Kendra Locke and Corene Petitpren first met while on healthcare assignments in Michigan, where they frequently saw each other walking their dogs. The lifelong animal lovers are now married and living in Cape Coral – where their four-legged friends are at the center of their burgeoning business, The K9 Kitchen.
It all started when they were working in California several years ago and watched their dog walker make his own dog food. They wanted out of health care (they worked in sterile processing in operating rooms) and thought something related to dogs would be a good move. So they started playing around with their own dog food recipes and trying them out on their pets.
“We were noticing a huge difference just by removing kibble and adding fresh fruits and vegetables,” says Locke, 40. “Their energy level has improved; our black dog got rid of his dandruff. That’s kind of when it clicked and we were like, let’s do a dog food business.
It took a lot of research and a lot of trial and error to grow the business, but today The K9 Kitchen is poised to do great things. He now sells his all-natural, antibiotic-, hormone-, and steroid-free fresh dog food nationwide through his website (thek9kitchenllc.com) and is putting various elements in place for future growth.
“Our tagline is ‘for the love of dogs,’ and we make this really healthy food out of them because they give us so much love,” Locke says. “That’s why we do it. We don’t want to be the biggest company; we just want to be the best. We are not here to be millionaires. We’re here to help dogs lead healthier lives.
Meet the challenges
Locke and Petitpren started by going to LegalZoom and creating a business name, then researching dog food and labeling requirements. “We basically learned along the way,” says Locke.
Their veterinarian recommended that they contact a veterinary nutritionist to help them refine their recipes. After researching options, they chose one based in North Carolina. Locke and Petitpren provided the ingredients they wanted to use, and the veterinary nutritionist made sure the recipes were nutritionally balanced and completely safe for dogs. “It’s great, super expensive but so worth it,” Locke says.
Then there were all the registrations and licenses required to run the business. Locke and Petitpren originally self-funded everything with their savings. K9 Kitchen was officially launched in September 2019, and the company kicked off sales in January 2020 by selling its two dog food recipes at four Southwest Florida Farmers’ Markets.
“We don’t want to be the biggest company; we just want to be the best. We are not here to be millionaires. We’re here to help dogs lead healthier lives. Kendra Locke, The K9 Kitchen
It was a modest starting approach that made perfect sense at the time. But then the pandemic, of course, stopped everything. “The world turned around and we had to decide whether we were going to close the business or move forward?” said Locke.
They decided to use this period when markets were closed to come up with a third dog food recipe. two kinds of dog treats; and six flavors of “pup-sicles”. “We just took that time and sent everything to the veterinary nutritionist, had all the labels made, and registered every product through the Florida Department of Agriculture,” says Locke. “By the time we were able to start releasing again, we had more products to offer. So COVID really hurt us, but it helped us at the same time.
The company has developed loyal customers. But sales weren’t as strong as they should have been to sustain the business. K9 Kitchen had a website, but it didn’t work as well as it should have. So last summer, Locke and Petitpren found themselves at a turning point: they had to assess the viability of their business.
They began the store closing process, removing the company’s website and Google listing. But when a regular customer could no longer find them online, she called them and asked if Locke and Petitpren would be willing to speak with her and her husband about their business.
“We had never seen these people; they just placed orders,” says Locke. During their phone call, the husband asked questions such as why they started the business and what kind of equipment they needed. “I was like, what does this guy mean?” Locke recalls. “Then they said, ‘We are investors. Don’t close the business. Here is a large sum of money to keep it open.
The arrangement is still in the testing phase and investors prefer to stay on the sidelines. But if all goes well, they will put a formal plan in place. “Basically, the ball is in our court,” Locke says.
K9 Kitchen currently prepares and cooks its products at the Florida Culinary Accelerator in Immokalee. Her chicken, beef, and turkey recipes are all made with fresh human-grade meat, grains, fruits, and vegetables. “You could take a bite of any of our foods,” Locke says.
The company uses ingredients from local farms whenever possible and strives to have its products certified as organic. “I want people to know that when they see our logo or see The K9 Kitchen, they know it’s quality,” says Petitpren, 52. “Kendra and I work hard to keep chemicals out of our food. That’s why all the meats we use are free of steroids, hormones and antibiotics. We love dogs and want more years to their already short lives – happy, healthy years.
The business will soon be moving to a larger space at the Culinary Accelerator when another business moves. This will give Locke, Petitpren and their part-timer more space to prepare and store food – important since everything is made fresh and without preservatives – and also allow them to ship orders from the commercial kitchen. (Currently this is done from the owners home.) The relationship with the investor includes the ability to find space and set up the company’s own commercial kitchen at some point on the road.
There is a huge potential market for the company. According to data from the American Pet Products Association, 69 million American households have a dog as a pet. And it’s estimated that pet owners spent $44.1 billion on pet food and treats in 2021.
Locke and Petitpren declined to provide specific revenue figures. But from December 2021 to the end of February, website sales increased by 261%, email subscribers increased by 436%, Facebook engagement increased by 115%, and Facebook followers increased by 11%. “Over the last few months we’ve definitely grown, which is just awesome,” says Locke.
A new focus on marketing efforts is helping to drive this growth and introduce the company’s products to more people. In 2021, The K9 Kitchen began working with Jennifer Leach, president of Screaming Fans Marketing in Naples. “They had already created a great line of products and they had loyal customers, but they were really struggling to get the message out to a wider audience,” says Leach.
Since then, the company has conducted pricing analysis, revamped and improved its website, and created new branding materials to better market itself. “We had to present our message to everyone in a clear and consistent way,” says Leach. “That way people who see us can understand the brand and what it’s all about…Getting our message clear and consistent has really been a big part of helping shoppers understand the benefits of The K9 Kitchen, how to buy it and why they should buy it.
The company is also launching a new program to partner with social media influencers. “We know The K9 Kitchen customers are big fans,” says Leach. “So we wanted to give these people a way to spread the word and earn a little bit while they’re doing it.”
Locally, K9 Kitchen products are sold at Farmer Joe’s in Cape Coral, several Dog Perfect stores, Little Paws Bakery in Fort Myers, and Burnt Store Animal Hospital in Punta Gorda. Darlene Sumner, owner of Little Paws Bakery and certified canine nutritionist, appreciates that The K9 Kitchen dog food is human grade and made with high quality ingredients.
“They’ve made the effort to find the most nutritious sources for their food, and it’s formulated and balanced,” she says. “You can’t have a healthy dog if you don’t feed it healthy food. I love that they’re local and I love helping small businesses because I’m a small business.
“It’s nice to know the science is behind it all, so you know your dog is getting complete nutrition,” adds Nicole Kenedy, Principal Director of Dog Perfect. “What I tell a lot of people… is yes, you spend more money on their food [than with traditional dry or canned dog food]. But you don’t spend money on sickness. So with a fresh or raw diet or a good half and half mix, your dogs are less prone to allergies and less prone to stomach upsets. They have reduced shedding and cleaner teeth. There are many benefits to feeding fresh.
Now, with the company’s improved website and ability to serve customers nationwide (excluding Alaska and Hawaii), the future looks bright. “Since we built the new website and launched it, it’s been gaining more and more traction every month and sales are increasing,” says Leach. “I have very high hopes for them.”