The Raw Deal
By Andrew Snook
Raw pet-food producer keeping pace with growing market demand with high-performance thermoform packaging machinery
Most pet owners will tell you that they feel a deep connection with their animal friends.
And while many people treat them like another member of the family, others go well above and beyond regular pet care to ensure good health for their animal companions.
In the case of Inna Shekhtman, co-founder and chief executive officer of Red Dog Blue Kat, she created an entire line of raw pet foods for dogs and cats to ensure pet owners have a variety of healthy options to feed their animals.
“For me it started with a dog that I had when I was in university,” Shekhtman recalls. “She was a golden retriever-cross, and she was the love of my life.
“And at nine years old, she passed away. She was fine one day, and then she wasn’t.
“I was so shocked and surprised because she was pretty young, and I couldn’t help thinking, ‘What could I have done differently?’
“So, when I got my next adopted dog a few years later in 2003, Adara, an Irish Wolfhound/Great Dane mix, I knew that breed was already predisposed to a lot of health problems and had a very short life-span, so I really wanted to look at what I could do to set her up for longer and healthier life.”
Shekhtman spent a great deal of time researching healthy options for her new dog’s diet. With a background in science, she immersed herself in the study of animal health and nutrition.
At the same time, she met two women at her local dog park, who mentioned they were feeding their dogs raw diets.
“What they explained to me was really simple,” she recounts. “Just like we thrive on less processed food and more fresh foods, the same thing applies to our pets.
“They should not be eating highly processed food, and exactly the same food, every day,” Shekhtman says.
At that time, with Shekhtman working as a software developer, she decided to discuss the potential for a business opportunity with the women she met.
“I went to Linda and Louise, and I said, ‘What if what if we make this?
“You guys have lots of knowledge about how to formulate, I’m willing to learn how to run a business, and nobody else is going to do it.
“Why don’t we do it?’” she recalls.
And just like that, Red Dog Blue Kat was born.
The business started out being run part-time on weekends and evenings at a small warehouse in Coquitlam, B.C.
“We rented a little warehouse and started doing some testing and recipes,” Shekhtman says.
“We got our first three customers under our belt, and it’s become my passion ever since.”
Initially, the warehouse was being shared by six people, but that changed over a relatively short period of time—leaving Shekhtman as the sole owner.
“It was six of us, initially. It was the two ladies, myself, my husband and another couple that was starting a treat business at the same time.
“And so, we were sharing a facility to work together and share some ideas. But after about six months, the couple and my husband dropped out.
“And after about three more years the other two ladies also dropped out, because they continued having their full-time jobs and didn’t really want to be running a business,” Shekhtman explains.
Despite the turnover, the he company has continued to grow and expand, recently moving into its fifth facility since startup.
Today, Red Dog Blue Kat operates out of a modern 12,000-square-foot facility, employing 34 people, producing a high-quality line of products for both dogs and cats, which it sells to various pet specialty retail stores.
“We compete in a very specific category,” Shekhtman relates.
“We don’t sell to Big Box stores or mainstream grocery stores just because it’s a very different channel and a very different customer,” says Shekhtman, citing independent pet stores as the biggest client base, along with specialty pet chains like Pet-Valu, Tail Blazers and Global Pet Foods.
The Coquitlam production facility has two production lines: one for the pre-made meals and another for processing bones.
Recently, Red Dog Blue Kat found itself looking to enhance its packaging operations and move away from manual vacuum sealing.
After doing the research and evaluating the different options to automate their line, the company ultimately decided to purchase the high-performance Variovac Optimus 45 thermoform packaging machine from Reiser.
“The Reiser thermoformer is our first step to really start looking at automation and taking some of the manual steps out of the process,” Shekhtman says.
“Our goal over the next three to four years is to start building off that investment and start automating the processes that align around it.
“Right now, a lot of the steps are still manual.”
As Shekhtman notes, having to rely on a great deal of manual labour is a risky strategy at a time of labour shortages being commonplace across many industries.
