Pioneering Pet Nutrition: Ainsworth’s Journey with Nutrish

Creating a New Market

Ainsworth’s pet-first philosophy has helped propel the company’s rapid growth over the past 15 years. From 1933 until 2000, Ainsworth produced only one brand, Dad’s. That began to change when the company recognized the new generation of consumers wanted to know what was in their food and gravitated to more natural cuisine with fewer artificial preservatives. Ainsworth recognized the people who wanted wholesome food on their dinner table would want the same for their dog’s bowl. “We saw that consumer trends were changing,” Joyce says. “More and more consumers were interested in meat-based diets [for pets].”

The company began looking at the diets that were traditionally found only in specialty pet stores and realized it could offer a high-quality alternative at the supermarkets and grocery stores where consumers did most of their shopping. First, Ainsworth added Better Than! snacks and in 2007 made a deal with Rachael Ray to develop Nutrish pet food. Nutrish products went on sale a year later and quickly became a hit with pet parents draw to Rachael Ray’s nutritious image.

Those moves grew Ainsworth from a regional company that served the 10-hour radius around Meadville to a national supplier of pet food serving retailers such as Walmart, Target, Amazon and Kroger. The company broadened its capabilities further and began producing food for retailer brands such as Walmart’s Pure Balance.

Expanding from a local supplier to a nationally recognized branded supplier in less than a decade involved some growing pains. The company must frequently reinvest in its facility to store higher-quality proteins such as bison and venison while producing as much as 4,000 tons of kibble each week. To keep pace with its success, Ainsworth added salespeople and accounts while employees showed their willingness to chip in beyond their regular duties. “It’s been a continual investment in people and capability,” Joyce says of the growth process.

Nutrish has been responsible for much of the company’s growth in recent years. The brand accounted for $300 million in consumption in 2015, Joyce says. The idea for the popular label began the same way as many of Ainsworth products: by recognizing the love owners have for their pets. An employee at one of Ainsworth’s sister companies was watching an appearance by Rachael Ray on a late night talk show when the famous TV chef brought out her pet pit bull, Isaboo. The employee was struck with the idea that Ainsworth could develop a pet food with Rachael Ray. The company reached out to Ray and found the animal lover enthusiastic about the proposal. Ray’s personal proceeds from Nutrish sales are donated to Rachael’s Rescue, an organization that supports shelters and treatments for animals in need. More than $10 million has been raised since 2008.

Although Ainsworth remains the expert on formulation and production for Nutrish, Ray has helped guide the company on high-quality ingredients and recipes that even a human would find tasty. “She’s literally eaten the kibble and some of the wet food before,” Joyce says. The Zero Grain line for Nutrish expands on that quality promise by avoiding rice or grains of any kind. “We make sure that in all of the dry recipes meat is the first ingredient,” Joyce says.

Changing Shopping Habits

It wasn’t too long ago that such meat-first products with natural ingredients were found only in a pet store. Joyce says Nutrish was at the forefront of bringing those diets to grocery stores at an affordable price. “We were one of the first to do it and I think we helped to lead the way,” he says. “Retailers now are keying on the trend and making sure they’re stocking the right things.”

Ainsworth is developing new products that promise to stay ahead of the natural pet food trend. The company is preparing to launch a new line in March under the Nutrish name called Dish by the end of March. Dish will be a high-quality, meat-first kibble with inclusions of cooked chicken, dried apple, carrots, potatoes and peas.

Having achieved a national footprint, Ainsworth is now looking to improve its digital presence. The company launched a new corporate website in January with a fresh look that touts its vision for pet-focused food.

Ainsworth also continues to work with its retail partners to improve its e-commerce capabilities. E-commerce sales currently make up about 2 percent of the company’s revenue, but Joyce believes that will grow to 5 to 10 percent in the next few years as more people adapt to buying online. “I think that’s a big growth opportunity in pet food for both brick and mortar customers and pure play e-tailers,” he says. “It’s not necessarily a convenient purchase; it’s a big bulky bag. But in general, there are a lot of folks who will keep their dogs or cats on a similar diet. If you can get [food] to show up at your door, it’s convenient for a lot of folks.”

The company’s attention to e-commerce is the next evolution of its strategy since the new millennium began: making nutritional food accessible to pet parents. “It comes down to the fact that we’re helping consumers and pets get higher quality food, more conveniently and frequently at a better cost,” Joyce adds.