Fido is Living Large in LA

Fido is Living Large in LA

Investors may be putting to rest the debate over the dog’s place at the dinner table. 

Hollywood-based dog food startup Jinx Inc. secured a meaty $17.8 million in a Series B financing round last month and has plans to expand the distribution of a product that puts desiccated kibble to shame. 

While a number of local startups are trying to collar the pooch-pampering business, Jinx is already generating revenue at two of the largest retail chains in the country: Target Corp. and Walmart Inc. But this financing hopes to clear some additional shelf room, primarily in grocery outlets such as Albertsons LLC and Safeway Inc., accentuating the growing trend of “humanizing” pet products by putting four-legged food in the same cart as, well, human food.

According to Terri Rockovich, co-founder and chief executive of Jinx, the company’s food falls into the premium category, targeting a growing population of consumers willing to shell out more for their pet – one with a refined palate for, say, salmon and sweet potato kibble.

“There’s no limit to how wide they’re willing to open their wallet,” she said. 

Rockovich’s claim is backed by the American Pet Products Association. The group tracks its own sector’s demand, and over the past four years the amount spent on pets in the United States increased to $137 billion last year from $90.5 billion in 2018, an increase of more than 50%.

The jump can in part be attributed to simply more pet owners in the country, with nearly one in five households bringing home an animal during the pandemic, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. 

Still, many consumers may not fully grasp the concept that dogs can have acquired tastes, and the type of customer that Rockovich targets has the time and money to switch up what their dog eats every day. Jinx offers “toppers” to add to its kibble – selling the image of a dog owner sprinkling freeze-dried salmon over a pet’s food as a chef would finish a plate with parsley. 

The largest bag of Jinx’s dry food costs twice as much as the average kibble found in large pet retail chains, with a 23.5 pound order rounding out at $65. For meal toppers and wet-food pouches, prices range from $4 to $22 – but these are single meal offerings.

“It’s that humanization thing, like we’re integrating them into our family,” Rockovich said. “We really want to treat them like they’re a member of the family and do that through connecting over food and experiences.” 

Posh pooches 

Jinx joins several players tapping the kind of pet parents with perhaps too much time, and money, on their hands. 

HelloFresh SE, the food delivery service that soared to popularity in the pandemic, launched “The Pets Table” in August, offering customized, veterinarian-approved recipes to cater to the specific caloric needs of individual dogs.

Legacy players, such as Purina pet food brand owner Nestlé S.A. and candymaker Mars Inc., are doubling down on the space, both announcing significant research and development budgets to develop higher-quality pet food. 

The pet-pampering phenomenon is not new – countless “Real Housewives” episodes featuring Pomeranians stuffed in Louis Vuitton bags prove this. But Jinx joins dozens of other companies betting on animal coddling behavior becoming mainstream, a world in which consumers no longer receive side-eye glares for rolling their pups through the streets in strollers.

The global pet economy is gearing up to experience exponential growth, with forecasts pointing to a surge of more than 50% in the coming years, according to Bloomberg Intelligence’s Pet Economy Report, which was released in March. 

The report emphasizes the increasing expenditure on sophisticated drugs and treatments alongside abundant pampering. Furthermore, the pet food segment remains the largest category, with projections indicating a potential increment of 52%, amounting to over $135 billion by 2030.

For Airvet Inc., a Beverly Hills-based veterinarian telehealth company, the industry’s resilience garnered interest from investors looking for a safe haven amid risky tech ventures. The company announced a $18.2 Series B round in May and pivoted to a business-to-business model. 

Airvet previously offered virtual vet care straight to consumers. Now, the company is partnering with employers like Adobe Inc. and Ceridian HCM Inc. to offer employee-sponsored benefits for pet parents. According to Airvet’s founder and chief executive officer Brandon Werber, this B2B venture validates how pets have become publicly accepted members of American households.

Photo shoots

Photographer Sarah DeRemer directs a Pitbull outfitted in a sweater vest to face a sleek backdrop. After a “sit” command followed by the required “good boy,” DeRemer steps back and calls the dog’s name. 

What her lens captured was the kind of overt-the-shoulder pose pirated straight off of a Vogue cover. The glance, towing the line of casual and flirtatious, proved how this Pitbull achieved professional modeling status for the brand shelling out thousands for the shoot.

DeRemer’s Sarah DeRemer Photography has been working with these kinds of photogenic brand ambassadors as a professional dog photographer for six years. She’s done high-end shoots for national pet brands like Rover Inc. and Culver City-based Healthy Spot LLC, but it’s the private clients paying $650 an hour that call for the most outlandish of photoshoots.

DeRemer is a part of this city’s “dogfluencer” culture catalyzing modern pet parents’ spending habits. .

Think CBD-infused treats made with Greek yogurt icing to calm a yappy Yorkie that can’t keep it together on the Fourth of July. Or fish oil supplements for the cat lady nervous about her feline’s gut health. Those are but two examples of how local companies capitalize on consumers channeling emotions and preferences for their pets.

The industry calls it anthropomorphizing, consumers assigning their own thoughts and emotions to their pets. Metal cages and bland kibble are scrapped for products owners believe are of higher quality and comfort, believing that their furry friend will be made happier and healthier by all of the attention.

DogDrop Inc., a canine daycare company built on this trend, entered the scene in 2020 and is opening its third outpost in Hollywood this week. Incubated and invested by the Santa Monica-based venture investment firm Science Inc., this startup charges as much as $700 a month for members to have unlimited access to its services.

DogDrop has an outpost in the Arts District and another franchise location in Denver. 

Elevated experiences

“L.A. consumers are trained for this level of customer experience, this level of professionalism, standardization,” said Shaina Denny, co-founder and chief executive officer of DogDrop. “That’s really why L.A.’s interesting.”

Denny and her co-founder, Greer Wilk, believe Angelenos are accustomed to “elevated” service experiences, where gyms like Equinox Inc. offer spa-like amenities and the grocery outlets such as Downtown-based Erewhon operate smoothie counters fit for influencer-photo backdrops. 

It’s the modern convenience driven by direct-to-doorstop shopping habits exacerbated by the pandemic. The mobile-grooming service Barkbus LLC, operating out of Woodland Hills, has quintupled its fleet over the past two years, with 60 salons-on-wheels now on the road in three different states.

“The convenience is the key,” said Jeff Safenowitz, chief executive officer of Barkbus. “Just knowing and having that peace of mind that your baby’s in good hands, I think that’s key.”

Safenowitz meant what he said when he uses “baby” to describe Barkbus’s customer base. Similar to DogDrop, his company sends custom photo updates to owners while their dogs go through a makeover. According to Safenowitz, the move assures clients their pets are in a “good mood,” and it puts its company branding front and center when the photos are put on social media.

BarkBus, DogDrop, and Jinx have amassed substantial social media followings by using sleek packaging and puppy photo campaigns, turning millennial audiences into paying customers. 

In a city defined by its dog-friendly restaurant policies and populated by a growing millennial population putting off having kids to keep the pooch happy, the growth of these startups signals investor optimism for a doggy dog world.

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