“It has certainly been harder than in the past, but we’ve been very lucky in that we have a very good, dedicated support team that’s been with us for some time,” Shekhtman reflects.
“Many of them stayed and continued with us through COVID and afterwards,” she says.
“Although we had to hire a couple people here and there, for the most part we’ve been pretty lucky in being able find people when we needed them.”
Before purchasing the Reiser Variovac Optimus thermoformer, Shekhtman spent years researching the various models and technologies.
“I knew that at some point we would get big enough where the manual packaging and sealing wasn’t going to be effective for us,” she says.
“We had gone to several trade shows, but because the upfront investment in a piece of equipment is pretty high, we had to wait until we got to a certain volume in order to justify that kind of investment.”
In 2019 Shekhtman met up with Alessandro Sestini, industrial sales representative for Reiser Canada in B.C., which prompted her to accelerate her search for the right equipment solution.
“They flew to visit the PACK EXPO show in 2019 and we showed them all the solutions we had,” Sestini recalls. “We quickly established a friendship and showed them we could really help them solve their problems.”
After completing all the due diligence, Red Dog Blue Kat decided to go opted to go with Reiser’s technology in 2021.
According to Shekhtman, one of the main reasons for choosing Reiser was the company’s strong local presence.
“The maintenance of the mechanics for that machine was always going to be a critical issue,” she recalls. “We were going to need support, so having a supplier that was going to be in another province, or even in another country would be problematic.
“We really wanted somebody local to hold our hand through this process a little bit,” Shekhtman says. “Reiser also had experience with packaging pet food in this format, so that was a really big asset for us to learn from other people’s experiences through them.”
Manufactured in Germany, Reiser’s Variovac Optimus thermoformer is designed to be simple to operate with its three-button operation (Start, Stop, Reset); E-stop; flexible programmability; recipe management storage; full-colour ten-inch touchscreen; and optional remote diagnostics.
Constructed with a stainless-steel frame, the self-supported machine is also designed with easy access for cleaning; quick changeover times; a small footprint; and non-proprietary parts, with additional features including:
- Available web widths of 320 mm, 360 mm, 420 mm and 460 mm;
- Up to 400 mm advance and up to 100 mm package depth;
- Available for packaging types with flexible and semi-rigid films and MAP, vacuum and skin pack;
- Up to 13 cycles per minute (shallow vacuum packs), 30 per cent faster than competitors thank to the patented Rapid Air System.
As Shekhtman relates, “Our goal was kind of three-fold.
“We obviously wanted to improve the efficiencies internally and make this a simpler, more automated process.
“But we also made wanted to make the packaging more convenient to use,” Shekhtman points out.
“With vacuum bags, for example, customers found that they had to cut the bag and shake the product out, and that would often get sticky and messy.
Another issue the company was looking to address was better packaging for smaller dogs.
“It was harder to portion because it was in half-pound portions, so going smaller was more difficult with a vacuum bag.
“We wanted to make it easier to portion and easier to use,” Shekhtman says.
“We also wanted to save time and kind of revamp the packaging a little bit to give it some marketing hooks, because our boxes are literally just plain brown.”
Red Dog Blue Kat surveyed many of its customers and received some helpful feedback for what they wanted to see, which confirmed the need for a package redesign.
“I think we hit a really good model that we have switched over to. We’re finding it’s really helping us sell the product better and really make it stand out on the shelf,” Shekhtman says.
“We ended up creating a very unique quarter-pound tray package. It’s a one-pound tray with four quarter-pound portions. It’s individually sealed, so it makes the portioning for the smaller pets and for cats way easier.”
Thanks to the Reiser Variovac Optimus thermoformer, the company was also able to add an easy-peel top to its quarter-pound, one pound and two-pound packages.
“That made it really easy to open and get the product out of the package with less mess and just focused on making it easy to do the whole feeding process,” Shekhtman says.
Hanif Muljani, operations manager for Red Dog Blue Kat, says one of the big advantages of the thermoformer is the ease with which they can switch dies from a one-pound package to a two-pound package, and vice-versa.
