This article was published in the July 2023 issue of Pet Food Processing. Read it and other articles from this issue in our July digital edition.
When Lanny Viegut, chief executive officer of Carnivore Meat Company, is asked to describe his business, he simply says, “We’re a meat shop for dogs and cats.” But the Green Bay, Wis.-based manufacturer of raw frozen and freeze-dried pet food and treats, parent company to the Vital Essentials brand, is definitely more than a simple “meat shop.” The company is a pioneer and leading private-label provider in the raw and freeze-dried pet food space.
Its business has grown year after year since its inception in 2009, and with a new 235,000-square-foot greenfield headquarters and manufacturing facility set to open at the end of 2023, the company has the capacity to keep its business growing for years to come.
“From Day 1 we decided we always have to have open and available capacity — part of our culture is putting ourselves in a position to always be able to say ‘yes,’” Viegut said. “It’s true today and it’s been true throughout our history, we’ve always had extra open availability and capacity to take on more customers.”
With 41 freeze dryers in the existing Carnivore facilities and the potential for four times capacity slated for the new greenfield facility, saying “yes” to existing and new customers shouldn’t be a problem.
When it comes to talking about his business, Viegut always starts and ends with “butcher cut protein.”
“The focal point of our business is producing and providing a second-to-none protein source for our pets,” said Lanny Viegut, chief executive officer of Carnivore Meat Company.
“The focal point of our business is producing and providing a second-to-none protein source for our pets, whether it’s chicken, beef, rabbit, turkey, duck, salmon, tuna or anything else,” he said.
With a background in the meat business — Viegut spent 15 years of his career working in meat processing — it’s no surprise that his company focuses on the protein side of its products.
In 2009, Viegut was approached to help save an almost-bankrupt pet food company in Green Bay that was producing frozen pet food out of a 3,000-square-foot production facility. Even though he was new to the pet food business, Viegut liked the idea of creating high-quality, protein-centric products for dogs and cats. He immediately took on the task of revitalizing the business and strategically planned the introduction of a new raw dog food line, called Vital Essentials, at the 2009 SuperZoo tradeshow.
“With the conception of Vital Essentials, it all began with the ingredients that are the basis of our foods, snacks and treats,” Viegut said. “High-quality, nutritious whole-muscle meats and whole organ meats are not only ‘vital’ to the health and wellbeing of carnivores — such as dogs and cats — they are ‘essential’ in providing all the key macro and micronutrients that dogs and cats require in their daily diet.”
In the following years, the Vital Essentials brand grew and expanded its distribution, which led to the need for an increase in production capacity. In 2011, Viegut bought a facility on Ontario Road that provided 20,000 square feet of production and 4,000 square feet of office space — and Carnivore Meat Company was born.
“After we created Carnivore, we started building our own freeze dryers,” Viegut said. “We really kicked in the innovation. We now had more space, got new equipment, and we added talent that allowed us to innovate.”
As a CEO, Viegut subscribes to the philosophy outlined in the book “Blue Ocean Strategy” — “Look for open doors. Go where others aren’t.”
In the case of Carnivore Meat Company, freeze-dried pet food was the segment of the industry where, at the time, not many competitors were.
“Freeze drying was the ‘open door,’ it was in its infancy at the time,” he explained. “At that time, our business was more than 95% frozen, but we decided to start focusing on the freeze-drying side of the business.”
Freeze drying allows for the preservation of nutrients in the product, and in the case of Carnivore Meat Company, the product is butcher-quality proteins. Viegut is quick to point out that it’s essential to start with quality ingredients, because quality cannot be improved.
“It’s impossible to improve the quality of meat. From the moment it’s harvested until it’s in the bowl, we can only maintain it — period. There›s no way around it,” Viegut said. “That’s why we do what we do. As experts and veterans of the meat industry, the purposeful and intentional emphasis on maintaining meat quality is an integral part of our culture and ingrained in all we do. From supplier selection to warehousing and transportation to our pristine manufacturing facilities, we are unwavering on maintaining the quality of our meat, poultry and fish products.
“We aim to safeguard the natural nutrient profile, color, flavor and aroma of our proteins,” he added.
Starting with quality proteins is the first pillar of Carnivore’s business model — sourcing, process and variety.
