Ethical ingredient sourcing and transparency haven’t exactly been pet food industry battle. As a result, consumers who hold these ideals dear have long struggled to find suitable foods for their furry friends. The three dog-loving cofounders of Open Farm—Isaac Langleben; his wife, Jacqueline Prehogan; and his brother-in-law, Derek Beigleman—recognized this gaping hole in the market and decided to do something about it.
The Toronto-based trio first developed a supply chain of nutritious and sustainably sourced ingredients. Next, they formulated nourishing grain-free, high-protein recipes for dogs and cats. Finally, they committed to sharing every detail with consumers—an unprecedented degree of transparency for this (or any) industry. New Hope’s editors took note, handing Open Farm the NEXTY Award for Best New Transparently Sourced Product at Natural Products Expo West 2017. We sat down with Langleben to learn more about his company’s genesis, missions and ambitions.
What inspired you to develop pet food and launch a company?
Isaac Langleben: Honestly, it’s one of those standard business stories: We created a company around products we really wanted for ourselves. The three cofounders saw the trends evolving in the food space around better-for-you products and ethical sourcing. These are values we have as consumers and how we decide what to buy for ourselves. But when it came to buying for our dogs, we found lots of great-quality foods but none that resonated with transparency of ingredients and where the meat came from. So in 2013, we thought, let’s see what it would take to create our own. We launched locally in the Toronto area at the end of 2014, then rolled out distribution across the U.S. and Canada in 2015.
Well, what did it take? Was it trickier than anticipated?
IL: We spent a year and a half seeing how we could create a supply chain. We visited farmers and manufacturers. It was harder than expected. I came from the corporate world, working with huge food companies, and my partners worked in accounting and finance. So this was new to us, coming from the standard industrial food system where it’s easy to put together products. We had to find ways to ensure we had access to and could use ingredients we felt good about. It took a long time, but we finally got to market and it has been a really rewarding experience. It’s nice to see that we’re not the only consumers with pets who were looking for ethically sourced protein and sustainably processed and distributed foods. We are now in 2,500 retail stores and sell direct to consumers online.
What types of sustainability and animal welfare initiatives are important to you?
IL: Our two farm animal welfare partners are Global Animal Partnership and Certified Humane. For us, these certifications are really valuable. It is important to have this framework because there are so many buzzwords out there and it’s so easy to make claims about products. We wanted an objective set of standards to hold ourselves accountable to and to offer transparency and third-party validation. When people ask what humane means to us, we can show them the bare minimum standards that any farm we work with needs to comply with. We are so passionate about this. Jacqueline is a vegetarian, so we had to make sure we could both feel good about every ingredient we bought.
On the seafood side, we don’t use any farmed fish. We partner with Seafood Watch and Ocean Wise from the Vancouver Aquarium. These organizations are experts in ocean-caught fish and set strict standards for fish types and methods of catch. As for plant-based ingredients, a huge proportion of our fruits and vegetables are grown in Minnesota, where our products are manufactured, or neighboring states. We ensure that every product we put out is, of course, nutritious, so we use super-high-quality ingredients. We also make sure our recipes are the best—low-sugar, high-protein, using low-glycemic carbs like chickpeas and other pulses.
You go even further than these third-party standards with your sourcing transparency. Please explain.
IL: We started with third-party certifications and then asked: How can we take transparency to the next level? So we added a feature to our desktop and mobile sites about a year ago. Every one of our products has a lot code, so consumers can just enter that in and get a full breakdown of every single ingredient—source of origin, non-GMO, ethoxylation-free and other descriptive factors. It also provides third-party safety-testing results. This has resonated super well with consumers and has been a great tool at retail, as more and more shoppers are coming into stores wanting to know what’s really in their pets’ food.
What has it been like being a new company in a very old category?
IL: It has been really rewarding and fun. We love animals, so it’s fun coming to work every day and trying to make things better for them. It’s also challenging because pet food is a very competitive space. There are lots of good companies. The biggest challenge is finding ways to stand out and get our message out there. Our main mission is to push the industry forward. We’re always trying to one-up ourselves and find innovative new ways to connect consumers with food. This will always be a challenge, but it’s an exciting one and it makes us feel good.
You and your partners are in your late 20s and early 30s. In what ways is your age an advantage—or a disadvantage?
IL: I don’t think our age has been a disadvantage at all. In fact, it’s a huge advantage. For one, we have enough experience to know what we’re doing yet also be kind of “dangerous.” By that I mean we haven’t been around so long that we feel limited by things that didn’t work 10 or 20 years ago. We are very comfortable with pushing for change in the industry. Also, millennials are now the biggest buying group for pet food. We share their values and shopping habits, so we don’t have to try to guess what they are looking for. We’re looking for the exact same things.
You won the NEXTY Award for your transparency ethos at Expo West this spring. How has this award impacted your business?
IL: The NEXTY has been great for us as a young company. It has definitely given us a really nice boost with retailers. We’ve incorporated it into our marketing materials at retail. As a young company doing something different, it was a great recognition.
What’s next for Open Farm? What can we expect to see in the future?
IL: We have a lot in the works. We’re planning to bring our mission into new categories—new formats of pet food, pet treats and pet supplements. And we’re obviously looking to increase our presence and distribution at retail and online.
Do you hope to start a trend in pet food, that other manufacturers will follow your lead?
IL: One-hundred percent. That would mean more competition, but we view that as a positive. If we see other companies making similar claims, it means our mission is resonating with consumers and retailers and we are having a meaningful impact. It is incumbent on us to push to the next level. It’s great to be successful, but we want to keep moving the industry forward while staying one step ahead.