ST. LOUIS — A startup here has sourced its flagship product from the Himalayan foothills and modeled it after a recipe eaten by cattle herders: organic milk, lime and sea salt, pressed into curds and smoked over a fire for several weeks.
And the resulting appetizers are just for dogs.
Yak Chews, which retail at $24.99 for three cheesy sticks, have been the ignition for Native Pet’s expansion from a part-time project to a nine-person company. Last year, its sales more than doubled, and last month, it earned shelf space in 330 Target stores.
“We weren’t expecting this much growth,” said CEO Dan Schaefer. “But dogs have taken a more elevated place in our lives.”
As pets have become bona fide family members — enjoying special spa days and Ferris wheel rides — run-of-the-mill kibble is no longer cutting it. Owners who have gotten more finicky about what they put into their own bodies are applying that same attentiveness to the diets of their animals.
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Big brands, led by Purina, introduced “super-premium” chow to their lines decades ago. But smaller startups, including at least a dozen in the St. Louis area, have flooded the market recently, capitalizing on the influx of pandemic adoptions, the buy-local movement and an agility that allows them to embrace of-the-moment superfoods like chia seeds and bone broth.
Native Pet had its genesis in Schaefer’s Labrador, Louie, who was plagued by fleas and stomach maladies as a puppy.
“I had to nurse him back to health,” said Schaefer. “That’s what seeded the business.”
In 2017, he enlisted his childhood friend, Pat Barron, to develop protein chews and powdered formulas that address joint pain, digestive problems and skin irritations.
“We believe food is medicine,” Schaefer said. “You can derive very specific outcomes for your dog.”
By 2019, he and Barron were working on Native Pet full time. They won a $50,000 Arch Grant the next year and a $100,000 follow-on award in December to hire more employees at their downtown office and invest in marketing.
Louie turns 8 this summer.
The boutique pet food market was virtually nonexistent two decades ago, when Teresa and Ian Miller were moving back to St. Louis from New York.
“We were on a health kick, and our animals were, too,” said Teresa Miller. But when the couple searched for locally made, wholesome treats for their two dachshunds, they came up empty.
Miller consulted with her dad, an animal nutritionist, to develop baked goods like apple-cinnamon hearts, for $12.99 a bag, and cranberry-and-carob “grr-nola” bites, $12.50 for a 10-pack.
The Millers ran a Treats Unleashed kiosk at the St. Louis Galleria for six months before committing to a stand-alone shop in Chesterfield. Now, the canine bakery — which also offers food consultations, obedience classes and grooming — has 17 locations, with an 18th opening in Lake Saint Louis next month.
Carly Kane of Maplewood has been a Treats Unleashed customer since she rescued a black Labrador mix three years ago. Murphy is usually her shadow, but when he gets his paws on a $3 yogurt-coated cookie, he disappears.
“He will run away to enjoy it by himself,” said Kane. “He starts by licking the icing off.”
At a crossroads
A home-brewing hobby provided the entryway into Charles and Kim Saso’s side business, the Crafted Bone. When the St. Peters couple were first courting, Kim Saso was dismayed that Charles threw away the spent grains from the brewing process.
So they did some experimenting, blending the beer-making byproduct with peanut butter, eggs and flour, slicing the dough with bone-shaped cookie cutters and letting it dehydrate overnight. Their chihuahua, Diego, gave final approval.
“He was the main reason we thought there was something about these treats,” said Charles Saso. “He would go around hiding them.”
But they didn’t have enough grains on hand for a wider clientele, so in 2017, they reached out to Good News Brewing in O’Fallon, Missouri. The Sasos would take the brewery’s used barley, oats, rye and wheat, and sell the treats back at wholesale.
“They were super, super excited about it and said, ‘What are you guys going to do if this blows up?’” said Kim Saso.
That time has come. The Crafted Bone partners with more than 15 local breweries and sells online and at pop-up shops, $12 per bag. Last summer, the Sasos retired their trademark bone shape in favor of squares — they’re more efficient to cut — and upgraded to a double oven. And Charles Saso no longer has the time to brew beer.
