This article was published in the March 2024 issue of Pet Food Processing. Read it and other articles from this issue in our March digital edition.

When Zoe and Sven Ley set off for their summer honeymoon in May 2004, they probably expected to come home with some lovely photographs, cherished memories, and a tan. As fate would have it, they instead came home with a street dog who would eventually become the inspiration for a new brand of wet dog food powered by bio-organic ingredients — The Rockster.

“It was never supposed to be a commercial food,” said Zoe Ley, co-founder and managing director, The Rockster. “Our story started many, many years before the food, the brand or the company.”

What began in the Ley’s kitchen has since grown to provide superfood meals to dogs throughout Europe and, more recently, the United States. And while The Rockster story is in many ways a love story, it’s also one of bold innovation, generosity, and a relentless pursuit of better nutrition.


Love at first sight

On their honeymoon, the Leys were departing La Conca del Sogno for Capri, Italy, when they encountered an emaciated street dog clearly in need of care. They quickly transported the dog to a veterinarian, who determined the dog was at least five years old at the time, and fed him what would be the first of many meals. Distraught at the thought of leaving the dog behind, they decided to keep him as “a wedding present money couldn’t buy.”

“All I can say is, he had us at ‘hello,’” Zoe said of that first encounter. “We canceled what was left of our honeymoon, because the hotels didn’t accept dogs. So, we were there with him on the piazza in Capri with no hotel to stay in, suitcases, and a dog.”

The Rockster with his Pupsters

Here is Rockster with his “pupsters,” a litter he fathered at the young age of 18. Also pictured are The Rockster Founders Sven and Zoe Ley.

Source: The Rockster

From then on, Rockster never left their side, and it wasn’t long before the couple realized a unique nutritional approach was necessary to keep the pup happy and healthy — and out of the neighbors’ trash.

“He was incredibly difficult to feed — he refused all commercial pet food,” Ley explained. “So, for years and years, we would either give him our food, or home-cooked chicken and rice. He’d rather go through dustbins or run off and beg in restaurants than eat any commercial pet food, and we became increasingly exasperated by this.”

In their search for an enticing diet for Rockster, the Leys decided to take a novel approach to mealtime for their four-legged friend. With Sven’s insight into the German food industry, the couple met with a Bavarian producer to create bio-organic recipes just for Rockster. Bio-organic takes the concept of organic a few steps further, conforming with a philosophy held by Zoe’s Nobel prize-winning godfather, Sir John Vane.

Vane was awarded a Nobel prize for physiology alongside two Swedish scientists in 1982 for the discovery of aspirin as a blood thinner, making it a widely used treatment for heart disease to this day. He also, according to Zoe, advocated that the systemic use of antibiotics in agriculture has in part caused a rise in non-communicable diseases, like allergies, cancers and diabetes.

Because bio-organic foods — including livestock — are never exposed to antibiotics, they are considered a superior class to organic foods, which have long been attracting the public eye due to their reputation for being healthier. But bio-organic foods go beyond the absence of antibiotics — they also support soil health, animal welfare and sustainability.


Bio-organic or bust

The production of bio-organic food started in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Hungary and Northern Italy, and remains prevalent in Germany to this day. While the production of bio-organic food is currently scarce, it offers an abundance of health and environmental benefits due to its strict adherence to a number of requirements.

In Zoe’s own words, “You simply can’t fudge it.”

“If there’s an illness in the herd, that animal sadly has to be taken out — it cannot be treated with antibiotics and put back into the herd,” Zoe said. “That ensures there’s no antibiotic activity.”

“Our approach means that every ingredient has a traceability that would be impossible to replicate,” said Zoe Ley, The Rockster.

This strict avoidance of antibiotics also applies to the soil. In order to be considered bio-organic, a farm cannot use chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, and crop rotation is encouraged to promote soil health. Additionally, bio-organic meat and produce must be completely free from GMOs, chemical growth hormones and steroids, and all bio-organic ingredients must be sterilized before they are processed to eliminate the risk of cross-contamination.

Bio-organic food production also requires the observance of certain animal welfare standards, another aspect of sustainability gaining importance with consumers. Livestock farmers must provide animals organic feeds and access to free-range, open-air environments.

Other benefits of bio-organic include ingredient traceability, sustainability, and even nutrition, according to Zoe.

“The amino acids, the Omega 3 and 6 makeup of that protein, and the antioxidant levels, as well as other flavonoids and polyphenol content of bio-organic meat, fruits and vegetables, are entirely different [from non-bio-organic sources],” she said. “For example, a bio-organic blueberry could have up to 10 times the antioxidant count of a normal blueberry.”


From kitchen to commercialization

With these diets being made for Rockster alone, Zoe and Sven quickly accumulated a surplus of the food, at which point they began giving it away to friends. Before long, word of mouth about Rockster’s food brought curious community members to their doorstep.

Then, when the company learned about a British dog — King — suffering from kidney failure and refusing food, Zoe and Sven jumped at the opportunity help in a move that would eventually turn Rockster’s bio-organic food into its own brand.

