Local Pet Food / Local Pet Markets
| 2016 Q1 | story by DEREK HELMS | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG
The Kansas City, Topeka and Lawrence pet markets combined generate nearly $110 million annually in sales.
“We’re just after 15% of that,” explains Gary Rexroad, of Love Grub Dog Food, of Lawrence, with a chuckle. “If we can capture 15%, we’ll be pretty happy.”
Gary and his wife, Angie, started Love Grub Dog Food in 2013. The couple creates original dog food and dog treats from their home and a small factory in east Lawrence. In the short three years they have been in production, the company has turned a profit and is experiencing exciting growth. Not bad for a company they had absolutely no intention of starting.
“If you would have told me five years ago that we would start a dog food company in our kitchen, I would have told you that you were crazy,” Angie says emphatically. “We had no plan whatsoever to start a dog food business.”
However, the Rexroads had planned to start a business eventually.
“We had been discussing the idea of starting our own business for years,” explains Gary, an executive with Microsoft. “We knew we wanted to work on something together. We wanted to build something together, but we just hadn’t found the right fit.”
The couple investigated a number of franchise opportunities and various other business ideas but never found a plan or industry in which they felt comfortable. Then, in a small twist of fate, the dog food industry had a market that needed to be filled.
“We work with service dogs,” Angie explains. “And we’ve always gotten the food for our therapy dogs from a small family company in Nebraska, which had a contract with the service dog training center in Kansas. It’s been pretty well-known that this company made the best dog food available. But, unfortunately, the company’s owner passed away.”
Gary explains that he and Angie had absolutely no intention of taking over production of the food, but when they learned the family was going stop making the product, he had an idea.
“We asked if they would sell us the recipes because, at that time, we wanted the food just for our dogs. Understandably, the family didn’t want to sell the recipes and was most comfortable shutting down production and moving on.”
That’s when the idea struck.
“Angie and I started talking about where to get that high-quality food for our dogs, and we quickly decided that we could make it in our own oven,” Gary says. “So we got to work.”
Angie and Gary keep their recipe fairly simple, producing a protein-heavy food that has no corn, wheat or soy. They work hard to get the best ingredients available and focus not on what is best for their bottom line but what food best serves the dogs that eat it.
“There are really only three things that matter with dog food,” Gary explains. “How it goes into the dog, what it does while in the dog and how it comes out. It’s that simple. A dog has to want to eat the food, obviously. Once a dog eats it, the food has to be healthy and helpful to their system. Finally, there can’t be any issues when the dog is ready to poop. Nobody wants to mess with that. Our customers have been very pleased with all three stages.”
The Rexroads have self-financed Love Grub Dog Food from Day 1. Angie is the only full-time employee, and Gary still works a full-time job with Microsoft. In addition to the dry kibble, which is sold at dozens of regional markets, they have introduced a “ridiculously healthy” treat.
“Angie does most of the baking in our kitchen,” Gary says. “We also rent a small warehouse in east Lawrence where we produce most of the treats. We have intentionally implemented a slow-growth philosophy for two reasons. First, our top priority is maintaining the highest standards for the food. Second is to maintain the health of our business. We are very careful about our decisions. We plan on growing, but we only want to grow on our terms.”
The Rexroads recently invested in a van and will soon expand their distribution, but, Gary explains, it all comes back to that Kansas City, Topeka and Lawrence market.
“We don’t intend to grow out of our means, so to speak,” Gary says. “We are so proud to be a local business in Lawrence. We love this town, and we are so happy to be here.”
Another locally owned business has jumped head-first into the Lawrence pet market. John Funk and his family opened EarthWise Pet Supply, in northwest Lawrence, in early 2015. Much like the Rexroads, Funk wasn’t specifically looking to get into the pet market.
“Since graduating from business school at Kansas State, I knew I wanted to run my own business,” Funk explains. “My parents and I explored many, many business ideas and franchise opportunities, but nothing seemed to fit.”
After dozens of ideas, the family landed on EarthWise Pet Supply. The business promotes itself as the fastest-growing pet-supply store in the country. The company has a presence in Wichita but did not have a location in Lawrence, Topeka or Kansas City. After completing their due diligence, Funk and his family contracted to open three stores in northeast Kansas, the Lawrence location being first.
“Two things sold us on opening the first store in Lawrence,” Funk says. “We love how dedicated Lawrence is to health, wellness and their pets. And also, this location is perfect for what we hope to accomplish. We knew Lawrence would be the best location to start. Plus, we live here. We are invested in the community.”
EarthWise Pet Supply caters to pet owners invested in natural pet supplies and pet food. In addition to a well-appointed sales floor, EarthWise has a full-time groomer and offers two do-it-yourself washing bays.
“Pet grooming is a big portion of our business,” Funk says. “Offering people an opportunity to drop off their dog or cat, and not worry about the hassle or mess of cleaning and grooming them is very, very appealing to a lot of pet owners. We take great pride in taking care of these pets.”
Funk says sales of natural pet food have been stable, and he expects them to grow annually.
“As more and more people invest more time into learning about the benefits of natural pet food, we see more and more new customers,” Funk says. “We don’t just point customers to a bag of dog food. We really want to get to know you and your pet. What does your pet like and dislike? We’re invested in helping your pet live as healthy a life as possible.”
In north Lawrence, another business, though not so small, is new to the Lawrence pet market. In March, 2015, The J.M. Smucker Company acquired Big Heart Pet Brands and took over its large Lawrence production facility. The manufacturing facility produces Kibbles ’n Bits dog food. The facility in Lawrence has nine manufacturing lines that produce 11 flavor varieties and 45 different Kibbles ’n Bits® items, as well as approximately 800 tons of dog food per day.
The plant in Lawrence employs 150 full-time employees and boasts many of its workers have been with the plant more than 20 years.
Though technically the new kids on the block, Maribeth Burns, vice president, corporate communications for The J.M. Smucker Company, says they are excited to be in Lawrence and looking forward to the future.
“We were excited to welcome the 150 employees from Lawrence to our company,” she says. “We are proud to be a part of the community and look forward to continuing to produce one of America’s best-known pet food brands in Lawrence.”