A leading multinational retailer was interested in exploring the possibility of launching unique pet food items under their own brand. At the time, they were but a few stores and already a client of American Nutrition’s sister company from which they purchased branded products for their pet food aisles. So when it came time to conceptualize what a private label brand might look like, they turned to the American Nutrition team.

Private Label Brand Strategy

American Nutrition acted as both a sounding board and expert counsel to the retailer very early in the process, all the way from the blue sky to the tactical and practical.

“They really liked the idea of baked treats and can pet food, so we talked about what would work well with their consumers and with their brand in particular, and what the products might look like,” recalls Steve Mills, senior vice president of customer brands and co-manufacturing at American Nutrition. “It was a collaboration from the very beginning.”

Additionally, they discussed a number of key requirements that would need to be met due, in large part, to the customer’s unique business model. Floor space is at a premium, so they needed to make sure there were a lot of sell units to a pallet. And they wanted a unique presentation for their customers—cases of mixed flavors for both the treats and cans.

The retailer decided to have ANI focus initially on developing a high-quality, premium biscuit. Premium biscuits, however, are significantly more brittle than typical biscuit treats.

“If we bulk loaded them, they’d get a lot of breakage,” Mills said. “There was only one answer. They would need to be hand-packed.”

By hand-packing, American Nutrition could deliver on all the requirements. They could arrange the flavors so when a customer first opened a box they would see symmetrical, eye-pleasing bands of each flavor, all of equal layers. The chance of breakage would be slim to none because every biscuit would be lined up perfectly and carefully. And there would be much less air space required in the boxes, meaning they could fit more sell units on a pallet.

The problem? American Nutrition had never hand packed before.

Building Infrastructure to Meet Requirements

“We knew this was the right strategy for the retailer and we knew if we could solve these challenges it would also benefit us as a company, so we decided we would build these capabilities,” Mills said.

Within just nine months, American Nutrition had developed and engineered a special production line that would enable hand packing, established and tested the formulations, designed the packaging, and hired new employees to hand-pack the biscuits into boxes with care.

When the private label biscuits proved to be a huge success for the retailer, they had American Nutrition begin work on the canned food project. Again, ANI worked tirelessly to meet the retailer’s very specific requirements.

For the canned food, that meant doing extensive palatability testing so the formulations actually beat the target products the retailer had identified, and ensuring the pallets were designed to be consumer ready. ANI created pallets that would contain alternating layers of each flavor canned food, shrink wrapped with printed, branded plastic.

American Nutrition’s approach and investment in the business relationship has evolved over time. As the pet food brand succeeded and the retailer expanded, opening hundreds of storefronts across the globe, production demand skyrocketed. Labor for the hand packing line–both the sourcing and the cost–became unsustainable.

“We consider our work with customers to be a real partnership and we needed to grow with [this retailer], so we invested a couple million dollars in equipment that would allow us to automate much of the treat packing. From there, we could augment with the hand pack line to meet demand spikes,” Mills said.

The automation allows them to keep up with demand in an efficient and cost-effective way but, from an engineering perspective, it wasn’t easy. The automation robotics are most often used to palletize finished boxes or pack something fairly sturdy into a box, so programming them to effectively deal with incredibly fragile biscuits was a challenge.

Growth-minded Partners

While the formulas and artwork have changed over time, the products are still being manufactured by ANI and sold successfully 15 years later.

“As the customer has grown, we have grown with them, investing in new capabilities and our own infrastructure to meet demand,” Mills said. “That’s just what we do. We’re problem solvers and we’re always looking to do it better.”