For nutrition’s sake, Benji comes home

Family business: Allison and Rocky Graziose, with corporate namesake Benji.

A “side gig” for a nutrition-minded professional couple – he’s a botanist, she’s a health teacher – could be the best thing to happen to your best friend’s tummy in a long while, and maybe his breath.

In love with their springer-spaniel Benji but not thrilled with the nutritional choices provided by retail-grade pet foods or specialty brands, health and physical education teacher Allison Graziose (master’s of education, Stony Brook University) and her husband, plant doctor Rocky Graziose (PhD in botany, Rutgers University), turned to science.

“We saw a gap in the market for the kind of product we wanted to give him,” Rocky Graziose told Innovate LI. “We just couldn’t find it. With our backgrounds, we thought we could make something better.”

benjis-logo-2What’s missing from conventional dog foods, Graziose added, is plants. Even organic brands mix meats into virtually every menu selection, and while the couple has no problem serving Benji’s carnivorous side – “We’re not against meat in any way, shape or form,” Graziose noted – they do believe dogs should eat their veggies.

“Products for dogs rely heavily on meat,” Graziose said. “But dogs, like humans, can benefit from including plants in their diet.

“We feed our dog meat,” he added. “But we think there are benefits that come from plants that aren’t completely realized.”

So the botanist combined his plant powers with his wife’s nutritional expertise and started experimenting. Working primarily in their own kitchen, they tinkered with various combinations of dietary fibers, vitamins, minerals and other vital nutrients, “all the traditional things you think of,” Graziose noted, “when you choose a stick of broccoli over a steak.”

Although it was “always a side gig, and kind of still is,” according to Graziose, the couple and several friends – including nurse practitioner Kristina O’Neil and her chemical engineer husband, Jason – realized they might be on to something. With Benji and the O’Neils’ dog, Lucy, serving as testers, the experimental entrepreneurs ultimately produced six vegan dog treats, each with its own specific benefits.

In January 2015, with Allison’s cousin, marketing professional Dan Pesce, added to the mix, the partners officially launched Benji’s Farm LLC to market and distribute the treats. The plan: slowly introduce them to select markets and see if tails wag.

New tricks: Plant power for old dogs.

New tricks: “Hippy” provides plant power for older dogs.

The six treats are all the same basic flavor, Graziose noted, but boast different herbs and botanical combinations, each designed to deliver a different health benefit.

In addition to varieties designed to boost dogs’ brains and to calm rumbly tummies, there’s “Sleepy” – formulated to relax Rover when necessary – and “Smiley,” infused with specific breath-freshening properties. Each variety is free of dairy, gluten, grains and meat, while boasting “human grade” ingredients.

“The ones that help the dog and the owner sleep, they sell well,” Graziose noted. “Obviously, it’s nice to have your dog calm and relaxed at night. And we sell a lot of ‘Smiley.’”

With the five owners pitching in on every aspect of the company – from nutritional science to marketing to production and distribution – the Bayport startup is wagging tails indeed. Its “organic botanical” treats are already available in about 30 brick-and-mortar pet and natural-food stores, mostly on Long Island and in the Greater New York region, but also scattered across California and down the East Coast. Retail partners include Sayville’s Cornucopia Natural Foods and Manhattan-based chain NYC Pet.

Benji’s Farm products are also available on 10 different e-commerce sites, including Amazon and several websites managed by the startup’s retail partners.

But even those far-reaching channels, Graziose noted, cannot match what has proven to be the startup’s best sales bet so far: subscription boxes.

The company has partnered with Illinois-based dog-box customizer PupJoy, according to Graziose, following promising signs from earlier subscription-box forays.

“We definitely sell best through subscription boxes,” he said. “It’s the type of consumer. The subscription box customer is looking for new and innovative products, something they can’t get in the big box stores.

“And they find us there.”

Benji’s Farm is wrapping up a $12,000 Kickstarter campaign (it surpassed its goal Friday, with one day to spare) that will “scale up” marketing efforts, which so far have been limited to social media campaigns, sparse online advertising and word of mouth – not that Benji, now 4, or anyone on the virtual farm is complaining.

“It’s going pretty good, but we still haven’t had our true hard launch,” Graziose noted. “Most of the stores we’re in contacted us, and we’ve only approached a few to test the market and consumer response.

“In the next year, external funding will really push our marketing plan forward.”

Primarily, the Kickstarter funds will be used to build inventory – the Grazioses are still “cutting the cookies ourselves” – and securing some outstanding U.S. Department of Agriculture certifications. They can continue selling under a certain amount of product without the certifications, but the USDA stamps will be necessary for real expansion, Graziose added.

“As we plan to grow, that’s an imperative,” he said. “And another goal of the Kickstarter is to get into a (commercial) kitchen and team up with a co-packer.”

The founders’ ultimate ambition is to land Benji’s Farm on the shelves of smaller regional pet chains, which Graziose said are taking over certain markets from national big boxes like Petco. He referenced Healthy Spot, a California-based chain with stores in eight Golden State towns.

“We are focused on e-commerce, obviously, but also on some of those up-and-coming markets,” Graziose said. “We have our growth strategy, and the big push in the next calendar year will be to get into a whole bunch of brick-and-mortars.

“Our goal is to keep the company and grow it,” he added. “Our phones are ready.”

Benji’s Farm LLC

What’s It? Organic, plant-powered dog treats

Brought To You By: Benji’s parents, Rocky and Allison Graziose, and three partners

All In: About $10,000, split five ways, for R&D, LLC formation and other basic startup costs

Status: “Soft launch” on a short, but quickly growing, leash