April 22, 2024

In 2014 Katie McCarron’s poodle, Rosie, started getting sick. She was 14, and like many aging, ailing pets, Rosie started getting fussy about food, rejecting nearly every food McCarron tried to feed her.

“I thought it was cancer. All the tests came back negative, but I could see her just dribbling off the court,” McCarron tells Oregon Business. “I decided to start cooking, and she started eating.”

After some experimentation, McCarron finally found a recipe Rosie would eat enthusiastically. That recipe eventually became Rosie’s Beef N’ Rice, and McCarron’s cooking project became the Portland Pet Food Company, which officially launched that year. (Rosie lived another two and a half years.)

McCarron, whose official title at the company is Top Dog — her son, then 18, came up with the initial job titles — got into the pet-food industry at just the right time. But it was a passion project, she says, not a calculated business move.

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“I didn’t really plan it,” McCarron says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, the pet-food industry is growing, let’s come up with a product.’ I really did it out of love and necessity, for Rosie and her fight. If she did this well on this product, maybe there’s a place for this in the marketplace.”

In February 2022, PPFC moved from its original site — a 3,000-square-foot kitchen and warehouse in the Southeast Industrial District — to a 15,000-square-foot site in in Portland’s Brooklyn neighborhood, but remains committed to Portland even as it becomes a national brand. PPFC products are now available at the Northwest chains New Seasons, Market of Choice and Zupan’s, as well as national retailers like REI and Whole Foods — plus the Northeast grocery chain Wegmans. PPFC products are also available at pet retailers like Mud Bay and Healthy Pets Northwest.

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The company also has a multipronged e-commerce strategy, offering single orders and subscriptions through its own website; PPFC products are also available through Amazon, and its dog biscuits can be purchased through the pet-food giant Chewy. The brand has also expanded into the international market.

The product line started with Rosie’s signature dish, then expanded to include a small series of other products, most named after the staff pet who acted as the recipe tester (with the exception of Grandma Ada’s Turkey & Yams, which McCarron named in honor of her mother). The company also makes seven varieties of biscuits; some are gluten-free, some made with spent grain from local breweries and distilleries. In 2022 PPFC launched two lines of cat food, also named for its recipe testers: Luke’s Chicken N’ Pumpkin and Boots’ Salmon N’ Pumpkin.

McCarron grew up in Portland, went to Madison High School (now known as Leodis V. McDaniel High School) and Lewis and Clark, where she majored in psychology. Prior to launching PPFC, McCarron worked at Academic Network — a communication company, now owned by Stericycle — doing clinical trial research recruitment, ran a call center staffed by dietitians and nurses, and did consumer-education programs for food-pharmaceutical companies.

She attempted to retire, but that obviously did not stick.

PPFC now employs 43 people, some of whom have known and worked with McCarron for decades. A standard poodle named Winnie — “named for Winnipeg, not Winnie-the-Pooh, although Winnie-the-Pooh is from Winnipeg” — accompanies her to work (but isn’t permitted in the food-preparation area).

In 2022 the Pet Sustainability Coalition named PPFC a Top 10 Social Steward pet-food brand.

0223 Profile 556A7016Portland Pet Food Company employees making dog biscuits.  Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

The company’s Brew Biscuits are so named because they’re made from spent brewery grain, some of which is sourced from Ruse Brewery, which is situated in the same building as PPFC. When I toured the facility, pallets of Bob’s Red Mill flours lined the factory entrance floor. The company also sources meat and fish locally.

McCarron notes that, unlike many manufacturers and retailers, PPFC has not faced major supply-chain issues, likely due to its commitment to local sourcing.

“Most [pet food] is wheat and cheap grain and very little real protein. It’s nothing like what these guys are doing,” says Jerry Freemont, meat category manager of Pacific Seafood, which supplies pork, chicken and beef for PPFC’s products.

Ashley Lane, senior program manager of accreditation for the Pet Sustainability Coalition, praises PPFC’s commitment to using diverted food-waste products.

“Something that they have focused on, and that I think is kind of core to their mission, is the idea of intervening and diverting that food waste and giving it a home in the pet-food industry,” Lane says. “There is just as much safety protocol around ingredients and processes, but there is a more flexible market for those types of diverted food-waste products. They’re doing a really great job and utilizing grains from breweries and other ingredients that would otherwise have gone to waste or not have been used in a way that was creating value.”

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McCarron says very often pet food is not just sourced from unsavory places — “it’s a combination of farm animals, roadkill, you name it” — it’s often cooked at such high temperatures that many of the key nutrients are denatured. Those nutrients have to be added back in to make the meals full and balanced for pets.

Because McCarron insists on keeping the list of ingredients short and doesn’t add supplemental nutrients, the meals have to be marketed as a mixer, topper or supplemental meal, “because we’re not full and balanced.” But, she says, about a third of customers use the foods as a standalone meal. McCarron herself mixes Winnie’s food with kibble except when she’s traveling, in which case the dog gets a full pouch.

