Dogged determination

Carnivore Meat Co. achieves prominence in the raw pet food industry

Posted on Jan 30, 2019 :: Cover Story
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

If your familiarity with pet food begins and ends with bags of dry kibble, catching a glimpse of Carnivore Meat Co.’s Vital Essentials Raw Bar might just cause you to do a double take.

The displays, featuring jars full of products such as pig snouts, chicken necks and cod skins, don’t include your usual roster of pet treats. Pet owners, however, devour this unconventional lineup, or at least their beloved animals do.

With such an unexpected array of dog and cat delights, Carnivore owner and CEO Lanny Viegut was feeling the pressure to come up with the next Raw Bar addition. The company’s reputation for innovation had captured people’s curiosity and had them wondering what would come next.

Contenders included beef aorta, beef shoulder cartilage and duck heads. Viegut and his team always like to seek feedback on new products, so at the annual Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Fla., they put the question to attendees, asking them to rate five products in order reflecting what they’d like to see in their stores, as a distributor or as a consumer.

Duck heads came in at No. 4, but the very idea also created a stir, with some people whipping out their phones and sharing the product on Facebook Live.

“Even at the trade show, there were people who were like, ‘How can you do that? Oh, that’s terrible,’” Viegut says.

The company had some events coming up. It put the five options to consumers, and duck heads came in at No. 1. Thus, the product was added to the VE Raw Bar lineup, and today, it’s a top seller.

“What we learned is that the stores vote with their own bias. They weren’t thinking about what customers would buy. Their head garbage led them to say, ‘This is acceptable or not,’” Viegut says.

A different kind of diet

While the idea of duck heads, complete with bills and empty eye sockets, pig ears or turkey necks may make some squeamish, Viegut says dogs and cats were made to eat this way. Carnivore Meat Co. embraces the alpha-prey model, which is built on a diet of meat, vital organs and bones — with no added grains, fruits or vegetables.

“The way God intended this to be is that they would eat other animals,” Viegut says. “Their teeth are designed to pull meat off a bone and to crush bone.”

Vital Essentials, which is available online and at more than 6,000 brick-and-mortar stores nationwide, inhabits the super-premium category of pet food. While it’s pricey, it’s also far superior, Viegut says.

The alpha-prey-model diet is based on the wild. When a wolf pack pursues prey, the alpha male and female eat first because they’re the progeny. It’s important for the female to be healthy because she will bear and raise pups, and those genes will be passed down, ensuring the pack remains strong, Viegut says.

In the wild, wolves typically eat an entire animal, which gives them all the nutrition they need. In making its products, Carnivore strives to replicate this, taking components that are commercially available and putting them back together to create that diet.

Vital Essentials products are made with bones to provide calcium and phosphorous and liver to add vitamins A and B. They also include organs such as hearts, kidneys and lungs. In pet nutrition, it’s all about bio-availability, so the more natural product, the better, Viegut says.

This is where Vital Essentials diverges from commercial kibble, which is cooked at high temperatures and adds synthetic vitamins and minerals. This goes into the pet’s body and gives the animal little of the nutrition it needs, Viegut says.

While a 1-pound bag of Vital Essentials Beef Mini Nibs grain-free freeze-dried dog food will set you back $29 on Chewy.com, a little goes a long way, and you may be able to feed your pup less because it’s more nutritionally dense, Viegut says.

A healthier diet can lead to disease reduction and a longer lifespan, help pets sustain optimum weight, maintain the digestive tract and promote healthy teeth and gums, he says.

It may also bring some surprise benefits. Those large piles of fossilized dog droppings littering backyards are byproducts of the wrong diet, Viegut says. Raw pet food devotees may find themselves off doggie doo pickup duty. Because the dog absorbs so many nutrients, it will produce less waste, and when it does, it simply “turns to ash” and biodegrades quickly, he says.

In developing its products, the company works with animal nutritionist Dr. Richard Patton, who serves as a mentor, coach and advocate.

Steve Friend, owner of Antigo Signs, has worked with Viegut since 2015 when Carnivore began acquiring illuminated signs from the company. He says concerns about food quality for humans have carried over to pet food.

“I really respect what he’s doing. I think it’s pretty amazing … trying to create a dog or pet food that is actually healthy for pets,” he says.

In addition to its dedication to pet nutrition, Carnivore makes food safety a priority. The company ensures it’s sourcing from the right people, inspects the facilities of all new vendors and uses only USDA-inspected animal protein. Upon removing organs and bones, it blast-freezes them immediately to lock in freshness and moisture, and its plant maintains a 45-degree temperature.

“That’s important to us because we’re a meat shop and we want to maintain the integrity of that meat all the way through the system,” Viegut says.

 

Back from the brink

Carnivore produces a wide variety of frozen and freeze-dried food, snacks and treats for dogs and cats under the Vital Essentials brand. While Vital Essentials has been around since 2009, its history extends back much further.

The late Gerry Nash founded Green Bay Pet Food Co. in 1998, but its roots trace back to Amarillo, Texas, where he got his start in the industry in 1968. Today, many consider Nash a pioneer in the raw pet food industry, creating feed from a blend of meat, bones and organs.

