Big Country Raw
Food for pets, naturally
Business View Magazine interviews Geraldine Brouwer, owner of Big Country Raw, as part of our focus on the pet food sector in Canada.
Today, the pet food market in Canada is worth approximately $1.9 billion and it is projected to grow at a rate of 4.3 percent over the next five years. According to Geraldine Brouwer, co-owner with her husband Rob, of Big Country Raw, a distributor of “raw,” as opposed to canned and bagged pet foods and supplements, the growing “humanization” of pets is a big factor in the industry’s growth. “People now refer to their pets as their ‘fur babies,’ or their ‘kids,’” she explains. “They share a home; they share a life. Dogs and cats are more a part of the family than they’ve ever been. So, consumers are willing to spend more on their pets and one way they can do that is through diet. Buying pet food is emotional; it’s not like putting gas in your car.”
Big Country Raw was established in 2012 by Geraldine, a stay-at-home mom who also bred dogs on the side as a hobby business called Big Country Kennels. Back in 2005, The Brouwers retrieved a dog from a breeder friend who felt that the best way to feed canines was with raw food – meat, organs, bones, body parts from fowls, etc. “We took our dog home and tried to feed her the dry food that we fed our other dogs and she wouldn’t have it,” Geraldine recounts. “There wasn’t a lot of market material about that, at the time, so I pulled my friend’s notes and read a little bit about what she had written down about a raw diet. We went to a local butcher and bought some of the parts – kidneys and organs and bones – that she had recommended, and made up a raw food diet according to her instructions. We fed it to the dog and she did really well. We also had a dog with some health issues; she had food allergies and we were getting her fed on a special veterinarian diet. I started doing a little bit more research on the raw diet; I hadn’t realized that it was a lot more nutritious and would probably resolve some of the health issues she was having. So we put her on the diet and there was an immediate benefit. The allergies resolved and she was significantly healthier.”
“That prompted us to put all our dogs on a raw food diet,” Geraldine continues, “and when we would have a litter of puppies and send them home with their new families, they would ask us what we were feeding our dogs. So, we would explain to them that we were giving a raw food diet to them and we’d give the instructions to them, as well, and send them home with some food. They would call us back in a couple of week’s time and say, ‘We’re out of food; we’re trying to make it ourselves,’ or ‘We’re trying to find someone to make it for us, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of options in the market. Would you make us some more, or could you tell us where to buy some?’ So that started where we were making food for a few of our customers’ families that lived close to us. They’d come out on the weekends and grab a couple of hundred pounds of food for their dog, and we’d charge them a bit of money.”
As the Brouwers family grew (they have 5 children), they decided to see if making and selling their raw pet food on a larger scale was an option to allow them more time to spend time with their growing family. It started with an email to their puppy families and connections with breeders in Ontario.
“We said anybody who’s interested, or anybody who knows anybody that’s looking for raw dog food, we can make it,” Geraldine recalls. “And within a couple of days, we had 20 people who were interested – a lot more than I thought there would be – so that’s how we started selling direct to the consumer.”
In time, the couple was contacted by a specialty pet food store in Burlington Ontario. “They were selling only raw food and they reached out to us and said they’d like to sell our raw dog food in their store. That was new to us; we said okay and we started selling in a pet store. And we’ve brought in a lot more stores since then.” In fact, today, Big Country Raw can be found in over 700 stores across Canada and the company has over 100 employees, with Rob running production and operations and Geraldine in charge of marketing and development.
The company offers over 13 protein choices and a huge selection of raw meaty bones, treats, cooked meatloaves, and dehydrated supplements for a raw diet that provides a range of benefits that commercially-processed pet foods can’t match. Dogs and cats on a raw food diet have softer, shinier coats that shed less; they produce less fecal waste; they scratch and tear-up less; and they have less chronic ear infections, fresher-smelling breath, improved bladder and kidney function, and increased energy and attention spans. In addition, raw fed dogs and cats have generally more resilient immune systems, making them less prone to viruses and bacteria that make them sick and prompt more visits to the vet.