“It’s very expensive to make and thus it’s not affordable for everyone,” McCarron says. “However, we do explain to [customers] if they want to use it as a topper, that it will last four to five days. And just by replacing 20% of your kibble with an all-natural ingredient, you can improve the health and the coat of your dog.”

0223 Profile 556A7099An employee packages Brew Biscuits by weight.  Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

A 9-ounce pouch of PPFC dog food costs $6.99, and a 2.6-ounce pouch of the company’s cat food costs $3.49 — prices that exceed not just supermarket wet foods, but many brands considered premium as well.

PPFC’s main competitors, McCarron says, are other high-end brands that either do business through e-commerce alone or started as exclusive e-commerce brands: The Farmer’s Dog and Nom Nom are both exclusively available via subscription. Just Food for Dogs, another big player in the super-premium dog-food space, started as an online-only brand but is now available at Petco. The Farmer’s Dog and Nom Nom don’t list their prices for prospective customers who are unwilling to fill out a survey about their dogs’ needs; Just Food for Dogs comes in 18-ounce pouches that cost anywhere from $7 to $10 apiece, depending on the vendor.

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, about 23 million American households — one in five homes — adopted a new pet between March 2020 and May 2021. And even before the COVID-19 pandemic drove a boom in pet adoption, household spending on pets has climbed steadily upward in recent years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, household spending on pets climbed from $460 in 2013 to $770 in 2021 — an average that, The Washington Post noted in a 2022 story, would be higher if the results excluded homes without a pet.

And Americans aren’t alone. A February 2022 report from Global Industry Analysts estimated that the global market for pet care — valued at $193.5 billion in 2022 — would reach $241.1 billion by 2026.

PPFC products are now available in smaller pet specialty stores in Canada, and in 2022 expanded to Japan and South Korea — and just got permission to start shipping to China, where the GIA report says the pet-care market is likely to expand by 7% between 2022 and 2026. (Its report also points to Japan and Canada as “notable growth markets” for the pet industry.) In 2022 PPFC won the Oregon Consular Corps’ Emerging Exporter Award.

“They’re just really driven,” says Erick Garman, trade development manager for the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Garman says he first made contact with McCarron at the Oregon State University Food Innovation Center about five years ago, and has since helped find funding to subsidize travel to other countries where PPFC is interested in doing business. “They’re not afraid to look at new opportunities. Some of their efforts have not been 100% fruitful, but they’re not afraid to try things and test.”

McCarron tells OB that, while the company’s first retail customer was a Portland-based specialty pet retailer — Healthy Pets Northwest — pet retailers weren’t as excited about the product as she’d hoped they would be. So she started approaching high-end grocers and traveling to grocery trade shows — a strategy Garman praises.

“They’ve really sort of blazed this kind of new trail in specialty stores like your Whole Foods and your New Seasons. They certainly weren’t the first to do it, but as far as Oregon pet-food companies, they’ve done a really good job of maximizing these resources,” Garman says.

Theresa Yoshioka, the ODA’s international trade manager, has worked with PPFC on expanding into Asian markets. She also first met McCarron at the Food Innovation Center, at a new-product showcase.

“I saw her dog treats from the upcycling- ingredients brewery, and I thought, this is really an Oregon company: It’s upcycled, it names the brewery and it’s serving dogs,” Yoshioka says.

“In [Asian] markets, they care about a lot of the same things we care about,” she adds. They like buying products made from quality ingredients, and like Americans, they want to indulge their pets a little bit. “Much like us, pet population and spending on pets increased during COVID. In Japan, even though the population of dogs is set to decline, spending is up.”

“Our goal is to be not only U.S., but global,” McCarron says. “Because I feel as though all pets deserve it.”

As this issue went into production, the company was working to develop another biscuit recipe and to upgrade its mixing and packaging.

0223 Profile 556A7139An employee packs cartons in the warehouse.  Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

She notes that the move was necessary in part because the company needed to expand, and she couldn’t find a large enough space in the Central Eastside, and parking was a problem.

“You know, a lot of people were like, ‘Why don’t you move outside of Portland?’ We were right down on Water [Avenue], and it was not safe at all. I worked a lot of times until 7 or 8, and it was pretty scary going out of there. But I feel like I’m pretty street smart,” McCarron says. “I was like, ‘It’s fine. I’m from Portland. I’m not going to be chased out of Portland, so we stuck it out. I said, No, we’re Portland Pet Food. We’re going to stay in Portland.’

“I loved it over there, despite all the trouble we were having, the break-ins and everything else,” McCarron says of the Central Eastside location. “It’d be a lot less expensive to be outside of Portland. But I grew up here, and hopefully we’re going to bring the city back sooner than later.”

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