Wagathas poised for growth
By Tricia N. Hayes | March 25,2013
A display is set up for Wagatha’s Vermont Baked Organic Dog Biscuits, a Manchester-based firm that is expanding its operations through agreements with pet stores in the U.S.
Our furry, four-legged friends demand tasty rewards for a job well done, and Wagatha’s organic dog biscuits are answering that request, one flavor at a time.
The Manchester-based company is entering its wise ”middle age” in dog years. Founded in 2006, Wagatha’s was established with the belief that man’s best friends deserve healthy treats. “Just as we are demanding to know where our food is grown, so dog owners expect the same for their pets” said Norman Levitz, president of the company.
Levitz and Neil Reilly, vice president, founded Wagatha’s after a chance meeting at their daughters’ elementary school basketball game. Levitz, who was a restaurateur and culinary educator, had been baking up dog treats as gifts for his canine friends since the 1970s. Always eagerly anticipated, the canine treats offered nutritious ingredients to help promote health.
Meanwhile, Reilly, an ex-New Yorker who had been a partner in a Wall Street firm, was looking for a company to invest in when he relocated to southern Vermont. Both partners said they see Wagatha’s as poised for growth in 2013. “With our first five [or] six years behind us, we know what works in the product mix, pricing, and distribution,” said Reilly. “We have developed brand loyalty among our customers.”
Added Levitz: “Pet owners are more aware of quality products, and make the choice for their dogs.”
Wagatha’s prides itself on using the best ingredients it can find. “We use locally sourced products as available — grains, maple syrup, cheese and dairy,” said Levitz. Additional ingredients come from U.S.- and Canadian-based companies that are certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Reilly.
For a new product to be added to the company’s line, it must meet the exacting taste standards of its test canines and be affordably priced. “We are competing with other premium dog biscuits. The biscuits must offer a good taste and compete favorably against other brands” said Reilly.
Currently, Wagatha’s offers nine vegetarian biscuit flavors in two sizes. Later this year, three meat-flavored biscuits will be added to company’s offerings.
Wagatha’s offices and production centers are located in a 4,000-square-foot facility off Route 7A in the Manchester Industrial Park. The company employs approximately a dozen full-time staff to do everything from taking orders, baking, and packing and shipping.
From the beginning, sales were made via the company’s Web site. With age has come the distribution growth of its markets from its base of New England outlets to companies spread out across the U.S.
Wagatha’s recently added Pet Supply Plus, a group of 265 pet stores in the Midwest poised to grow to 400 outlets, to its list of dealers. Pet Supermarket adds another 160 stores in Florida, with expansion planned into Georgia. Additional distribution contracts cover the Pacific Northwest and West Coast.
Wagatha’s proudly proclaims that its products are made in Vermont. “The Vermont brand is widely respected and trusted,” said Levitz. “We are in an exclusive club of companies founded in Vermont and New England who represent the values of hard-working entrepreneurs.” In particular, he pointed to the origins of Green Mountain Coffee, Ben and Jerry’s, and Tom’s of Maine as other examples of Yankee ingenuity in business.
For Levitz and Reilly, business isn’t just about the number of units sold. Said Reilly: “We believe in a charitable give-back.” One of its largest beneficiaries is the Morris Animal Foundation based in Denver, CO.
Founded in 1948, the Morris Animal Foundation is a leader in veterinary science studies for the development of treatments, prevention and cures for animals. Wagatha’s donates a percentage of its sales from several products to the effort, and serves as a conduit for donations from its Web site to the cause.
“With one in four dogs dying of canine cancer, we looked to partner with an organization giving 100 percent of its donations to support research and development” said Levitz.