“We’re at a little bit of a crossroads,” he said. “Do we want to grow this more? Or are we content where we are?”
Twelve years ago, Jeffrey Jones was hiking with his dog, Lola, when she tore a ligament. He turned to food to help her rehabilitate, mixing up blends of proteins and plants. He started giving the small-batch supplements to family and friends.
By 2017, Jones had developed a line of toppers made from vegetables and grass-fed meat to add to a dog’s kibble. For treats, he stuck with single ingredients: slow-roasted chicken or pork straws and liver chips. He quit his job teaching English and officially launched Ancestral Pet Food.
The company has grown every year since. In November, he moved out of a tiny ghost kitchen in St. Louis and into a 2,800-square-foot facility in St. Clair, Missouri. Jones enlists family to help with packaging, delivery and staffing tables at four outdoor markets.
His favorite part of the job is connecting with his customers. He knows most of them — the four-legged ones and their owners — by name. At Tower Grove Farmers’ Market, he doles out samples and advice.
“People want to do right by their dogs,” said Jones. “But they don’t know how.”
A solid consensus on the most nutritious diet for pets is difficult to find. Size and breed matter. Some human food, like chocolate and raisins, is off limits; other guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the manufacturing and labeling of animal feed, is vague.
On a recent Saturday, Jori Martinez of St. Louis toted Blu, her brown-and-white Boston terrier, in a backpack. She stopped at the Ancestral Pet booth to pick up a carton of beef topper and a bag of liver chips.
“I don’t feed him anything I wouldn’t eat,” said Martinez. “I want real food, and I don’t want to have to make it.”
All-natural pet treats cost more than mass-market products, but the expense is worth it, customers say. A bucket of Milk-Bone chews runs about $10, and has five times as many servings as a similarly priced bag from Ancestral Pet, but the ingredient list is also five times as long.
“We should invest in our dogs like we invest in ourselves,” said Madison Duncan of St. Louis. She and her boyfriend brought home their cockapoo, Millie, about a year ago.
At the market, Millie laid eyes on the Ancestral Pet table, broke free from Duncan and vaulted up, availing herself of a taste of the chicken topper.
“Millie, we will be back,” Duncan assured her as she helped the pup back to the ground.
A foodie mindset
When Henry Matus was 16, his family dog, Teddy, died of bone cancer. Two years later, Matus was diagnosed with a brain tumor. While he was “going stir crazy” during his treatment, he distracted himself by researching pet health.
“I thought, ‘Bingo! That’s what you have to target: what they eat,’” said Matus. “I tapped into my foodie mindset.”
His plan solidified as he worked on a degree in entrepreneurship at St. Louis University. Matus went through 130 formulations before settling on a “superfood seasoning” made of beef liver, carob beans, chia seeds, cinnamon and carrots.
In July, two months after he graduated, Matus officially launched Bark n Sniff, working out of his Soulard apartment and SLU’s commercial kitchen. Initially, he sold the pouches of powder, which start at $11.50, online and at farmers markets. Within months, Bark n Sniff had landed dog cafes, groomers and Fresh Thyme as distributors.
Matus is anticipating more growth this year, for himself and others in the field. He publishes quarterly coupon books that feature the region’s “dog-centric” companies.
“The industry in the last couple of years has exploded,” said Matus. “COVID-19 has put a spotlight on how to be as healthy as possible, and we have translated that same mentality to our pets.”
Melanie Seleman of south St. Louis adopted two puppies during the pandemic: 2-year-old Sprinkle and 6-month-old Sprout, both corgis.
The herding breed is susceptible to vision problems and hip pain. When Seleman heard about Bark n Sniff through a friend, she decided to give it a try — even though Sprout, in particular, holds a laissez-faire attitude about food. But not when it’s fortified with a spoonful of Bark n Sniff.
“They literally lick the bowl clean every time,” Seleman said.
Just the reaction Matus was looking for.