“It’s a very customizable and configurable machine,” he says, adding that the film does not need to be changed during the changeover.
“To move from one-pound to two-pound packages, an operator just needs to cut the current tray out and remove the die with four stainless steel plates, forming a deeper tray, and adjust the vacuum setting to support the two-pound tray,” Muljani explains.
“So, the process of switching from one pound to two pounds, or two pounds to one pound, is actually very quick. On average, it takes about two to three minutes to make a transition. The installation of the thermoformer required significant planning, as it was the first automatic piece of equipment to be installed at the facility.
“It was a pretty big change to our process,” Shekhtman says.
“There was a lot of planning of where to put it, how to locate it, how to make the whole line flow… a huge shift from what we were doing.”
“We literally had to change everything about our process, including how we portion, how we label, and so on,” she recalls. “We encountered a few challenges that had us go back to Reiser for to get some guidance.”
All in all, it took about three months for Red Dog Blue Kat’s employees to get used to all the nuances of the thermoformer and all the changes to procedure that came with its installation, but everything is running smoothly now.
The automated packaging line couldn’t have been installed at a better time, as the level of competition in this industry has been on the rise in recent years.
“It’s getting more and more competitive,” Shekhtman says. “When we first started, there was a handful of smaller manufacturers and not a lot of larger players in this industry, because it was still pretty niche,” Shekhtman says.
“In the last five years, we’re starting to see more larger manufacturers that are selling across Canada and even trying to get into the U.S.
“There is also more U.S. brands coming across the border into Canada and, we’re seeing a lot more consolidation and M&A type of activity, specifically around the ‘raw’ space.”
Shekhtman says the raw pet food market makes up approximately five per cent of the pet food industry these days, compared to 0.5 percent when her company was formed.
“It’s grown quite a bit and, of course, the competition has grown,” she says.
“And unfortunately, because it’s unregulated in Canada, there’s very few barriers to start up.
“You can literally start making it in your garage, and there’s nobody to say that that’s not okay, or you need to do X, Y, and Z to get started.
“It’s different in the U.S., where they have the FDA regulating the pet industry, but it’s still kind of Wild West in Canada, where there’s a lot of small players that are constantly popping up.”
According to Shekhtman, one of the biggest challenges for the raw pet food segment today is getting veterinarians comfortable with raw meat diets.
“Because we are feeding raw meat as a ready-to-eat product, and there’s no cooking, there’s a limited amount of things we can do for pathogen control in order to be able to ensure that the product is safe,” she says.
“And unfortunately, a lot of manufacturers don’t have the safety programs in place to provide that kind of assurance.”
Despite the increased competition, Red Dog Blue Kat continues to offer a unique brand that stands out for different reasons—with high product quality and HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) certification chief among them.
“It puts us above everybody else, at least in Canada,” Shekhtman proclaims.
“I would say we have the best quality and safety program in Canada for the raw pet foods,” Shekhtman says. “The other thing that makes us unique is our food philosophy is really focused on the nutritional value of the food,” she adds.
“We don’t use any synthetic or added supplements.”
Red Dog Blue Kat also relies on a team of experts to help guide the company to ensure its meeting the high standards it sets for itself.
“We have a veterinarian on staff, and our QA (quality assurance) manager is a microbiologist.,” she states.
“We even joke that we have a chef on the team, because one of the people in our team is an actual chef, who is very aware of the safety and the quality issues, and how to inspect food properly.
The company also has a strong focus on sourcing its raw meats and vegetables from reliable suppliers.
“All of our suppliers are aligned with our focus on quality and ethics for how to raise animals and treat them well,” Shekhtman says, adding she is very proud to operate a successful Canadian-based business.
“We’re very proud of being Canadian,” she concludes, “and even though we’re growing, we always want to have that very personal feel for all of our customers by making ourselves accessible and to help teach pet parents how to have a better, healthier relationship with their children.”