The Well Fed Dog heats up gourmet dog food niche

John Edwards of Newton began cooking meals for his dog, Sasha, after discovering she is allergic to chicken.
John Edwards of Newton began cooking meals for his dog, Sasha, after discovering she is allergic to chicken. Credit: Michele McDonald for The Boston Globe

The locally sourced, slow-food movement launched countless farmers markets and high-end grocery stores. Now the trend has hit the dog food shelves.

The Well Fed Dog, launched by Newton resident John Edwards, is among the growing number of companies that are taking a bite out of the gourmet pet food market.

Forget the traditional cans of beef with gravy and chicken and rice. Edwards is aiming for the more discerning canine palate with his beef with sweet potato dinner, and salmon and pumpkin combination. Edwards said the meat, fish, and vegetables he uses are human-grade, produced locally when possible, and cooked in a commercial kitchen where caterers put together dishes for human consumption.

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Dog owners want to feed their pets healthier meals, Edwards said, and some are willing to pay a premium price.

One of the Well Fed Dog’s 16-ounce dinners costs $7.45, compared with a 12-pack of commercial dog food that costs about $13.

“Our dogs are members of our family,” said the 35-year-old Edwards, “and we want to feed them like members of our family.”

Even a pet food stalwart such as Nestle’s Purina, the maker of Alpo, is offering a premium line that boasts rotisserie chicken and braised brisket. And boutique pet food stores such as Boston’s Polka Dog Bakery, and Weruva, a Natick-based company that bills its products as “luxurious, natural pet food,” have popped up throughout the state.

Howard Vinton, an inspector for the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources, said that in 2002 there were about a half-dozen small treat manufacturers registered in Massachusetts. Now, there are more than 30.

Increasingly, they are aiming for natural or organic status, he said.

“You’d swear that some of these dogs eat better than humans,” Vinton said.

On a sweltering day earlier this summer, Edwards set out a bowl of treats — dehydrated lamb hearts (from grass-fed New Hampshire sheep) — at a Boston open market.

Dogs sniffed out the tasty snack, and many pulled their owners to the table where Edwards had his display. After that, it was an easy sale.

Mike McKenna, a Cambridge resident, said he has been trying to feed his dog, Copernicus, more wholesome ingredients, and opting to buy dog food at natural food stores.

But Copernicus doesn’t always cooperate.

“He’s been pretty picky,” said McKenna, who decided to give the Well Fed Dog line a try.

Stacey Monahan of Dorchester started feeding her dog human-grade food after he was diagnosed with renal failure. Monahan bought a new oven and began cooking meals for her pet.

“I can take a little bit of a break,” Monahan said as she bought one of the Well Fed Dog dinners.

Edwards said he ventured into the dog food business because his own pet, Sasha, is allergic to chicken, and he discovered that most off-the-shelf products contained some form of chicken.

Sasha started gaining weight and her coat improved once he started cooking her hamburger and rice and sweet potato meals, Edwards said.

The experience also showed Edwards that “there was a hole in the market.”

So, the father of a toddler gave up his job in banking and started the Well Fed Dog company more than a year ago. Most of his business is online (www.wellfeddog.com) and at farmers markets.

Edwards said his parents were initially skeptical that a gourmet dog food business would take off.

But Edwards said his sales in June were almost four times higher than the same month last year, and indications are that this month’s sales will be even higher.

While it has yet to make enough of a profit to support his family, Edwards said, “the business is growing.”

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