flour. “There were other flours we could have used to make the treats grain-free, but they didn’t have the health benefits that the chickpea has.”
Dogs Love Kale also eschews ingredients that some companies utilize to increase the palatability of treats, such as molasses and added sugar, instead relying on the natural tastiness of kale. “Our test kitchen is in our home, and when we start to cook them, our dogs smell the kale and they know what we’re making—they just love it,” says Savarese.
Of course, as yummy as kale is, many pet owners are still looking for traditional protein sources within the treats they purchase for their four-legged loved ones. That is why Dogs Love Kale’s newest product introductions feature organic beef, turkey or chicken as a major component.
“[Using meat] was originally something that we didn’t want to get involved in, out of the fear of using raw meats, which we have no experience with,” Savarese explains. “But we realized that we could use dehydrated proteins, which we did to develop our three new flavors.”
While they’ve only been officially on the market for about two years now, Dogs Love Kale treats have quickly proven to be a hit for independent pet stores across the country. And while much of this success can be attributed to the quality of what’s in the bag, product presentation and consumer education have played no small role.
“With a product like ours, it’s important that retailers don’t just stick it on the shelf,” says Savarese. “The packaging draws people to it, but it really helps when retailers educate their customers.”
To aid in selling its treats, Dogs Love Kale offers pet stores sample packs to inspire trial among their customers. These sample bags are also included in the company’s two attention-grabbing shipper displays—one that features a 20-bag assortment of Peanutty, Apple Crisp, Punkin, Tropical Delight and Sweet Tater treats, and another featuring an 18-bag assortment of the Chicka, Moo-Moo and Gobblers varieties.
Dogs Love Kale also utilizes the services of The Pet Firm, an independent sales and marketing company, to help its retailer customers with important functions like product education and merchandising.
Looking ahead, Savarese and Ward say that retailers can expect to see the company add new flavors while continuing the focus on consistency that has driven the success of its treats. “As we’re learning about other ingredients that are healthy for dogs, we keep the recipe the same and basically just switch in another ingredient that has health benefits,” says Ward. “This way, customers can mix and match our products and know that they’re getting a healthy treat.”
Dogs Love Kale’s future plans also mean that dogs soon won’t be the only pets that benefit from the many nutritive properties of kale. The company is currently working on a few new products for felines.
Ultimately, the goal of the partners behind Dogs Love Kale is to change the conversation about pet treats to advance the well-being of the animals consuming them, whether they are dogs or cats. “I love giving these treats to pets and not only watching them enjoy them, but also knowing that we’re giving them something healthy,” says Ward.