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Chilly-Dawg: Tapping the Growing Gourmet Pet Food Market

People enjoy eating ice cream, so why shouldn’t dogs enjoy ice cream, too? Sounds preposterous for some but the lack of frozen delights specifically made for pet dogs gave Becky Marshall of Chicago, Illinois this bright and unique idea to start a business offering all natural frozen treats for canine pets.   

by Isabel M. Isidro
Managing Editor]

People enjoy eating ice cream, so why shouldn’t dogs enjoy ice cream, too? Sounds preposterous for some but the lack of frozen delights specifically made for pet dogs gave Becky Marshall of Chicago, Illinois this bright and unique idea to start a business offering all natural frozen treats for canine pets.    
(article continued below ...)
 

As Becky said, “Like many pet parents, I will do anything for my big furry child, Hailey. She is my main inspiration. While out for ice cream one evening with Hailey and my family, I wondered aloud why ice cream stores didn’t serve frozen treats for dogs. Many people bring their dogs with them when heading out for ice cream. They end up feeding their dogs this human treat, which is not good for them as dairy products upset their stomachs.”

A graduate student studying Interior Architecture at Columbia College in Chicago, Becky started experimenting with the recipe for her product. Once she was confident of her frozen treats, she started her business Chilly Dawg (http://www.chilly-dawg.com) in 2004 offering “natural recipes for nutritious, refreshing and delicious frozen treats.”

Preparing the Groundwork for Chilly Dawg

Becky has been creating frozen treats for her dog Hailey, long before she thought of it as a viable business. She recalled, “I was making similar treats for my dog well before I came to the realization that this idea is business worthy. As a poor graduate student, I made frozen treats for Hailey with natural, healthy ingredients I had at home that she liked and it was a money saver. After researching the healthfulness of certain ingredients for dogs, I narrowed my ideas and began to test formulations. This, of course, is where having a great quality control department already in place came in handy. Hailey taste-tested many treats for me; if she didn’t eat it, then it was back to the kitchen for me.”

Once convinced she had a viable business idea, she started researching dog treats and related products, packaging ideas and materials, where and how she will sell her products, what is healthy for dogs to consume, and recipe formulations. She said, “The largest component in starting up was the research I conducted in relation to preparing my product and getting it to the market.” She credits her decade-long experience in theater for teaching her the value of “research, resourcefulness, and determination, all of which has helped me more than I realize at times.”

In her research, Becky found that similar products already existed in the market. Her goal now was to find a way to differentiate her product from the rest of them. “When I researched those products,” Becky said, “I found that they were not an all natural food and contained ingredients that are allergens, not digestible, and not healthy for dogs. These similar products contain things such as preservatives, animal fats, or chemicals. Understanding why a pet owner would want to feed healthy foods to their dogs, I realized there would be a strong need and desire for an alternative, an all-natural frozen treat.”

To get feedback and some suggestions for her business, she spoke to family members, friends and others about her business idea. She cautioned, though, “As I knew that no one was creating a product exactly like mine, I didn’t want to spread the idea around too much for fear that someone else would snap it up.“

Bringing the Product to Market

Becky started her business on a shoestring budget. After an assessment of available funding options for her, she decided to take it slow and start small. “Using a few hundred dollars of my own personal funds,” Becky said, “I was able to purchase items such as portion cups, lids, labels, and ingredients. As business has grown, I have invested the profits back into the company in order to purchase items such as a larger freezer, new packaging, and improved labels.”

Manufacturing the products, however, remains one of Becky’s main challenges. She currently manufactures the treats herself, although she is looking at options to streamline the manufacturing process without losing its homegrown vision. She described it as; “One of my biggest difficulties was finding the right method to create the treats which involved lots of trial and error until I finally found my current method. As the business evolves, I’m sure that I will need to find other methods. The research doesn’t stop once the business begins.”

Presently, Chilly Dawg comes in four flavors – Beggin Banana, Berry Brite, Barkin Apple and Puppy Nutter. “I based my flavor decisions on what is beneficial and wholesome for dogs, on what would appeal to dog owners, and research on what ingredients are being used in treats already on the market,” Becky said. “Most dogs love peanut butter so that was an easy choice, while Hailey enjoys bananas, apples, and blueberries. She also enjoys peas and carrots though my vegetable flavor, Fetch A Veg, didn’t appeal to dog owners. I do have another flavor currently in development and has so far passed rigorous taste testing with my quality control department.”

Chilly Dawg treats are currently sold in several pet stores in Chicago and San Francisco. While Becky has encountered retailers hesitant to carry the product, the general response among the distributors and retailers has been generally positive finding Chilly Dawg treats to be “a very neat concept.” Becky said, “The fact that the treats are frozen really differentiates Chilly Dawg. It can be a complication and can automatically exclude me from a retail location but it is also one of the best selling points.”

Plans are afoot to widen the distribution across the nation and expand retail opportunities for the product. Becky said of her plans, “I will be in contact with retailers such as Whole Foods this spring, and will continue to contact specialty pet shops in Chicago and in other markets around the country.” She may also consider selling the treats online, which she tried at the onset of the business.

