Food trucks feeding the needs of gourmands' hungry canines
In hindsight, the collision of the food truck craze with the tendency to spoil our four-legged friends was inevitable.
Food trucks for dogs are rolling through a growing number of cities, selling canine versions of cookies, ice cream and other treats. Paying $3 for doggie ice cream (dogs can have trouble digesting the real thing) might seem like a silly indulgence, but owners of these food trucks say they're hardly begging for business.
"This year is turning out to be really good because a lot of people are hearing about me," said Angela Meyers of Elizabeth, N.J., who launched The Frosty Pooch last July. Meyers, who brings her truck to parks, farmers' markets and dog parks in the New York City area, makes small-batch, dog-friendly ice cream in six flavors that sell for $2 a cup and "pupsicles" for $2.50. Her four-legged customers' favorite flavor is the bacon peanut butter, she said.
"I'm getting a lot of return customers," she said.
At Sit 'N Stay Pet Cafe in Orlando, Fla., treats range from $2 to $7. Owner Lauren Hicks, who launched the business in 2011, said she started turning a profit after about a year. "We've got awesome feedback from our customers," she said via email.
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Some owners of doggie food trucks are seeing business grow so fast they plan to franchise. In Chicago, Donna Santucci opened Fido To Go to complement her existing pet-grooming business in 2011. "I have over 40 applicants" who want to license the brand, she said.
Right now, Santucci makes all the cookies and frozen yogurt cups she sells from scratch in a commercial kitchen in downtown Chicago. "I'm looking for a bigger facility now as we speak."
In Austin, Bow-Wow Chow has been selling ice cream and local, handmade dog treats for $1 to $5 at dog parks and events for only about a year, but founder and CEO Lara Enzor said she gets multiple licensing requests on a weekly basis.
"I've been surprised at how quickly we've actually been able to start making money. ... We're doing really well," she said. "We're selling so much ice cream now it's crazy. We could easily sell 100 in a day." A week ago, a nursing home booked the Bow-Wow Chow truck for a "retirement party" for one of its roughly 20 therapy dogs that retired at age 15.
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Enzor acknowledged that the city's famous quirkiness probably contributed to the rapid success of her business. "It's Austin, so we're keeping it weird."
But there are a few broader factors that contribute to the popularity of food trucks catering to canines. For starters, there seems to be no limit to how much we're willing to spend on our furry friends. According to the American Pet Products Association, even the recession didn't stop the increase in pet-related spending. Last year, we spent a collective $53 billion on pet products and services, and that's projected to rise by more than $2 billion this year.
The improving economy helps. Pet owners "are becoming less price sensitive," market research company Packaged Facts said in the abstract of its newest U.S. Pet Market Outlook report.
"On Saturday mornings, about half our customers are carrying a cup of coffee," Enzor said. "Anybody that will blow $5 on a cup of coffee for themselves will blow $5 on treats for their dogs."
In some cases, the vehicle works as a mobile marketing campaign. Purina brand Chef Michael's, Science Diet, Freshpet and Rachael Ray's Nutrish have all done dog food trucks promotions.
"Because we don't have a store, the bike is kind of a way to getting out and meeting the dogs," said Andrea Tovar, founder of Bocce's Bakery in New York, which specializes in organic dog treats. It sells them wholesale to outlets such as Whole Foods and Shake Shack. During summer weekends, they also sell treats via the "Biscuit Bike" at city parks. "It's kind of like our little store on wheels," Tovar said.
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"The dogs, of course, get really excited," she said. "You get a lot of dogs literally jumping on the bike and getting their own treats." Favorite flavor? "Lobster roll," made with lobster meat, kelp and parsley—to combat doggie-breath.
That willingness illustrates a cultural shift in how we view our pets and our relationship with them. "Nowadays they're part of your family. People are treating them like children," said Lisa-Marie Birdsall, founder of Recycled Paws Rescue in Mohegan Lake, N.Y.
With that comes an increasing awareness of what pets are eating, especially in the wake of a wave of pet food recalls.
A week ago, Natura Pet Brands announced a recall of several kinds of Innova, California Natural, EVO, Healthwise, Mother Nature and Karma food and treats after an FDA test turned up salmonella contamination. (The company said a single test turned up positive for the bacteria, but it was taking "additional precautionary measures" by recalling a wider swath of products.)
With news like that, Birdsall said it's not surprising that dog owners like the trucks, where the person handing them the treats is often the same person who made them.
"You get to know these people in the trucks, you know they make the food and you get to have a relationship with them," said Angela Hill, a cosmetics company account executive in Yonkers, N.Y., who fosters rescue dogs.
"I think people like our products because they're made with human grade, all natural, and organic ingredients and they're not treats you can find in a big chain pet store," Hicks said.
With all of this blurring of the lines between human and dog food, mix-ups occasionally do occur. Santucci said sometimes people tried to buy the frozen yogurt for themselves, and she had to explain that their human palate might not appreciate the unsweetened taste.
But Meyers said she's caught other owners sneaking a nibble of their pup's treat. "Oh, definitely."
_ By Martha C. White, NBC News contributor.