Former Heinz executives cook up warm pet food lines


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For dogs -- animals that lead with their noses -- both dry kibble and canned wet food served at room temperature seem to be lacking a little something.

"I've always had this idea of warm food," said Rich Rothamel, who has spent years working on pet food products for companies such as H.J. Heinz, Del Monte Foods and Wal-Mart.

Now he and his two partners, both of whom are also former Heinz executives, have cooked up new products that take advantage of the things that happen when food is warmed up -- specifically making the aroma more intense.

In the last couple of months, the first line of goods from their Wexford Farms Pet Food startup -- a dog food supplement called Warm Ups -- has begun showing up in stores such as Burton's Total Pet and Pet Supplies Plus, as well as being sold online through Pet360 and PetFoodDirect. A second product line, Warm Meals, is set to go on sale in November.

The company has gone through two rounds of investment and raised a total of $1 million, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Innovation Works, the South Side organization that does early-stage investing, has loaned $200,000 to the venture, with the plan to convert that into equity as the company grows.

Wexford Farms Pet Food has invested in equipment to make its products in Pennsylvania, leasing 10,000 square feet of commercial space in Warren and hiring experienced workers to run the line on an as-needed basis.

Desmond O'Connor, the Innovation Works representative working with the company, is expecting this group of entrepreneurs won't have problems getting their calls returned as they make the industry rounds.

"They're just phenomenally experienced," he said.

In addition to Mr. Rothamel -- whose personal family of pets includes Little Mo, a cat chosen to work in commercials with 9Lives mascot Morris the Cat -- the partnership includes Wexford Farms CEO Christopher J. Puma, who was serving as CFO of Heinz North America when the Pittsburgh food company sold off its pet foods brands a decade ago and later was president of Birds Eye Foods, and Lawrence Hawley, the research and development leader at the new company whose career includes stints at Quaker Oats Foods, Heinz and Del Monte.

Mr. Puma and Mr. Rothamel were working elsewhere and tinkering with the idea of the dog food enhancer, including hiring outside companies to run tests on the early versions, when they decided they were on to had something.

"We were just dabbling in this, but when we saw the feeding results ..." said Mr. Puma, as he and Mr. Rothamel discussed their startup in their low-key, 1,000-square-foot office along Route 19 above retail spaces and next to a fast-food restaurant's drive-through lane.

The firm they hired had run a standard 40-dog test. Thirty-five of 40 canine subjects showed a statistically significant preference for dog food that had been mixed with Warm Ups.

The 1.75-ounce product is a dry blend of oatmeal, flavoring, rice and vitamins. Customers mix it with warm tap water, stir and then add it to a serving of dry dog food. In the test case, Purina One was used but pet owners can add it to any brand.

"It covers the kibs and transfers the heat," said Mr. Rothamel, as he was serving his border collie, Ellie, to show how at least one dog loves the product. "It covers nicely."

A patent application has been filed, although that's still working its way through the approval process. Mr. Rothamel, president and chief operating officer of the new venture, already has his name on several patents, including one for dog chew treats developed at Del Monte.

While all that industry experience was great, this time around, Mr. Puma said, the partners wanted to create their own brand and company from scratch.

The idea of warm pet food isn't new, as anyone who remembers Gravy Train dog food knows. And people are already cooking for their dogs. Wexford Farms has tracked down research indicating 6 percent of pet owners mix canned food or other toppings with their dogs' dry food to make it more appealing or healthier.

"Moisture proliferates flavor," said Mr. Rothamel. "It carries flavor."

But they think they can solve issues that pet owners have had over the years with convenience and mess. Warm Ups come in single-serving containers and stirring the water into the dry mix keeps puddles from forming.

They did focus groups and they've been talking with retailers as well as presenting at trade shows. Mr. Rothamel said consumers directed them toward making the dog food enhancer, while trade customers asked for a product that is a complete meal. Warm Meals, coming out later this year, meets that request.

Eventually, they see using this platform to develop lines for other pets, such as cats and birds. "We're going to have many products off this," said Mr. Puma.

The American Pet Products Association estimates U.S. pet industry expenditures this year will exceed $55 billion, up from $32 billion in 2003. About $21 billion of this year's total will be spent on pet food, according to the Greenwich, Ct., organization.

Despite shelves packed with other pet products also aimed at those dollars, Mr. O'Connor, at Innovation Works, thinks the numbers favor these entrepreneurs as they try to build a profitable operation. "It doesn't take a huge unit of share to make that work."

businessnews

Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.


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