Healthier pet treats: All Talk, with lots of bite

Pet project: The death of a beloved family pet convinced two Long Island entrepreneurs that, in the world of pet treats, there had to be a better way.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

It doesn’t exactly figure that a retired caterer and a longtime electrician specializing in concert stage lighting would craft a small-business success story focused on pet treats.

But Margaret and Bruce McDonough loved their dog. And when the poor pup passed away too soon, and the culprit was determined to be what Margaret McDonough described as “chicken products from China,” the mission basically presented itself.

It was actually Margaret who founded Talk Treats to Me, a Lindenhurst-based startup that aims to keep Rover – and a host of other best friends, ranging from cats to ferrets to horses – in the pink with wholesome, single-ingredient treats made from nothing but meat and veggies.

That means no additives and no preservatives, according to McDonough – just dehydrated “human-quality food” that’s as safe for pet owners as it is for pets (and yes, she notes, pet owners have been known to nibble on certain selections).

While the startup started dishing out its wares in 2013, its history actually dates back to 2011, when the couple lost their yellow lab, Saoirse. Upon determining that it was those nasty, imported pet treats that sickened their beloved canine, the entrepreneurs recognized both a calling and an opportunity.

McDonough, whose catering career focused mainly on private parties, quickly leveraged her professional contacts, including connections with Bohemia-based Restaurant Depot and Farmingdale-based Crescent Packing Co., self-billed as “Long Island’s largest wholesale meat distributor.”

Their plan: Freshly sourced single-ingredient products that did for pet treats what the organic-food movement has done for people.

“We’re dealing completely with people food,” McDonough told Innovate LI. “All we do is slice it and dehydrate it. We don’t add preservatives, we don’t add anything – just pure human food, pure meat, pure vegetables.”

That dehydration aspect accounted for the entrepreneurs’ single-biggest business expense. McDonough estimates they sunk about $20,000 into a “dehydration machine.”

Within a couple of years – including additional electricity needs generated by their home-based business, packaging arrangements made with Copiague-based graphic arts supplier JAF Converters and other business-formation expenses – McDonough figures the self-investment was closer to $70,000.

Pigging out: But that’s OK, because they’re healthier than typical pet snacks.

At home, that ante appeared to be paying off: The couple’s other dog, Miss Lilly, approved wholeheartedly of their efforts.

So, the innovators began selling their wares at farmer’s markets across Long Island. At one such market, a veterinarian approached the couple and told them, “You’re on the right path,” according to McDonough. “So we kept going with it.”

Word-of-mouth advertising and those early localized successes led to new opportunities. Soon, Talk Treats to Me was a mainstay at weekly farmer’s markets in Riverhead, Montauk, East Hampton and Westhampton – “There’s more money out there,” McDonough noted – and the entrepreneurs were thinking in bigger pictures.

Today, the wholesome treats grace shelves in 65 brick-and-mortar stores between Montauk and New York City, and the husband-and-wife duo is working to build up Talk Treats to Me’s mail-order business – including a recent, first-ever mailing to Hawaii, McDonough noted.

But they’ve been careful to stick to their original mantra, even if that’s meant eschewing potentially gonzo opportunities. Talk Treats to Me turned away a jerky company that wanted to enter a lucrative distribution arrangement because “they wanted to add spray-on preservatives to speed up the process,” McDonough noted.

The startup also refused to be featured on a pet-food blog that had a Petco advertisement on its website.

“I refuse to deal with companies like Petco, PetSmart or Purina,” McDonough said. “Those are the companies that promote all the garbage, the crappiest foods.

“If you look at what they sell, especially in their freezer departments, there’s got to be 25 ingredients in there,” she added. “And I don’t even know what half of them are.”

Instead, the McDonoughs have continued to rely on word of mouth and work the regional farmer’s market circuit, though they’re now looking to stretch their legs. McDonough said she’s planning to attend pet-food shows across the country – including upcoming conventions in Orlando, Las Vegas and New York City – while “concentrating more on our mailings.”

Team effort: Maggie-made, Lilly-approved.

She’s also “in the process of hiring a couple of marketing people,” a payroll expansion that’s likely to happen “within the next couple of months.”

They’re very happy with their current product selection, including a doggie ice cream that breaks the one-ingredient mold – but only to add healthy probiotics and a harmless thickening agent – and a selection of vegetable and fruit selections, such as watermelon, pineapple and yam treats.

Some of those have proven popular with horses, according to McDonough, who pitched the products in person for several years in a row at the Hamptons Classic Horse Show.

“They like the beats and yams,” she said, noting the organic treats are a healthier alternative for horses who might otherwise be fed sugary candies – and wind up battling diabetes.

Other products are hitting it off with cats and ferrets – enough that Talk Treats to Me is in the process of moving its headquarters permanently to Hampton Bays, where the McDonoughs are currently searching for a larger space with enough room for multiple dehydration machines.

“Every dollar we get basically goes back into [the business],” the founder noted. “And somehow, we’re able to make it work.”

While she’s hardly shocked that the one-ingredient wonders are popular with pets, the entrepreneur does admit to some mild surprise regarding the popularity of Talk Treats to Me selections among pet owners, who are often spotted biting into those veggie varieties.

“I have to tell them that we’re only insured for the dogs,” McDonough noted. “But what you do when you leave our table is your business.”

Talk Treats to Me

What’s It? Single-ingredient, wholesome pet treats

Brought To You By: Margaret McDonough and her husband, Bruce, who loved their dog

All In: About $70,000, self-invested, including a $20,000 “dehydration machine”

Status: Delighting dogs, cats, horses and even people, via farmer’s markets and select stores

 


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