For Brittain DeFeo and Courtney Varela, sisters and founders of Homemade Doggy Dinners, pet food is a passion. The fraternal twins grew up watching their mother create healthy meals for their family’s diabetic Bichon Frise, Max. The subsequent perk in Max’s lifestyle sparked an appreciation of nutritious pet food that ultimately inspired the twins’ career paths.
Courtney and Brittain’s road into the pet food industry wasn’t direct, the sisters attended college and went on to pursue studies in holistic healing, massage therapy, and nutrition. When they realized the adverse effects processed food had on the human body, they immediately connected the dots to their own beloved pets. While they knew they wanted to start a business together, the organic manner in which pet nutrition became a business venture was a surprise to them both.
“I always knew I wanted to work with my sister, but I never knew it would be opening a dog food company,” Brittain shares. “Seeing how bad processed food was for people made us realize that giving it to your pet was equally as dangerous. Dogs live such short lives as it is, we wanted to extend their lifespan as much as possible and help them feel great everyday.”
The sisters began experimenting with organic ingredients in 2006, when they started creating new recipes in their mother’s kitchen. They applied what they had learned in their holistic health studies to their new pet food, and then consulted with a veterinarian to be certain they were utilizing dog-safe foods. The sisters sent their test recipes to a lab for guaranteed analysis to ensure that their potential product would meet the nutritional needs of dogs. With a little tweaking and a big leap of faith, the sisters embarked on a grassroots journey that led them to start their own business.
Offering an alternative to processed kibble allowed the twins to be proactive against dog food companies who create misleading ingredient labels. “Some kibbles are ok, but most are filled with additives, corn and carbs, which dogs have a hard time digesting,” Brittain says. “They’re also not providing ample amounts of meat, which is so important for dogs to have. Dog food companies are taking whatever they claim to have in it—chicken, rice, veggies—and turning it into this brown, dried kibble thing that doesn’t even resemble real food. Dogs are eating it, and their bodies can’t process what it is. Their organs can shut down.”On the left, Brittan DeFeo prepares food balls. On the right, Courtney Varela holds Eli, one of her twins, at a farmers market.
Studies have shown that even though dog food companies follow manufacturer guidelines established by the AAFCO (The Association of American Feed Control Officials), the regulation for enforcing safe handling practices varies state by state. In addition to varying degrees of accountability, pet food can be filled with additives related to a multitude of health problems that include rapid aging, kidney deterioration, and weak bones –all of which can lead to additional issues.
Motivated to spread the word on the benefits of pet nutrition, the pair of budding entrepreneurs passed out brochures in veterinarian offices and placed tiny ads in local papers to get their product to the public. The business grew to include involvement with several farmers markets, deliveries all throughout Southern California, and shipments sent throughout the country. Homemade Doggy Dinners is now a full time job for Brittain and Courtney, who take pride in creating a product that they believe in. The twins credit their growing success to straightforward recipes and ingredient labels that are transparent with no hidden language.
Brittain shares that one of the rewards of selling their products is being able to attend farmers markets and interact with their customers. One of their greatest success stories involved a family whose dog was passing away from cancer. The owners of the ailing dog were a husband and wife that had children who were away at college. The couple was desperate to find a way to keep their beloved pet alive long enough for their children to make it home and say their goodbyes. The couple admitted that they were trying Homemade Doggy Dinners as a last resort, and to their pleasant surprise, came back to share with Courtney and Brittain that their pet had made a turnaround.
“We were with those customers for a year and half, and they kept us in the loop the whole time. Hearing their story and being able to know the success they were having –it’s hard to find the words to explain how that made us feel. Even though their dog did end up passing away from cancer, he was around for a year and a half longer and the kids were able to see him again and again,” Brittain says. “When you make someone’s pet happy, you make them and their family happy. Starting the business has allowed us to experience this circle of love, and it’s been so fulfilling.”