Dog with attitude.

South St. Paul, Minn. — At a recent pet show, Kurt Fischer observed a dog owner pick up and slowly devour a “Plaid Dog” Turkey Tender treat. He refuses to feed his dog anything he wouldn’t eat himself, he told Fischer.

Hmmm … “For a lot of people, their dog is part of the family,” explains Fischer, president of St. Paul Pet Company, maker of the Plaid Dog treats. “They feel a special obligation to take good care of their pet.” For dogs’ best friends, St. Paul Pet has devised a line of premium, low-fat pet treats.

A long history

St. Paul Pet Company is a division of the family-owned Van Hoven Company, which has been in the meat byproduct recycling business for 125 years. Such longevity gives the company a broad understanding of the livestock and animal feed industry — knowledge suited to value-added opportunities.

“We had an awareness of (pet treats) as a way to diversify and reach a new market,” Fischer says.

Plaid Dog treats consist of high-quality turkey, most of which just missed labeling requirements for human consumption. The criss-cross shaped tenders are meaty yet low in fat. Fischer claims 16 calories per treat, and says they contain no byproducts, artificial flavors, colors or BHA (a preservative).

“Not only did they have a viable idea, (St. Paul Pet) had also done enough homework to have a good feeling that this would be a real opportunity,” says Lisa Gjersvik, AURI project director in Waseca. “The way they approached the whole venture was smart. They understood the importance of what the customers want and tailored their product around that.”

AURI funded marketing assistance to help the company establish a “look” or brand identity in its logo and package design.

Doggie likes it

Plaid Dog Turkey Tenders first hit store shelves, appropriately, the day after Thanksgiving — but not before enlisting the help of 20 beagles.

Plaid Dog treats were placed on dishes side by side with a competing product. After the dogs had been fed a meal, they were turned loose on the treats. Fischer says they analyzed which treats the dogs approached first, which they ate first and which they ate more. Two days of testing showed the dogs preferred Plaid Dog treats.

“The main thing we have going is that dogs love it,” Fischer says. “Getting people to try our products once is the key. Once they do, we think the dog will sell it for us.”

Howlin’ growlin’ garlic

Even the packaging declares this is no ordinary pet treat. With flavors like “Howlin’ Growlin’ Garlic” and “Original Tail Waggin’,” Fischer says the company spent a lot of time developing the right message. The resealable-foil pouches even include a “snarf-down” date to ensure freshness.

St. Paul Pet studied consumer preference and ran mini focus groups to determine brand strategy. Fischer admits the name “Plaid Dog” doesn’t have any particular meaning; the name just grew on people and carries a certain attitude. And a classy product deserves a classy package, he says.

Plenty of company

St. Paul Pet is not the only company that realizes people will spend money on their pets. Heavy hitters like Purina, Heinz, Nestle and others all have pet treat products on the market. While they may have the edge on volume, Fischer believes St. Paul Pet produces a higher quality product.

Plaid Dog treats are sold in more than 40 Midwest retailers, primarily in independent stores or smaller pet product chains. The plan is intended to help St. Paul Pet carve out a niche without drawing too much attention.

“If a product is successful, it’s likely to be imitated,” Fischer says. “We want to make a nice treat and do a good business. We’re not looking to take over the world.”

Fischer says he’s encouraged by the reception Plaid Dog treats have received, but says they still have a giant task ahead. He’s also pleased St. Paul Pet has not had to do it alone.

“We’ve had a good team putting this all together,” Fischer says. “The support we received from AURI has helped and added a sense of legitimacy to what we were trying to do. That support is welcomed.”

For more information on St. Paul Pet Company, visit www.stpaulpet.com.