Geraldine adds that in a competitive marketplace, what helps differentiate Big Country Raw from other brands is that the company is involved in all elements of the business. “We make a raw pet food diet and we are also distributors as well as retailers of our own products,” she notes. “Most pet food companies use a pet food distributor company to get their product to market and that increases the price of their product. And when we moved out into the market, there weren’t any distributors that offered frozen or raw food distribution; pet food was primarily shelf-stable – canned or dried. So, we bought our own fleet of trucks to bring the product to pet retailers, ourself. We’re able to offer our premium product at a more affordable price because we deliver the product to the door. We’re also getting into distributing freezers, as well, because one of the biggest problems for the specialty pet retailer is how to resell the product; they need to purchase a freezer and we’re able to furnish them with one. So, we’re able to streamline the process as much as possible. The whole process comes from us. We make the product, we sell direct to the consumer, we sell B2B, and we’re able to offer the quickest delivery. That’s some of the reasons why we’re successful.”
That type of versatility has served the company well during the current Covid pandemic. In March, many of its retail customers decided to stockpile several months’ worth of food, and Big Country Raw’s B2B orders were larger than usual. “Moving into April and May, with stores having to close or limit the number of people in their stores, and customers leery and fearful of being out in the retail environment, we saw an increase in the number of consumers that were looking to us to offer home delivery,” says Geraldine. “We struggled with this because we knew that our pet specialty retailers were feeling worried and concerned about their future. At the same time, we felt a real need to ‘own’ the brand. Big Country Raw decided that the best possible outcome was to serve our loyal customers who really loved our product while assuring our retailers that at any return to regular business, they would always have our full support. So, even though we did see a big increase in direct-to-consumer sales and we did have our truck going directly to houses rather than to stores to deliver the goods, now that the stores are opening up, those numbers are returning to what they were and we’re seeing the customers going back into the stores to get their food. It speaks to the fact that, as a brand, we worked really hard to keep those customers on the food and reaffirmed that customers could count on Big Country Raw.”
The current health crisis has also increased the company’s online relationships with its customers. Every day, according to Geraldine, Big Country Raw adds another seven to ten people to its Facebook group, Big Country Raw Feeders, which currently numbers approximately 5,000 members. “It’s the most engaged we’ve been on social media,” she says. “The group represents a wide range of buyers who are buying our food and they engage with other people who are buying Big Country Raw, as well. We have apparel, we have bowls, we have special treats. And every Wednesday, we get people to submit pictures of their pet bowls for ‘What’s in Your Bowl Wednesday’ – 20 or 30 pictures strong of submissions showing us what their dogs are eating. So, it’s not just about price – it’s a lifestyle.” In addition, the company has ramped up its virtual training programs for its store customers via Zoom. “It’s been our most successful training opportunity. So, although there are other raw pet foods out there, people associate with us more because of our deep connections to the consumer.”
This past year, Big Country Raw also introduced paper board packaging, a groundbreaking change in the industry. “There’s not any other Canadian pet food manufacturer that’s packaging raw pet food in paper board packaging,” Geraldine states. “We took the initiative because we know that plastic packaging is a hindrance to our growth. More and more consumers are paying attention to how things are packaged and prepared for them. They want to make sure that they’re making environmentally-good choices in the products that they’re buying and we’re going to be looking at more eco-friendly packaging choices.” She adds that the company also sources from growers and farmers that also use best practices in how they raise the animals that Big Country Raw uses in its diet.
Going forward, Big Country Raw expects to open a new distribution center in Calgary by this August, but with a focus on selling just in pet specialty stores and not offering direct-to-consumer sales of frozen foods.
However, as Big Country Raw as it continues to grow will continue its two-pronged business model of reaching out to both retail and direct consumers in Ontario. “From the get-go, we handled our own distribution to stores and direct to consumers,” says Geraldine. “The direct-to-consumer approach in the pet specialty field shows that those people have a 50 percent higher brand retention and 50 percent faster brand growth than brands that don’t. It really keeps you close to your customer. Consumers like to have options and Big Country Raw gives them a lot of choices.”
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AT A GLANCE
WHO: Big Country Raw
WHAT: A distributor of raw pet foods and supplements
WHERE: Smithville, Ontario
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