Chloe and Justin with their rescue dogs, who are first to taste test any new product
Family-owned business The Innocent Pet is home to the Innocent Hound, Innocent Cat, Innocent Rabbit and Innocent Guinea ranges of luxury hand-made, air-dried, grain-free treats ‚Äď but there have been a couple of heart-stopping moments in its five-year history!
When a treat takes 10 days to be air-dried so the consistency and texture is perfect, you know this is not some run-of-the-mill, churn-them-out at 20,000-treats-a-minute manufacturer. And that‚Äôs before considering the human-grade, grain-free ingredients (including MSC-certified salmon, Scottish venison, lamb and Red Tractor-assured chicken and duck) or the fact that they are hand made. But at The Innocent Pet, home to The Innocent range of natural treats for dogs, cats, rabbits and guinea pigs, this is the norm.
Managing director Chloe Heaton said: ‚ÄúWe are a considered purchase and a premium brand.
And yes, while many products are in the dryer for between two and seven days, some products can take up to 10 days.‚ÄĚ
And this is how sausages are made
The majority of the ingredients they use arrive fresh or frozen, and every stage of manufacture is logged and batch coded to ensure full traceability, said husband and fellow director Justin. ‚ÄúThere is not a mechanised process that can do what we do,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúOur products can be handled up to 10 times. From weighing, putting into mincer, making into sausages which might then be sliced before being hand wrapped, everything we do is hand made and handled.‚ÄĚ
Because their treats are individually made, The Innocent Pet never guarantees uniformity of aspects such as colour, and staff carry out very strict quality checks and reject any that do not meet their high standards¬† ‚Äď these are given to charities or sent to its factory outlet.
Finished product is racked up, ready for the dryer
‚ÄúAnd this is why this will always be a luxury, hand-made product,‚ÄĚ he added. If you think about it, he said, what they do is similar to the age-old technique of drying kippers, but they‚Äôve simply used a commercial way of managing the airflow across a product.
‚ÄúUltimately, we have a raw product with a 12-month shelf-life that is good for raw feeders.‚ÄĚ
The company was set up in 2013, but Chloe and Justin gave the brand a refresh in April. Among the changes was a move from plastic tubs to pouches as the latter can be packed more efficiently and has stronger on-shelf presence and impact ‚Äď the switch to pouches also means cutting plastic use by 73%. When customers pick up a pouch to look at the ingredients on the back, a clear window shows the product within.
Packaging also has a hook option so retailers can hang the product, and there are now training cards for retailers with full product information to deal with customer queries. In the pipeline are leaflets and other Point of Sale material. ‚ÄúOur RRP was also high due to our quality compared to other products, but we were able to adjust this and retailers can now offer a more competitive price,‚ÄĚ said Chloe.
You‚Äôve got to be flexible
The business moved to its premises in Wetherby, Leeds, 18 months ago after out-growing its first site in Ripon. The new unit was literally just brick walls, so they were able to fit it out completely to their own specifications. With a 10-year contract and at four times the size of the old premises, this factory is large enough to deal with increasing sales, which are growing 30% year on year. ‚ÄúThe factory is like a Meccano set,‚ÄĚ said Justin. ‚ÄúNothing is permanently fixed, so we can move walls around if need be. It means we can be as flexible as needed.‚ÄĚ
A new look for The Innocent Pet
Their freezer can hold about 12 pallets ‚Äď they‚Äôre already talking about getting another. Frozen meat is defrosted in the fridge before being minced twice, with herbs and other ingredients added during the second go. The mince is turned into sausages which are then dried in one of the five dryers.
‚ÄúOh, we‚Äôre here seven days a week, even if it‚Äôs just to check the dryers on a Sunday,‚ÄĚ said Chloe.