Prior to coming to Green Bay Pet Food Co. in 2009, Viegut held positions at Packerland Packing, American Food Group and Anamax, worked as a consultant and collaborated to open a company called Exponential Wisconsin, which helped organizations select, recruit and train salespeople.

Viegut, who holds a bachelor’s degree in food science with an emphasis in meat processing, was working as chief operating officer for a molding and millwork company in Green Bay when in August 2008, he received an invitation to look at Green Bay Pet Food Co., which was bankrupt and on the brink of shuttering.
It was a call that would lead him back to his true passion: the meat industry.

Viegut says Nash had no business, marketing or branding sense, but what he did have was a talent for creating an outstanding product. When Viegut came to the company — having no idea there was such a thing as raw pet food — it was $1 million in debt and not even reaching $1 million in revenue. There was no branding or retail presence for the products, which were packaged in a Ziploc bag affixed with a sticker. 

“I went into the business, and it was really broken. Everything was wrong, but the food he was making was amazing,” he says.

Viegut came into the company as a salesperson. He says he didn’t want to come on as the boss; he wanted to get involved at the ground level and understand the business and people.

Nash, who died in 2016, was battling illness at the time, and the person he’d hired to run the company was mismanaging it. Soon, she was removed, and Viegut took over the business.

He viewed the task before him as a business makeover, and he rebuilt the company using a framework that made sense to him. “Essentially what I saw is that this isn’t a pet food company. It’s a meat shop for dogs,” he says.

 

Remarkable transformation

In the summer of 2009, Viegut created the Vital Essentials brand and began attending trade shows. It didn’t take long for him to shake up the industry.

When Viegut entered the raw pet food world, his competitors sold food in white bags with a sticker. He believed it was important to let consumers see the product, so Vital Essentials created a printed bag that included a viewing window for a full array of products.

Soon, other companies followed suit. At trade shows, the company’s booth drew many visitors, and distribution companies came courting. Growth was slow at first. In 2009, it broke even, and in 2010, it made a little profit.

In 2011, the company, still Green Bay Pet Food Co. at the time, bought property on Ontario Road in Green Bay. Viegut then purchased the assets of the company and created Carnivore Meat Co. at the end of 2012, creating a privately held family business.

“Our growth really allowed us to fly,” Viegut says. “That’s when … we started increasing 30 to 50 percent year-over-year.”

Carnivore began building more freeze dryers, increasing its international presence and stepping up private label manufacturing. It also created more product offerings, expanding from only chicken and beef to include turkey, duck, rabbit, fish, wild boar, lamb, kangaroo and venison.

Perhaps nothing caused more of a stir in the industry, though, than the company’s VE Raw Bar. By the spring of 2016, Carnivore had developed a reputation as a disruptor and one to watch, and Viegut was feeling the pressure to come up with the next big thing to debut at the Orlando trade show.

Carnivore had sold pet delicacies such as whole turkey necks, beef tendons and rolled salmon skins, packaging them three to a bag. Viegut learned that store owners had been opening the bags, placing individual products in jars and selling 10 times more.

Not wanting to spend money on packaging products that sold better individually, Viegut sought to create a bulk offering. One of his marketing people came up with the idea of calling it Raw Bar, and the company crafted displays complete with a neon bar light.

Viegut contacted vendors and chose 12 items to be included in the Raw Bar and debuted it at the trade show. With crowds swarming to check out the product, it quickly became an all-hands-on-deck situation, with everyone, including Viegut, pitching in.

“That trade show, we were completely swamped,” he says. “People couldn’t go to the bathroom. The aisle was jammed. You couldn’t even get by.”

The freeze-dried products — rabbit ears, duck and chicken necks, twisted cod skins and braided bully sticks — and the innovative display attracted attention. Competitors walked by and said it was the coolest thing they’d ever seen and asked to grab a sample for their own pets.

By August, Carnivore had readied the first 100 Raw Bar kits. In 2017, the company received an industry award for the display, and it has since distributed thousands of the turnkey display kits.

Brian Zeigler owns Zeigler’s Distributors of Lebanon, Pa., which distributes dozens of pet food brands, including Vital Essentials.

“He brought a really different mindset as a vendor to me on how to go to market, how to reach the consumer, how to reach the retailer,” Zeigler says of Viegut.

Today, Carnivore continues to grow and expand. 2018 proved to be a big year for the company, with it investing $6 million in capital improvements to expand its Green Bay production facilities and doubling its freeze-dried production.

The company also received a 2018 Governor’s Export Achievement Award and a Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year Award for global brand growth. The Greater Green Bay Chamber of Commerce has recognized the company multiple times, presenting it with a Manufacturing Award of Distinction, medium category, in 2018 and its Growth Award in 2017.

As the company moves into the future, Viegut aims to continue to grow Carnivore’s workforce and international footprint — it exports to 14 countries — as well as increase awareness and adoption of raw pet food diets. As of now, the segment occupies around 2 percent of the marketplace.

For Viegut, the challenge is part of the joy, and it’s a position he’s comfortable occupying.

“I’ve said to this day, if I’m a coach and there’s a basketball team that was 0-10 last year and one that won the championship, give me the 0-10 team every time,” he says. “The time that’s most fun is when you face the adversity and you’ve got to figure it out. That’s who I am. My greatest gift is resourcefulness.”