As a nation of animal lovers, Britain is not exactly short of pet foods. Go to your local pet shop or even supermarket and the choice of foods - from the fairly basic to the cat and dog version of haute cuisine - can be mesmerising. Not the obvious market to have a gap in it, then.
However, Graham Baker has found one - through tripe, the innards of cattle that tends to be discarded as part of the slaughtering process. A delicacy to some humans, it is devoured by dogs that can get their paws on it. It is just that the average dog owner is reluctant to go to the trouble of obtaining it. First, it generally has to be collected from the slaughterhouse. Second, it has to be prepared - a process that produces what Baker euphemistically refers to as "a bit of an odour".
Baker's advantage is that - as a member of a family running a beef processing business - he had access to substantial amounts of tripe. "We had more and more pet food material coming out. Rather than selling it cheap, we decided to add value by canning it," he explains.
He started supplying own-label cans to cash-and-carry outlets near the family business's base at Crick, Northamptonshire. But, while this used up the supply of tripe, it didn't make any money.
Baker saw the solution in producing a branded product. But, realising that the established companies had much bigger marketing budgets than he could even dream of, he decided to come up something different. That something was, of course, the tripe that was the differentiating ingredient. If he could come up with a brand that emphasised the contents of the can and offered dog owners the benefits of the tripe that their animals loved without them having to do the preparation, he'd be on to something.
Fortunately, for Baker and his plans, consumers in the 1980s were just starting to worry about additives in food, not just for themselves but also for their pets. Many pet foods contained soya, cereals and other things that could be added to, so Baker felt that if he could emphasise the freshness of his product that would help.
Just as we was formulating these plans, Robin Hone, who had been working his way up the Baker family's meat processing group, returned from a stint at college. Hone joined Baker in the fledgling operation and set about experimenting with different mixtures. When a local producer of dog biscuits tried what they came up with on his own dogs, he was so impressed that he insisted there was a gap in the market.
Meanwhile, a London advertising agency was - at Baker's request - playing around with ideas for a brand and came up with the name Butcher's on the grounds that it played on the family's business heritage. Baker agreed and in 1986 Butcher's Tripe Mix was born.
After initial success in breaking into such supermarkets as Tesco and Waitrose, the brand started to take off to the extent that it soon used up all the tripe being produced by the meat business. "We quickly outstripped supplies," says Baker. But even when he bought in extra amounts of tripe he tried to ensure it was fresh because it is a better product.
In fact, the pet food business has now eclipsed the original meat processing business. The Baker Group started in the Fifties, but in the wake of the BSE crisis, which devastated the British beef industry, the family has abandoned that side of operations.
Concentrating on pet foods, Baker - who now employs about 200 people - has expanded away from tripe, and now claims to offer "a range to suit everybody". Ranked third in the branded dog food market, after Pedigree and Winalot, Butcher's has annual sales of about £50m and is now setting about the cat food market, with its Olli brand.
As a relative newcomer, it seems innovation was vital to gaining a 15 per cent share of the market. For instance, its Butcher's Choice offers dog food on an aluminium tray, while Olli cat food is what Baker claims is a unique product that is eaten straight from the dish.
Hood, meanwhile, continues to look after the technical side, improving products and trying out new ones. Now aged 54, Baker is, he says, "still planning for the future".Reuse content