“First, we source high-quality proteins,” said Eleonora Daireaux, brand vice president. “Then, it is minimally processed — we don’t add any fillers. And we offer variety to our customers. From a formulation point of view — from our raw bar to toppers to treats to meals — we offer a variety of products because all pets have different needs.”
Through the years, Carnivore has chosen to unveil new product varieties at the Innovation Station that’s featured in the company’s booths at Global Pet Expo and SuperZoo.
“As leaders of innovation within our category, distributors, retailers and consumers have eagerly awaited new product ideas that we would bring to the industry trade shows,” Viegut said.
In 2016, the Vital Essentials Raw Bar was launched featuring a variety of freeze-dried “animal parts” including bully sticks, duck necks, pig ears, cod skins, duck feet, salmon skins and turkey necks.
“Years ago, we came up with the idea of freeze-dried duck heads,” Viegut explained. “We took them to our Innovation Station at Global and the distributors and retailers didn’t think they would sell. Then, we introduced the idea at a consumer show and duck heads were voted the No. 1 idea, so we started to sell them. Now, duck heads are one of the top three items sold in our Raw Bar.
“We’ve become the innovative thought leader in our space,” he said.
Being one of the first companies in the freeze-dried and frozen pet food category helped solidify Carnivore’s position in the market. It also helps that the company builds its own freezer dryers.
“Getting a new freeze dryer in today’s market could take up to two years. Others in the category don’t have enough capacity to accommodate future customers and the growth in the category,” Viegut said. “We’re so well positioned because we build our own equipment. We have a lot of capacity that’s purposefully and intentionally waiting because the freeze-drying category is growing about 30% annually.”
Even though the category is experiencing rapid growth, it is still only around 1% of the entire pet food industry. But Viegut believes the growth will continue and helping the category grow as a whole will benefit all companies involved, not just Carnivore.
“We have long believed in the concept of rising tides lifting all ships, and we believe that we are stronger as the collective freeze-dried and frozen categories grow both domestically and internationally,” he said. “In addition to our flagship brand, Vital Essentials, we’re also blessed to be positioned to help others in the industry who believe in providing ultra-premium, raw, freeze-dried and frozen products but may not have the facilities or expertise to manufacture on their own. Designing and building our own freeze dryers allows us unrestricted capacity to build Vital Essentials and help others along the way.”
Carnivore’s first freeze dryer took over a year to build. Five years ago, the company had 16 custom-built freeze dryers in operation; now they have 41 Generation 1 and Generation 2 dryers.
“Every time we build a new dryer, we look at what the new technology is — how can we tweak this? How can we better monitor it? How can we computerize it?” said Brett Simmons, director of operations. “Since we build our own, we are completely self-sufficient. We have freeze-dry experts here, we have freeze-dry technicians here. There are not a lot of people in the industry who know how to do it all.”
Part of expanding the freeze-drying capacity has included retrofitting existing machines to meet the requirements of the new dryers. Updates to the original Generation 1 dryers helped increase output by 30%. Generation 2 dryers offer a 50% increase in output in the same timeframe, same facility footprint and same energy consumption.
“This could only be done because we engineer and build our own freeze dryers. It’s certainly a difference maker,” Viegut said.
Above and beyond
With more than 55,000 square feet of processing space at its Ontario Road location (after acquiring a neighboring building in 2021 and adding 31,000 additional square feet), 24,800 square feet of packaging at its Yeager Drive location and 24,000 square feet of warehouse space on Henry Street, Carnivore Meat Company was maxed out from a processing and production standpoint. Its existing locations had no more space for expansion, and if Viegut wanted to continue his corporate philosophy of never running out of capacity and always being able to say “yes” to new customers, then growth was going to have to occur elsewhere.
“We couldn’t afford not to build a new facility,” he said.
The company considered converting existing production facilities or buying out neighboring buildings, but nothing was big enough for the size of expansion they were looking for. The focus then turned to building from the ground up in a greenfield location. It was at that time that private equity firm Arbor Investments approached Carnivore about a partnership.
The new partnership provided the necessary capital to purchase the land and move forward on building Carnivore’s new 235,000-square-foot headquarters and manufacturing plant in Green Bay’s Grandview Industrial Park. Schuh Construction broke ground on the new site in August 2022 and the plant is set to begin production, with its Generation 2 freeze dryers, at the end of the year.
According to Viegut, the top three features of the new plant include its size, its technology, and the capacity for future growth.
