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Industry Profile: Natures Menu
24th January 2018

By Sandra Pearce

The raw pet food manufacturer capped off a busy year by moving into its new home, a purpose-built site in Snetterton. Sandra Pearce is given a tour around the new offices and factory, and learns about the company’s plans

Natures Menu hit another milestone when it opened the doors of its new £12.5m, 11,000sq m factory in Snetterton, Norfolk, last month, marking the largest investment in raw pet food production in Europe.
In line with the company’s ethos of supporting the local community, the site – which also houses its offices – has been built, designed and fitted out by local firms across East Anglia. Ipswich-based SEH French worked on the construction of the building, Wisbech Electrical did the electricals while Starfrost Refrigeration from Lowestoft provided the refrigeration and freezing technology. The original nearby Watton site will continue production until March next year, when its production line moves to the new site. Watton will then be regenerated, most probably for the manufacture of treats and snacks.

Despite the new HQ, Craig does not have his own office. From left: Peter Roy, business development director, Craig Taylor and commercial director James Langan

The open-plan offices are tastefully decorated, with pet-themed artwork, statues and potted plants dotted around, while break-out areas and meeting rooms provide opportunity for discussion.
Natures Menu MD Craig Taylor said: “For the last five years I have not had an office, and I do not have one here. It’s more about being open, sharing, everybody working alongside one another. It’s not hot desking – yes, some people have their own desks, but the message of management and the senior team is that it’s about being available. It’s amazing what you hear when people start talking about the company and their experiences.”

Craig started working at the 36-year-old family firm years ago and in 2012 bought it in a multi-million management buy-out, backed by Barclays Bank. He gave it a mighty shake, clothing it in a new identity by renaming it Natures Menu after its top-selling brand, and crucially made investing a priority – which hasn’t stopped.

Entrance is light and airy

The latest round of investment includes £2.8m on freeze-dried technology and £2m on equipment for its frozen raw production (Natures Menu has the same flash freezer that Birds Eye uses on its peas, storing its food at -20 deg Celsius), new technology and packaging formats, not to mention £1.1m into recruitment, creating a ‘fantastic marketing and sales team’. At a time when some manufacturers are pulling staff off the road, Natures Menu has created a team of nine business development managers who are on the road working with the pet trade.

It has also grown its total workforce in four years from 72 to 217.
Craig said: “Who in the British pet trade is investing in manufacturing, point of sale for British pet stores, in new brand technology, the natural category? Who is investing in complete supply chain distribution? That’s Natures Menu. This investment is about taking natural to the next level. Natural is in double-digit growth and growing quite significantly.”

You never know what you’ll find within the premises…

In December 2015, the company entered into a joint venture with Spanish business Agrolimen, giving it access to the expertise of Natures Variety in the US, which Agrolimen co-owns.
“We chose not to go the private equity route and so we are still privately owned and financed,” said Craig. “The partnership means we can share technologies and manufacturing rather than investing for the growth of the company to sell it on later.”

Last year, Natures Menu achieved turnover of £31m. This financial year, it is expected to hit £34m and with the launch of its new True Instinct brand (see Breaking New Ground at right), turnover is expected to double in the next five years, he said.
So come March, the Snetterton site will be fully operational with two raw production lines, capable of producing 320 tonnes of raw pet food a week, and with capacity for a third line which could potentially become a reality in 2019. With a six-acre site and the option to develop four acres, space is not an issue! Let’s not forget that Natures Menu is not just about frozen raw as it also has its top-selling Country Hunter range of cans, pouches and treats for cats and dogs. Natures Menu original is, in fact, the UK’s largest seller of 300g dog pouches.

New factory cost £12.5m and was built, designed and fitted out by local firms across East Anglia

Breaking new ground
The True Instinct range, which saw the company venture into the dry category for the first time, created a stir when it was launched to the trade at PATS Telford. The range, which will be released for sale from January, is a complete and balanced range of frozen raw and raw-inspired products like Raw Boost, freeze-dried raw snacks and high meat fillets for cats and dogs.

True Instinct Raw Boost is a first for the UK pet market – it comprises a grain free dry high-meat nugget with a freeze-dried raw meat nugget, offering a high-meat product with ‘the power and taste of raw in every bite’ which the company believes will ‘revolutionise the way people feed their pets and drive incremental growth in both the raw and dry categories’.
“We are now the first pet food company in the UK and Europe to invest in a freeze-dried range,” said Craig. “This will take nature to a new level.
“You now have a product where you have raw freeze-dried meat in the same bag as dry food.”

