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By Dana McMahan
It’s the middle of the afternoon and my 14 year old Pomeranian Truffle is barking rather insistently in the kitchen. It’s not his usual random bark; this one has a purpose. It’s Nom Nom Now delivery day and since the FedEx man rang the doorbell, he’s known there’s a new stash of food waiting — and he demands it right this moment.
Welcome to 2019 where even our dogs can have dinner delivered. And we’re not talking a bag of kibble in the mail. Nope, Truffle and our Great Pyrenees mix Cassius are getting a weekly delivery just for them while we try out Nom Nom Now, a new fresh food for dogs subscription service.
And we’re not alone. You and I may get boxes from Hello Fresh or Blue Apron, but the furry side of a growing number of families isn’t left out, with start-ups like Nom Nom Now, YaDoggie with their Instant Pot meal kits for pups, The Farmer’s Dog, and others bringing some pretty gourmet-looking fare to the door.
In fact, according to the new report Pet Food in the U.S., 14th Edition, from market research firm Packaged Facts, the number one trend this year in the market is personalized pet food, with “marketers and retailers … experimenting with these trends, including Petco with its JustFoodForDogs in-store kitchens, Purina with its customized Just Right brand sold online, and Ollie with its partnership with Jet.com,” the report notes.
“Allowing pet owners to … subscribe to a service that provides freshly prepared meals [is a way] pet food marketers can cater to pet owners’ desire to go above and beyond standard kibble and spearhead the next generation of superpremium pet food,” the report goes on.
Yep, this is certainly ‘above and beyond’ loading up the cart with bags of dry dog food. How did we get here? Of course the easy answer is marketing. But it’s more complex than that.
Gourmet dinner delivery for dogs is a thing
David Lummis, a pet market analyst with Packaged Facts who’s covered the industry for years — documenting what he called this fascinating progression — weighed in.
“Markets caught on they could make a whole lot more money sanctioning the behavior that 15 years ago would have been attributed to the crazy cat person,” Lummis told NBC News BETTER. “But it’s not just marketing — they caught the ball and ran with it. It’s this kind of societal shift … this whole feeling of insecurity which increased the need for companionship that pets provide in an increasingly insecure world.”
People began feeling like pets “are our children; for a lot of people, they just are. Why would you not spend money?”
Lummis points to 9/11 as a watershed moment. “I think that’s when changes in attitudes and acceptance [began],” he said. People began feeling like pets “are our children; for a lot of people, they just are. Why would you not spend money? It’s a natural human evolution of questioning what’s important and being willing to allocate one’s resources.”
The movement that would lead to Cash and Truffle’s front door gourmet dinner delivery “really took off around 2007 when they had the really bad pet food recalls because of melamine,” Lummis said. “It got everyone’s attention and people were like, ‘oh my gosh what am I feeding my pets?’ It spurred a rapid move to natural and organic that’s been the driver of the market now for over 10 years.”
As natural brands previously only available at specialty stores began to migrate to mass retail stores, “that demonstrated the hunger consumers had for higher quality pet food,” said Lummis. Meanwhile online sales have “really been taking off in last three to five years [and have] reached this critical mass in pet market.”
But the pet food market isn’t growing volume-wise, he said. Without enough population growth to increase the volume of sales, the strategy has been to convert pet owners to higher price pet food. With so many now at the top of that chain — basically every retailer has super premium, he said — “what’s the next generation of premium food? What we’ve seen emerge are fresh products, mostly available online.”
Enter dog food 2.0
The first option hit my radar last summer, when Ya Doggie came out with their ready-to-cook meal kits for dogs. Tapping into our collective Instant Pot mania, the kits are designed to just drop in the device and cook. Suddenly I began seeing ads in my social media feeds for other options.
They weren’t the first, though, Lummis said. “Fresh Pet emerged 10 years ago, they got refrigerator cases in Wal-Marts, that was the beginning of the trend, they pioneered the niche.” But if it’s not for sale on Instagram, is it a thing?
By the time I saw the ads for Ollie and others, we’d been cooking for our dogs for many months. The move from already pricey kibble to homemade fresh food came when traditional veterinary care failed our senior Pom, who’d begun to decline rapidly from such debilitating arthritis he couldn’t move. We switched to a holistic veterinarian who gave us recipes from “Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats” and encouraged us to get Truffle — and Cash — onto “people food.” Within days Truffle was back to his prancing, puppy self, med-free, camping out in front of the stove to wait for dinner every day.
But adding two dogs (one who eats as many calories as I do) to meal-planning could feel overwhelming, when you consider how hard it is to feed ourselves sometimes. It’s one thing to opt for nutritionally devoid foods like pizza for ourselves, but our beloved pups rely on us to make sure their food keeps them healthy.
Which is why we finally made the leap to a fresh food subscription when the Nom Nom Now team reached out to see if I’d like to sample their food. I completed the questionnaire on the Nom Nom Now website, providing the details they’d need to customize our pups’ meal plans, including age, activity level, and breed (Truffle is a couple pounds overweight, and high-energy — and picky — Cash needs to gain a few pounds). I also submitted their online form to notify our vet of the diet change, who gave them the thumbs up, citing the board certified nutritionist creating the diets, and the food meeting AAFCO standards.
All that convenience and quality comes at a price
Dishing up their first dinner I felt like a restaurant owner must feel when the critic shows up. Would the notoriously finicky Cash try it? Would he finish it? Not only did he lick his bowl cleaner than I’ve ever seen, he went back looking for more. Several times. The routine repeated at breakfast, and at 3:00 the next afternoon he went to the kitchen and stared pointedly at the fridge. He now stands next to the fridge, patiently waiting when dinnertime approaches (while the less well-trained Truffle hops and barks).
They both love it so much, in fact, that now we’re at a sticking point. Fresh, personalized food for dogs delivered to your door is not cheap (shocker, right?). Can we, should we spend the money to continue? And that’s where the market may run into roadblocks, Lummis said.
The potential obstacle for these tiny start-ups (that are competing with our own food supply for their ingredients) Lummis said, is to develop economies of scale in order to bring the price down. Until then, or unless a major player like Amazon or Chewy.com gets into the game, he said “they will be in that higher price range which will limit their audience.”
“I’m a big pet person and I believe in healthy food,” Lummis went on. But “for most reasonable people there is a limit.”
Doing the math on dog food delivery
So the question for pet parents like me now is: what’s reasonable to spend on your pet? Julia van Broek, a spokesperson for Nom Nom Now, told NBC News BETTER the average size of their dog customer is about 30 pounds, with pricing around $33-$45 per week. (That would average out to about $1200 per year, compared to the average cost of feeding a dog, which Petfinder reports ranges from $120 to $550 annually.)
But they seem to have found a market that finds that reasonable. And just who is that? “We do tend to skew female, and a large chunk of our customers are 40+, which surprises many because they assume that our product would primarily appeal to millennials,” van Broek said. “We also have found that approximately 65 percent of our customers have a household income of less than $100K per year.”
As for us, we haven’t made our decision yet about continuing the service, but here’s how I’m leaning: my dogs bring me joy, and make me happier and healthier. The least I can do is the same for them. But I may have to give up on teaching Truffle not to bark at the doorbell.