Lance Castro, left, and Guy Miracle, owners of the Modern Dog in Venice,… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)
Organic, raw and even gluten-free food choices aren't just for people anymore.
These options are showing up at local pet shops that are looking to distinguish themselves from big-box competitors. After a slowdown in sales of premium-priced food during the recession, independent pet shops said the sector was recovering.
At the Modern Dog, a boutique in a Venice bungalow, co-owner Lance Castro was looking to add two new brands of freeze-dried raw food and premium kibble to the seven he already sells.
"It's done wonders for our business," said Castro, who opened the Abbot Kinney Boulevard store with Guy Miracle five years ago.
The store's popular Sojos dehydrated dog food mix of sweet potatoes, turkey, apples and flax meal, among other ingredients, costs $21.99 for a 2-pound bag, to which water is added to make 10 pounds of food.
Castro said he was looking at sites for a second location where he plans to have a refrigeration unit for fresh and frozen raw-food brands.
Nationwide, annual retail sales of organic and natural pet food are expected to grow three times as fast as pet food sales overall through 2015, according to an industry report to be released this week by the Packaged Facts market research company.
Industry analyst David Lummis, who wrote the report, estimated that natural and organics would grow 12% a year on average, hitting $2.8 billion in 2015. By comparison, he expects an average 4% annual growth rate for the entire pet food market over the same period. Overall pet food sales will reach $22.1 billion in 2015, Lummis said.
"People are treating their dog food like some people are treating their baby food," said Todd Martin, vice president of marketing for Castor & Pollux Pet Works, a Clackamas, Ore., company that makes organic pet food and treats. "They want to know it's safe, and they want to know it's quality."
Still, organic pet food — which costs as much as 30% more than non-organic — remains a tiny part of the overall market.
Many independent shops, which are in the vanguard of the organic food sector, got a boost in business in 2007 when pets died from eating food that contained imported wheat gluten and rice protein contaminated with melamine. The poisonous contaminant even showed up in some brands sold as being natural.
As with food for people, there are no regulations governing the word "natural" on pet food labels. But pet foods marketed as organic must meet the same U.S. Department of Agriculture standards as human food in the category, according to USDA spokesperson Soo Kim.
Annual sales of organic pet food increased tenfold from 2002 to 2009, when sales hit $84 million, according to the Organic Trade Assn.
Now that organics are becoming more popular, some large pet store chains are also carrying them, said Joan Storms, an analyst at Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles.
But the more exotic raw and organic pet food is still mostly the province of independent shops.
Neal Massa is co-owner of My Pet Naturally in West Los Angeles, where customers can find raw elk meat for $7.49 a pound and raw chicken and lamb for Fido for about $4 a pound.
"My clientele are probably mostly single, more single women than not, and what I am finding is that these are their kids," Massa said, referring to his customers' pets. "So you are going to spend a little bit more money for pet food."