True Instinct High Meat Fillets is the brand’s wet food offering, made up of premium steam-cooked shredded meat and fish fillets, while True Instinct Raw Bites is the brand’s frozen raw offering in modern
stand-up pouch packaging.
“We are talking to retailers and we have positioned True Instinct in 900 specialist pet stores across the UK already with our pet trade partners excited about this exclusive pet trade brand,” he added. The launch of True Instinct, which will be pet specialist, has investment support of £2.6m behind it. “We are now in raw, freeze-dried, super-premium high-meat and grain-free,” he said. “And we are fully integrated in terms of manufacture and distribution.”

Warehouse has space for about 2,500 pallets across frozen and ambient

The company has about 2,200 distribution points across the UK including pet stores, making 1,000 deliveries a day using its own fleet of 70 refrigerated vans from its Norfolk base and distribution hubs in Bristol, Leeds and Scotland.

Education, education, education
Natures Menu works hard to educate pet owners, retailers and the veterinary sector on the benefits of raw feeding, as well as to dispel many of the myths of raw feeding. For example, it has launched its very popular Lunch and Learn scheme with vets in which it hosts a lunch with vets and nurses to give them information on advice, handling and preparation of raw foods. This is so popular that schedules are filled months in advance. “Vets realise that people want to feed raw food,” he said.
It’s all about handling risk – raw has to be stored, thawed and served in an appropriate way. “It’s the same as any dog can product,” he said.

It does not help that there is so much misinformation about salmonella out there, compounded by the fact that the UK and the USA have very different regulations. For one, legislation in the UK originates from the European Union and there is a restricted list of raw materials that can be used in raw pet foods. In addition, DEFRA holds zero tolerance for salmonella in raw pet foods in the UK. As such, Natures Menu stringently tests for salmonella and voluntarily tests for other causes of food-borne illness such as Campylobacter – in its 30-year history, it has not had a single instance of Campylobacter which in fact, is nearly non existent in deep frozen raw foods.

Strict quality control is in place – frozen raw samples are defrosted and then checked

Pet retailers can enroll to become a Raw Adviser via a dedicated training module. Natures Menu is very focused on the bricks-and-mortar independent retailer, and is working on driving sales in the sector. True Instinct will give independents an edge, offering a super premium, multi-functional brand for dogs and cats. “We are about to put 500 upright freezers into pet stores,” he said. “Freezers are a Point of Sale item, and they are on loan to promote the natural category.”

At the moment there are 82 registered companies that can produce raw pet food with Natures Menu leading the UK market, said Craig. It is perfect timing that the Pet Food Manufacturers Association has released its guidelines on the manufacture of raw pet food. These will help raise professional standards and emphasise the importance of issues like traceability and good control, he said, considerations that consumers demand nowadays as a minimum quality standard.
“There is a massive spectrum between companies like Natures Menu and some back-street operators,” he said. The new guidelines seek to address this and from next year and beyond, there will be
accreditation for raw pet food manufacturers, which can be worn as a badge of honour and as a sign of quality control and responsibility.

Future trends?
The dog and cat food market is worth £2.6b in the UK, and although the natural category and raw are growing by leaps and bounds, 60% of pet food is still sold through grocery. Will raw hit a plateau? “There is still a lot of growth in raw,” said Craig. “It really is still low in market awareness and is very low compared to dry, cans and pouches. That’s something that needs to be addressed. At some point, yes, it will probably plateau, but we have at least another five years of growth.”

Next year will be a busy year for the team, because apart from the release of True Instinct, work is already underway for the launch of new freeze-dried foods to the market for 2019.

But what about cats? Cats are notorious for turning their noses up at what’s put before them, earning them the moniker ‘fickle feeders’. Yet Craig says Natures Menu’s wet cat pouches are selling well, and he and his team are excited about the possibilities True Instinct will open for the cat market.
“We think it could revolutionise the cat segment,” he said. “We know cat is challenging as a cat decides what it eats. We think True Instinct will be very, very interesting, and represents further technology and investment in the cat market.”
“We will not go down the route of palatability enhancers or sugars, which cats can become addicted to.”
At the heart are pet owners, though today they are better classed as pet parents.
Pet parents look at the total offering, he said, they look at ingredients with the same intensity as they look at their own food, because their pets are part of the family.
“They want something better than serve-and-go pet food. People want to feel they are feeding their pet better quality and healthier food.”

These customers want to see transparency of ingredients and product – and Natures Menu is currently working on a video which shows its complete production process, which will be released next year. It’s all been a bit of a roller-coaster ride, and having been a pioneer in the raw sector, Natures Menu is now raising the bar with freeze-dried. As with anything new, the key is to be patient and to keep pressing on – it is no understatement to say that raw has grown up. As Craig said: “What is nice is that raw is now regarded as a manufacturing sector all on its own.”

What is freeze drying?
Freeze drying is a technique for preserving perishable foods and enabling easier storage at room temperature. It relies on a natural freezing process where water is frozen to the core and transforms to its gaseous form. In this form, through the use of a partial vacuum, the water is removed easily from a product without altering the composition of the original foodstuff.