The Rockster's wet dog food lineup

The Rockster product line includes six recipes, all inspired by Rockster’s travels from Capri back to his home in London. 

| Source: The Rockster

King was at the Royal Veterinary College Hospital at the time his owner called Zoe and Sven to request some of Rockster’s special food. According to Zoe, King immediately started eating the diet, and his bloodwork and overall health took a turn for the best shortly afterward. Thus, The Rockster was born.

“It was at that point we realized, if we can help one other dog out there, we could also help hundreds of dogs — and their owners, by extension — through Rockster’s food,” she said.

The Rockster food is formulated with human-grade, all-natural, certified bio-organic ingredients, all guaranteeing single-protein formulations. According to the brand, formulas include more than 80% organic meat content, high antioxidant levels, organic prebiotics, and Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. They are also completely free from grains, gluten, GMOs, peas, lentils and fillers.

Bio-organic meat sourced for The Rockster comes only from muscles and vital inner organs, and most meat is sourced locally in Europe, with the exception of grass-fed lamb from New Zealand. All diets are fortified with natural inulin from fermented Jerusalem artichoke concentrate and cooked at low temperatures to achieve optimal nutrient absorption.

“The single most important thing anyone does for their pet is what they feed it,” said Zoe Ley, The Rockster.

As the gently cooked pet food movement gains steam, The Rockster isn’t cutting any corners in its processing methods either. Zoe explained the company uses a sous-vide method — not only gently cooked, but literally cooked “under a vacuum,” in line with the literal French to English translation of sous-vide — through which all ingredients are packed into cans and purged of air before they are sealed and cooked. This anaerobic process allows The Rockster to incorporate fresh, natural ingredients that contribute their own moisture to the diets, and eliminates the need for added water or broth in the formula. The combination of this nutritional philosophy and process technique also lends itself to palatability.

“No two cans look exactly the same on the inside because they are completely natural, and the first time those ingredients meet oxygen post-processing is when the can is opened,” Zoe explained. “That’s partly because we believe this provides less nutrient degradation.”

The company selected a unique BPA-free can in which to cook, store and sell its dog foods. Also unique, labels are printed directly onto each can, making it fully recyclable and impossible to fake, as Zoe put it.

Each formula’s ingredient traceability is ensured thanks to the stringent requirements of bio-organic food production, but the company also goes to great lengths to provide pet owners as much on-pack peace of mind as possible. For example, all ingredients in any given Rockster diet are itemized by percentage of weight. For meat ingredients, the company lists the exact percentage of each part of an animal used in the recipe, and provides detailed descriptions of all ingredients on its website.

The Rockster lifestyle product shot with Dalmatian

What you see is what you get with The Rockster. The company provides 100% transparency on every label, including breaking down meat ingredients by which part of the animal they came from. 

| Source: The Rockster

“I think everybody should have 100% transparency,” Zoe said. “As pet owners and consumers, we have the right to know exactly what we’re feeding our dogs, our children and ourselves.”


Coming stateside

The Rockster, which remains family-owned to this day, launched in the UK market slowly but surely and with a steadfast dedication to the independent pet retail channel. It wasn’t until the brand made its debut at Global Pet Expo in 2020 — merely days before the COVID-19 pandemic first put the nation on lockdown — that it considered a move into the US marketplace.

Unfortunately, the onset of COVID-19 delayed the brand’s broad-scale launch in the United States, and its partnership with Phillips Pet Food & Supplies to bring The Rockster stateside was put on hold until 2022. Last year, the company announced its official launch into the US marketplace, and is now gearing up to enter Healthy Spot stores across the country in 2024. Zoe mentioned The Rockster is currently open to additional distributor partnerships as it works to establish itself more firmly in the American pet product marketplace.

The Rockster’s path into the United States wasn’t easy, according to Zoe. For one, regulatory standards for cross-contamination pose an issue for any country importing products into the United States. This wasn’t a problem for The Rockster, however, as a lack of cross-contamination is already embedded into bio-organic standards.

Illustration of Rockster, which appears on each of the dog food brand's cans

An illustration of Rockster, which is front and center on every can of dog food The Rockster offers.

| Source: The Rockster

The real challenge came as the company explored options for having The Rockster diets produced in the United States, but found no such bio-organic supply chain exists at a scale that could support the brand. Until then, the company will continue to rely on its European supply chain and manufacturing partners to bring The Rockster to American pet owners.


Rocking on

The Rockster’s future involves new products and customers in new parts of the world. In the near term, the brand is looking at introducing a freeze-dried sturgeon recipe in the European market. First and foremost, however, it will stick to its roots in the quest to become a trusted name in the industry.

“My dream for The Rockster brand is to be catering to all the needs of the dog — that a customer sees our brand and knows there has been no stone unturned,” Zoe said. “That it’s the best of the best, and there’s been no cutting corners on quality, whether it’s a wet food, a freeze-dried recipe, a supplement, or whatever it may be.”

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