Innovation and smart marketing are propelling this decades-long fixture in Rockford to the forefront of pet treats. Meet up with company president Rick Ruffolo and see how he’s keeping ahead of a fast-changing marketplace.
Dick Phelps began his foray into the dog treat business in 1966. Though the past six decades have brought tremendous changes to how we feed our pets, Phelps Pet Products has kept pace, establishing a reputation for being on top of consumer trends and bringing innovation to the dog treat market.
Though the market has certainly changed over the years, the company’s commitment to Rockford remains firm. The majority of the company’s 150 full-time and temporary workers are based in the Rockford headquarters, at 5213 26th Avenue.
“The talent pool in Rockford has been very good to us. In the two-and-a-half years since I arrived, we’ve hired a number of people at the plant, in production, and in administrative and office/executive roles,” says Rick Ruffolo, CEO and president. Dick Phelps, now 92, is retired but remains on the company’s board.
Innovation is baked into the company’s approach. It was one of the first dog treat brands to make a 100% plant-based dog treat. The launch has been well received by the industry and retailers, says Ruffolo.
With experience at retail and consumer goods companies like Bath & Body Works, S.C. Johnson, and Procter & Gamble, Ruffolo has a deep background in marketing and innovation of new products. He’s using it to set Phelps apart from competitors.
“With dog treats, people tend to shop around and are inspired each time. They often buy on impulse or look for something new,” says Ruffolo. “Innovation is so much more important to dog treats than it is to dog food. That’s where it’s fun to be in the marketing and innovation side, because you can come up with a lot of new ideas.”
These days, plenty of new ideas focus around clean and organic labels on the packaging. In general, American consumers are seeking to eat healthier, or they’re at least aware of what it means. Trends in human cuisine, such as organic food, clean labels, meat-based substitutes and plant-based products, are working their way into dog food, as well.
“The way I think about it is, there’s this concept called humanization,” says Ruffolo. “Do you treat your dog like a dog, or do you treat your dog like a part of the family? What you’re seeing is people giving their pets, in particular their dogs, characteristics like human emotions. It is similar to having a baby or a younger sibling.”
As families start to eat a certain way, they inevitably pass on their own habits to their pet.
“Why is that important? Well, because being organic is important to human food, and having Marine Stewardship Council-certified salmon, which means it’s sustainably harvested, is important to people,” explains Ruffolo. “So, it’s also important to the dog treat market. And having fewer preservatives and artificial ingredients is important to people’s diets, so now it’s important to the dog’s diet, whether that’s in dog food or, in our case, in dog treats.”
Phelps Pet Products positions itself as a leading manufacturer using the industry’s best practices in producing dog treats. The firm uses many of the same processes, suppliers, raw materials and ingredients one would find in human food. In fact, Phelps treats now carry the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s certified organic label, which is the same designation given to human products at stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Meijer and other grocery stores.
“It gives you, the consumer, the reassurance that the product is made without chemical and artificial ingredients,” explains Ruffolo.
If the Phelps brand seems unfamiliar, that’s understandable. The majority of its business is private-label manufacturing, where it’s the “behind-the-scenes partner” making products for some of the biggest and most influential retailers and dog treat brands. Products can be found at Walgreens, independent pet stores, big-box retailers and grocery stores alike.
“People don’t realize that Phelps products are in probably over 50,000 or 60,000 retail stores now across the U.S. and Canada,” says Ruffolo.
Outside its contract manufacturing, Phelps also produces in-house brands. The Callie’s Kitchen line is all about organics, natural and clean labels, and sustainability. The line includes chicken, salmon, turkey, beef and 100% plant-based meatless jerky treats.
“The whole purpose of Callie’s Kitchen is that it is a wholesome line,” says Ruffolo. “It’s the type of thing that, if you turn the package around and read the ingredient statement, would look like the ingredients you find in your kitchen.”
Phelps Wellness Collection launched last August and focuses on what Ruffolo calls “functional dog treats.” Ingredients and recipes are generally chosen with a healthier purpose in mind, Ruffolo says. Some treats help with improving a dog’s skin and coat while others can help digestive issues. Other treats focus on other concerns, like Squirrel, which is aimed at dogs that struggle with cognitive or mental focus. The Phelps Wellness brand is now available online at Chewy.com, on Amazon and at select Walgreens locations.
“The whole line is sort of tongue-in-cheek,” says Ruffolo. “An example of products to help with hip and joints is called Hip Hip Hooray!, while Fur Real is all about helping improve a dog’s skin and coat. While these are real issues for dogs, we want the brand personality to be engaging and playful.”
In a major step forward, the company will be launching a new licensed dog treats line that pairs the Table Scraps brand with favorite Disney characters.
“We are excited about the opportunity to collaborate in bringing many of the iconic Disney characters to the dog treat market,” says Ruffolo. “The Disney brand appeals to all generations, whether you’re a fan of Patch from ‘101 Dalmatians,’ Slinky Dog from ‘Toy Story,’ or Mickey and Pluto. We hope the magic of Disney will bring new excitement and enjoyment to dog families throughout the country.”
The line will be available online and in stores later this year.
Phelps Pet Products has remained rooted in the Rockford area for decades, and Ruffolo remains committed to the region because of its production advantages. After all, it draws many strengths, from the region, including a customer base that’s centered around the Midwest.
“It’s a great location for access to our vendors,” says Ruffolo. “We focus much of our supply chain efforts for meat products, grains, vegetables and packaging materials here in the Midwest. Rockford is helpful for both proximity to suppliers as well as a central distribution point for the rest of the U.S.”
Since taking on the CEO role in 2018, Ruffolo says he’s enjoying the experience.
“It’s been a great opportunity,” says Ruffolo. “We have an outstanding team here at Phelps, and we have been fortunate to have grown the business, added jobs to the area, and increased stability to the manufacturing base in Rockford. We’ve reached a lot of people, consumers, and dogs out there with great, new innovative treats, and we’re having fun along the way.”