Gourmate co-founder Steph Mearns explains why the pet treats she has co-created are made with calamari and green lip mussels, on exporting to Asia, and why she believes becoming a B-corp is a big deal for a small firm.
What does your business do?
Gourmate Pet Treat Co makes human food-grade pet treats from premium New Zealand meats and seafood. We consider ourselves a values-driven business and recently became Aotearoa New Zealand's first B-Corp certified pet food company.
We launched the business in mid-2020, right in the middle of Covid. It had been in the works for 18 months by then; we were ready to go and didn't want to delay our launch. We did have some Covid pivots a little bit but on the whole I don't think it was too bad. Pet ownership has continued through Covid and people were still looking for better products for their fur babies, and two years later we're really happy with the trajectory, even though it was interesting at the start.
What was the motivation for starting it?
My business partner Laura Wilkinson, she and I have been friends for a long time and she had the idea. When she told me she had an idea for dog treats made from New Zealand superfoods, things like green lip mussels, I got it right away. We're both kind of obsessed with our pets and we knew there were people out there like us that want to feed their pets the same kind of food they buy for the rest of their family; they want options that are natural, healthy and more ethical.
When you look at the pet food market, particularly treats, there are still a lot of junk food treats and a lot of products made overseas from ingredients that aren't quality.
How big is your team?
The team is Laura and I, but we also work closely with our factories. Since launch, our domestic sales have grown significantly year-on-year. We're in the early stages of export in Asia: Hong Kong, Singapore, and more recently expanding into Korea and Taiwan.
How are you finding demand?
It is definitely growing; our export markets have just started in the last six to nine months. Our partners there are where we were two years ago, trying to tell people about the product and tell people how good it really is. We're really happy with how the business is tracking. For us, it was about identifying a space in the market and what we can do differently, taking New Zealand's best-quality product and making the most of that, and customers seem to get that.
We're in Farro and domestically we're really happy with the boutiques we're in and how customers are responding to our treats. We have five treat varieties and our RRP is $14.99. We have organic green lip mussels, grass-fed beef liver, wild-caught calamari, alpine freshwater salmon and South Pacific hoki treats, they are a premium product.
The pet food market in New Zealand is worth almost half a billion dollars each year, according to NZ Petfood Manufacturer's Association, so there is a lot of opportunity.
What are your long-term plans?
We have some new products in the works but the bigger picture for us is knowing who we are, what our customer needs and how we can meet that in quite a noisy trend-driven global industry. We're a New Zealand-based business and our domestic market is super-important to us but we also want to grow outside with export. We're focused on getting things right for Australia, America and Japan as the biggest markets of opportunity.
Why did Gourmate become a B-Corp?
B Corp recognises ethical and sustainable business practice, so that is a big deal for us. The certification process is rigorous and for a business like us that has always had responsible business at the heart of what we do, B-Corp is a great opportunity to refine our operations and tell people about it. All of our proteins are organic, free range or wild caught, we use local and sustainable suppliers, we only work with businesses that pay a living wage and we're focused on recyclable packaging and minimal waste, and we advocate within our industry, we do all these things that make better business and the beauty of B-Corp is it is an umbrella over that and encourages you to continue to do better, and you meet some awesome businesses along the way as well. Getting certified took about a year and the movement is becoming increasingly popular among businesses, particularly in New Zealand and Australia.
We didn't always know we wanted to be a B-Corp, but we always knew that we wanted to be an ethical business and make the best choices every step of the way.
What's the biggest challenge you are navigating in your industry?
We're still a small business in the pet food game so it is all about finding our own niche and making the most of it, and then figuring out how to tell people about it when you're a start-up and don't have a lot of budget to convince people that we are making the best dog treats in the world, along with finding partners globally that understand the value of being a premium and responsible business.
What advice do you give others thinking about starting their own business?
Identify what you do differently to the competition and why that matters to you and your customers. Additionally, if you do go into a partnership, spend a lot of time thinking about that and be open about what that will look like and how you'll make it work.