In the American software industry there is a particularly ugly phrase used to describe testing products: “dogfooding”. Great executives believe so much in their creations that they will consume it themselves — straight out of the tin.
It’s intended, clearly, as a metaphor. Yet in a rather swanky office in Hampstead, north London, Henrietta Morrison, the chief executive of Lily’s Kitchen, is being very literal. She’s in the nicely furnished staff kitchen — a “walk more, bark less” sign on the windowsill — opening a can of Three Bird Festive Feast “with all the trimmings”, dog food designed to ensure Fido isn’t missing out on the big day.
It contains turkey, goose, duck, parsnips, organic carrots, cranberries, swiss chard and “botanical herbs” — not just any herbs, mind, but “botanical” ones, such as marigold petals, celery seed and thyme.
She plonks a spoonful of the stuff on to my plate and invites me to dig in with my spoon. It tastes like cheap, rather bland pâté that manages to be simultaneously slimy and gritty. Then again, it’s dog food, so I’m not sure why I was expecting it be worthy of the Savoy Grill.
She, on the other hand, is in raptures. “If this was served up with a pie crust, you’d say, ‘Oh, this is delicious.’ It’s just the association that’s putting you off. And the fact it has no salt in it. I think it’s really tasty.”
It’s not. It’s gritty.
“That must be the herbs,” she insists.
My Hampstead lunch — rounded off with an “eat your greens natural snack bar”, with apples, kale, spirulina, wheatgrass and mint — confirms that the pet food industry is unrecognisable from a generation ago.
If you think human diets have become a little bit faddy with the arrival of courgetti spaghetti and sweet potato chocolate brownies, take a look at pet food. It’s not just Lily’s Kitchen. There’s Pooch & Mutt, with its Calm and Relaxed dog treats, which it describes as “natural, ethical, low-calorie, hand-baked mini-bones” packed with camomile; Woofins, muffins for dogs with carob yoghurt icing; chicken soup for cats “in a delicately refined broth”; doggy popcorn “to make sure your doggy feels included”; Billy + Margot’s ethically sourced venison chews; raw, superfood ready meals, and a whole host of gluten-free, grain-free, paleo solutions for your beloved pet.
These upmarket ranges — often launched by young bosses happy to dogfood their products — are boosting an otherwise flagging pet food industry. Last month, Mintel, the market researchers, calculated British consumers bought 1,050 tonnes of pet food in 2015, less than we were buying in 2011. The simple reason is that as a country we own slightly fewer pets than a few years ago.
However, the amount we are spending on pet food has increased, up £42 million last year to £2.49 billion. “The premium-isation of pet food is pushing up average prices,” says Emma Clifford at Mintel. And of all the hundreds of pet food launches last year, more than half boasted of being gluten-free and a third were snacks.
Adam Taylor is at the forefront of the pet snack craze. A former Lehman Brothers banker who found himself out of a job during the height of the financial crisis, he launched an online pet food delivery company. One of its newest products is Petmail.co.uk, which operates just like Graze, the subscription company that sends busy office workers boxes of upmarket, healthy snacks to their desk.
Woofins are muffins for dogs, with carob icing
With Petmail, owners subscribe to get a new £3.99 box through their letterbox every week containing sachets of rabbit and cranberry cubes, or “top of the class canine stars” (with yucca extract and alfalfa).
“The treat sector is the fastest growing and it has been largely driven by the humanisation of the pets,” says Taylor. “Humans’ lifestyles are changing. Couples are having kids later on in life and I think they are getting that parenting fill from having pets instead. They are treating pets like children.”
A visit to Verve, a pet boutique and bar in Notting Hill, London, confirms Taylor’s theory that we are infantilising our pets. The venue, just along from the Diptyque candle and Brora cashmere shops on Westbourne Grove, is owned by André Carless, a rake-thin Jamaican with a streak of blue through his hair and an eye for a clever business idea. Verve combines a grown-up bar (a G&T made with Hendrick’s gin will set you back £9.50) where dogs are welcome to jump up on to the pink upholstered chairs, and an off-licence selling Veuve Clicquot champagne. Out back there is a grooming salon, a pet supplies shop specialising in pet collars, designed by Carless using liberal amounts of Swarovski crystals, along with packets of dog food, snacks and toys.
“There are lots of places where dogs are welcome in London,” he says. “But not where the pets can get some food as well. I am happy to grill a chicken breast for them if my customers are staying for lunch.”
On a busy Saturday morning when I visit, customers are browsing the shelves, carefully inspecting the packets. Sylvia Peragine, 30, from Italy, and her partner Eduardo Raffa, also 30, an engineering consultant are in with Lady, a dachshund. Peragine, who is an architect, says she mostly cooks Lady her own meals; she’s just in here to pick up some snacks: “I prefer to buy my own chicken. It’s always organic — from Waitrose. Lady’s like a child for me. I consider her like a daughter.”
Along with the boiled salmon or chicken, she is fed rice. But not any sort of rice. “I try to avoid basmati rice,” says Raffa. “We prefer arborio rice. But we’re Italian,” he says with a laugh, and then goes on to explain: “The way that arborio rice has been treated, it doesn’t involve any hot processing.”