“It’s one of the largest plants of its kind in the world at 235,000 square feet,” he explained. “It’s also a technological masterpiece. There are new and emerging technologies from the beginning to the end of the manufacturing process. In addition, the building is being constructed in a manner that allows for exponential future growth and the ability to increase volume when the need arises.”
The future growth includes the infrastructure to ultimately have four times the current capacity.
“We looked at technology used in other operations — from the baking industry to warehousing and vegetable sorting — and we’re applying it to suit our needs,” said Brian Lakari, vice president of operations at Carnivore Meat Company.
“There are a number of types of automation that will be featured in the plant,” said Brian Lakari, vice president of operations. “We looked at technology used in other operations — from the baking industry to warehousing and vegetable sorting — and we’re applying it to suit our needs. We’ll have everything from industrial robots to co-bots to autonomous mobile robots.”
The plant will use autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) for moving all internal materials around the plant. Co-bots will be used for monotonous, repetitive production tasks such as tray unloading, tray washing and sanitation. And industrial robots will be used for inspection, cold production processing and finished product palletization.
“Many of these automation applications are being custom developed specifically for Carnivore Meat Company,” Viegut said. “We believe we are the first pet food company in the world to integrate this technology.”
However, even with an increased focus on robotics and automation, there will be a need for more than 70 people to work operations in the new facility.
“The automation will help the new plant run more efficiently and effectively, but we won’t be replacing people or decision makers with the new technology,” Lakari said. “We’re going to be hiring different talent. When you have robots and co-bots you need people with different skillsets — more engineers and technicians. There will be more labor opportunities at the new plant.”
Carnivore will work with the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay to find automation engineer and technician interns to help with the workload.
“If we have three or four young people coming in as interns, we’ll have the opportunity to hire some of them or prepare them for wherever they go to work next. It’s a big win-win for the community, the university and for us,” Viegut said, “And for our customers — because we have access to talent to run the equipment to make sure they get their product on time.”
In addition to production, packaging and 27,000 square feet of office space, the new plant will feature an in-house Innovation Center to help with product development of the Vital Essentials brand. Research and development for current and potential customers and quality assurance testing will also take place in the Innovation Center.
Carnivore has always had the capability to work with customers on R&D and pilot projects, but the new plant’s Innovation Center will provide intentional space for future product and brand development.
“We are going to have a facility that will be second to none in the world — for human food or pet food,” Viegut said. “It will be the shining star in freeze drying in the entire world.”
The office space in the new headquarters will be constructed with sustainable materials and energy-saving features. The facility will also feature employee amenities including a dog run, dog wash stations and other pet-friendly conveniences.
As construction is completed in the remainder of the year, Carnivore is prepping to fire up the new freeze dryers to keep its business — and alongside it, the entire freeze-dried pet food segment — growing for years to come.
“Our belief is that there’s no one brand or company that can capture the entire market. The more ultra-premium products that are out there, the more credibility the category has,” Viegut said. “If we can help other brands and other companies do the same thing our products are doing — and be side by side on the shelf with our products — that won’t bother us at all. If we can take this category from 30% to 35% or 40% growth, we are positioning ourselves to not only win, but to continue to help more and more customers. And as the category grows, we just keep building more dryers, and we are able to say, ‘yes’ to more clients.”
A new look
As a part of the company’s look to the future, Carnivore Meat Company’s Vital Essentials has debuted a rebrand of its pet food products. The brand revitalization and new packaging highlights the company’s commitment to providing pets with premium, minimally processed, butcher cut proteins to support health and wellness.
The rebrand includes new brown kraft paper and twine packaging, reminiscent of that from a butcher shop. It also includes view-through windows shaped like animals to highlight the animal-based proteins used in each product, including beef, chicken, turkey and duck.
“We consider ourselves to be a meat shop for cats and dogs,” said Lydia Xiong, brand manager. “Because of that, we used the butcher shop concept to inspire our new logo and brand look.”
According to Vital Essentials, the rebrand goes beyond simply the look and feel of the new logos and packaging — it also includes a renewed companywide focus on creating deeper connections with the brand’s customers and consumers.
“There are so many brands out there, but we believe that only Vital Essentials offers the ‘butcher cut’ protein pets need,” said Lanny Viegut, CEO of Carnivore Meat Company. “As we say in our offices, there are no shortcuts, only butcher cuts — and we’re committed to helping our retailer partners bring the best quality protein to their customers.”
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