Marketing the Business

Becky’s Chilly Dawg is one of the many businesses getting into the specialty pet food industry in the United States. The pet food industry is one of the few food industries that are undergoing sustained growth. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, “American pets are sitting in the lap of luxury as U.S. pet owners spend more on their pets than they spend on candy or even toys.” In 2005, Americans’ spending on pets is projected to be about $14.5 billion for food alone. The humanization of pets, where pets are increasingly seen as family members, not animals, is one factor stimulating the demand for pet food.

Becky realizes the level of competition in the pet gourmet food sector, but is undaunted. She said, “The gourmet dog treat market is extremely competitive and very extensive. There is steady stream of new products for dogs’ daily whether it be treats, foods, leashes, or other products. In a saturated market and as the pet industry flourishes at such a tremendous pace, people try to find ways to distinguish their products from others that may be similar. I fill a segment of the market that hasn’t been explored. Chilly Dawg frozen treats are very healthy and nutritious, they are fun, distinctive and original and they appeal to a broad audience of dog owners.”

Despite (and because of) the novelty of her products, market reaction has been quite positive. Becky said, “Having a distinctive product such as Chilly Dawg tends to garner interest quickly. People are typically surprised and intrigued by the product. They ask questions and want to learn more.”

However, marketing has been a challenge. Given her limited resources, she has to adopt guerrilla-marketing strategies to get her product out there. She recalled, “I began by taking small batches of treats in a cooler to parks and farmer’s markets where owners brought their dogs, handing out flyers, selling the treats, and talking to people. I participated in several fundraising events, which allowed further exposure and also a chance for Chilly Dawg to give back to the pet community. I was also researching specialty pet shops for those with freezers, visiting the shops with the treats, and speaking to the owners and managers.”

An important component of her marketing strategy is educating retail storeowners the proper handling and storage of her products. She said, “A major concern for my business is the fact that my treats are frozen. They cannot be bagged to sit on a shelf in a shop. Teaching people about my treats and having people know where to find them is a difficulty I continuously work to overcome.”

“As my business not large, marketing it is extremely important. I have been submitting my web site address to other pet related sites, sending press releases to news organizations, handing out flyers that I created, providing potential retailers with informational packets, mailing post cards, and generally speaking to anyone and everyone. Retailers who carry my product typically display in-store signage. I have contacted organizations about fundraising opportunities, and am always looking for events to participate in.”

Managing the Business From Home

Becky presently runs the business from her home. “One of the major challenges of conducting business from home,” Becky said, “is storage for supplies and ingredients. Most often, residences are not configured to support business start ups or their continued growth. I also live on the third floor, which is tough when I have to carry a 50-pound bag upstairs. General matters such as sending or receiving deliveries or not having certain kinds of office equipment can slow things down a bit. If one isn’t careful, home life and work life can easily intertwine into one.”

“One of the best benefits of having Chilly Dawg in my home is that I can work any hour of the day without having to travel to a separate location. Throughout the course of a day, I can work on Chilly Dawg and several other projects while spending time with Hailey. Another great benefit is that I am saving on the cost of maintaining a home and a business location.”

Becky, however, is thankful to her family for supporting her vision and her business. In fact, her family performs a number of day-to-day operational tasks for her business. Becky said, “Currently I do not have any staff employees or assistants. Chilly Dawg is really a family venture: my mother helps with sales, marketing, promotion, and some deliveries; my brother maintains my web site for me; my father is one of my biggest supporters; Hailey is quality control. Without their help and encouragement, running Chilly Dawg would be tough for one person.”

Next Steps

As Becky has discovered, the road to entrepreneurship is long and hard. She said, “I did encounter many bumps in the road as I progressed, and still do, from packaging to making the treats to freezing and delivery. I found that further research, more planning, and a lot of testing was the way to success. This is what takes the most time but is so important. There will always be difficulties so a methodical approach to solving them is absolutely necessary.”

This spring, she plans to put in writing her business plan to give her a clearer direction for growing her business. Becky mentioned, “For this year, I hope to expand further into the Chicago area market and reach into other markets as well. I love Chilly Dawg, love to see happy dogs eating their frozen treats, and making people happy with something I’ve created. I hope I can continue to grow, give back to the pet community, and share the fun.”

As for her advice to other start-up entrepreneurs like her: “I can’t stress enough how important it is to do your research and to be persistent. Don’t let anyone tell you no or that you can’t do something that you believe in. The success of a new business lies solely with the person who begins it and it will not grow or maintain itself. A new business takes a lot of work and can be very frustrating; an entrepreneur cannot be faint of heart or quick to give up. Going headlong into a business without any clear idea of where you want to be or what you want to accomplish will be detrimental in the end. One really needs to understand their targeted market for their goods or services in order to succeed. Thoroughly highlight anything and everything that will distinguish you from other products on the market, and a disadvantage is actually a benefit in disguise.”

 

April 11, 2005

 

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