Processing is a dirty word for many pet owners, which helps to explain the recent popularity for gluten-free and grain-free food, a trend that has spread even to mainstream brands such as Butcher’s, which has a “gluten-free” range of dog food.
Alejandra Lozada is at Verve with Lucy, a white short-haired havanese. Lozada, a management consultant, originally from Peru, is buying some Lily’s Kitchen organic bedtime biscuits.
Single and 41, she is happy to admit that Lucy is a child-substitute. “Lucy is definitely a companion. All my nurturing and mothering emotions go to her. For women like me, there is also a bit of overcompensating for leaving our dogs while we go out to work. The dogs can’t come to the office. I am sure parents do the same when they come back from the office with a gift. That’s the same with us.”
Lozada too has a deep suspicion of processed foods, notwithstanding her penchant for organic biscuits. She is one of many pet owners who have switched to raw food. “Would you eat processed food every day?”
Well, yes, I do. I drink coffee and eat toast for breakfast — both foods with a fair amount of processing involved.
“But you eat vegetables and meat too,” she tells me. “I wanted to ensure I knew exactly what was going into her food. I think it’s good to feed her just raw food — that’s what wolves eat.”
Chicken is always organic, from Waitrose. Lady is like a child to me
Eating the food that was around before man discovered agriculture and crop rotation was a popular trend a couple of years ago. But now the paleo diet has spread to pets. The theory is that dogs should eat the same diet as their ancestor, the wolf, and that cats should eat the diet of lions.
Gudrun Ravetz, the president of the British Veterinary Association, disagrees. “Dogs have evolved a lot since the time of wolves, and their diets have evolved a lot too. Gluten isn’t a problem for most of them, it’s just something that coats carbohydrates, and dogs need carbohydrates without a doubt.
“We haven’t seen anything peer reviewed to say that these expensive dog foods and treats will make dogs happier and healthier. Quality does not equate with price with pet food, necessarily. Many of the manufactured dog foods have gone through feeding trials to ensure that it’s actually digestible to the dog. A good guide is to check that the company is signed up to the Pet Food Manufacturer’s Association, which means they will abide by certain nutrition guidelines. There is only one raw diet that is a member. Overall, I’m much more concerned about overfeeding than buying something that contains botanicals.”
The most popular dry food sold by Carless at his boutique is Orijen, a Canadian brand that bills itself as a “whole prey diet”, claiming 80 per cent “ranch-raised meats and game and wild-caught fish”. The company says that its food contains no potatoes, grains or tapioca, all things frowned upon by strict paleo adherents. A 2kg bag will set you back £29.99, compared with £5 for a 3kg bag of Pedigree complete dry dog food in Tesco.
Avoiding gluten, or grains, is not enough for many owners. They, like Lozanda, want a raw diet. She buys her turkey from Waitrose and chops it up herself, adding a few carrots and “superfood granules” sprinkled on top.
Raw pet food has become one of the fastest growing niches in the pet food market. One of the most recent arrivals is Poppy’s Picnic, started by a former marketing man, Dylan Watkins. “I was very into paleo and trying to be healthy. I felt so much better, my muffin top disappeared. And I saw what I was feeding my dogs — it was basically like coco pops. I thought, let’s be a bit more honest for them.”
His raw food, made up of meat, offal, ground-up bones and a few vegetables, is packaged into little ready-meal trays, frozen and delivered to customers. It is made by a local supplier in Wiltshire, where he lives with his boyfriend, Michael.
Watkins insists that he is not indulging Poppy and Slipper, his miniature schnauzers, saying they have never been so healthy. “Some of the pet food out there is about treating yourself, but when it comes to raw food, you are not treating your dog like a child, you are respecting the animal.”
We haven’t seen anything peer reviewed to say that these expensive foods make dogs happier and healthier
“Yes, Poppy and Slipper are an important part of my life. Are they my children? No — I wish I could have children but I can’t.” At this point he becomes a little teary as he looks at them and struggles to find the right words. “But they bring a calmness to me that is just beautiful.”
To feed your dog Poppy’s Picnic is not that expensive, between about £1.50 and £2.50 a day, depending on the size of the animal. Yes, it’s quite a bit more expensive than supermarket tins, but it is no more than a flat white coffee from Starbucks.
Treats, of course, come on top of this daily meal and are an excellent way for a pet food manufacturer to boost both its brand and its revenues.
“I guess they are quite profitable,” says Morrison at Lily’s Kitchen. “It can be quite difficult to get people to switch food brands. But treats can be a good way for people to interact with your brand.”
Is a Calm and Relaxed Pooch & Mutt snack really necessary? Or a Woofin? Or Lily’s Kitchen festive biscuit with turkey and cranberry? Of course not.
But as Morrison says: “It comes back to the relationship you have with your pets. It feels good to give your pet a treat. They look at you so adoringly, and you think, ‘Ah, it wasn’t such a bad day after all.’ ”
Also, snacks are — for a human palate — far tastier than wet dog food. The fabulously festive treats for cats are almost moreish, although it may be some time before I’m prepared to serve them at a drinks party.