Both Chloe and Justin moved north from London when Justin found work in Yorkshire, and Chloe took a four-year career break when they had their two children, who are now eight and six ‚Äď the children love coming into the factory and have their own whiteboard where they enjoy drawing. But before the children arrived, there was Bongo, their rescue lurcher who is now 11 years old ‚Äď they used to make treats for him in the shape of biscuits and cakes. He was their first child, they say.
Once the children were old enough, Chloe took the leap of faith and started her own business making good-quality British sausages for dogs. These were made by a third-party, but within months the supplier shut down. ‚ÄúWe had two choices,‚ÄĚ she said, ‚Äúdo we shut down or do we manufacture ourselves? Being a manufacturer was never the plan!‚ÄĚ
Sometimes in life, said Justin, you have to take a risk.
The Heatons turned to Ken Stirk (former technical director at Burgess, who Justin got to know when he worked for the pet food manufacturer) and Chloe got in touch with the MD of their ‚Äėlocal butchers‚Äô Sykes House Farm, a third-generation butcher which supplies meat and sausages to restaurants, hotels and caterers around the country. She said: ‚ÄúKen, Rob and us then got together and we started the factory in Ripon. Rob taught us how to make sausages and Ken helped with the pet food licence and that side of things, and it all just grew from there.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúFor a business that is five years old, we have between us the best part of 60 years‚Äô pet experience, and then there‚Äôs all the manufacturing experience that comes from Rob,‚ÄĚ said Justin.
Both remember their first-ever batch of sausages, which they took to a local dog show. ‚ÄúFrom those 100 packs five years ago we have now grown to a 10-year lease and 10 employees,‚ÄĚ he added.
Initially a few boutique shops in London, Pet Pavilion and Scampers Natural Pet Store took on their product, but it was not long before wholesalers came calling. As demand grew, the luxury product range expanded to include treats offering functional benefits, such as Joint Support with turmeric and black pepper, Skin & Coat Support with aloe vera and spirulina, and Dental Support with aniseed and citrus extract.
Both keep an eye on human trends. ‚ÄúChloe and I can have a chat about something new and we will try and have a go, launch it and see how it goes. For instance there are lots of pet owners in the area, so we can carry out sampling exercises.‚ÄĚ
With growth comes new equipment, and the latest kid on the block is a more efficient slicing machine that can slice thick and thin slices, and at 300kg an hour compared to the 50kg of its predecessor. ‚ÄúPart of the journey is as we grow, we have to find new solutions,‚ÄĚ said Justin.
‚ÄúOur staff are also great,‚ÄĚ said Chloe. ‚ÄúThey are trained in all areas and can cross over, everyone can help out wherever. We are all passionate about our product.‚ÄĚ
Spreading the word
One of the main goals for the next 12 months is to focus on brand awareness and to get the products in front of pet retailers, garden centres and pet owners. Part of that strategy is to ramp up their social media and website activity ‚Äď they were delighted when a recent Facebook posting asking for nominations of charities to receive their treats hit 296,000!
The other tactic is to attend more consumer shows ‚Äď they‚Äôve already committed to four large equestrian events as 80% of horse owners have dogs. ‚ÄúWe are trying a range of things and seeing what works and what does not for our brand,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a mix of enticing people to try the product in a sustainable manner.‚ÄĚ
A number of new launches are also planned for the next 12 months, and multi-dog households will be pleased with the larger bulk bags of 500g and 600g compared to the 70g pouches. ‚ÄúWe have lots of great ideas and are showing strong, positive growth,‚ÄĚ he added. ‚ÄúThere will be new treats and interesting, novel products to come.‚ÄĚ
Exports are slowly gaining traction, and there have been a few enquiries from Europe. ‚ÄúThere is a whole world out there, and there is lots of exciting stuff we want to do,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúNothing should be taken away from what Chloe has done,‚ÄĚ he added. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs her drive and passion and tenacity that has driven this forward. It was a huge risk to move from the old factory to here, it was a risk to start our own manufacture, but you make your own luck in life.‚ÄĚ
Everyone steps in and helps each other out when necessary