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

After years of working in the pet food industry, Jaime Cooper and Paul Paige decided there was something missing. A void that needed to be filled. 

Jaime Cooper and his dog

Jaime Cooper believes in the health-centric focus behind his brand because as the company name, D.R.E.A.M., states, “dogs rule everything around me.” 

Source: D.R.E.A.M. Pet Food

“We spent a lot of time going to industry events, like SuperZoo and Global Pet Expo, and representation in our industry was very low — it was lacking,” Cooper said. “Every year, there were emerging brands and new products that would come out on the market, and every year we noticed that nothing really fit us and our dogs and what we loved to feed them. It was a stark reminder that you need representation in the industry that you’re in, and in the products that you buy.

“We thought there was a whitespace, something that was lacking in this industry — something that represented our culture and the music we grew up loving, something that represented us — and we wanted to see if we could fill it,” Cooper explained. “That’s the reason we decided to start D.R.E.A.M. — for representation and inclusion.”

D.R.E.A.M. — Dogs Rule Everything Around Me — was the brainchild of Paige. After coming up with the name and brainstorming the brand’s message, Paige invited his longtime industry friend Cooper to partner up and bring the concept — a pet treat brand which combines the nostalgia of 80s-era hip-hop with high-quality, healthy pet treats — to fruition. 

The duo started their brand in 2021 and set out on their mission to, “make sure we have a hand in changing the pet food landscape by being unapologetic, authentic, and a voice to the unrepresented.”


Attracting attention

Getting noticed in the saturated pet treat category can be a daunting task for any new brand, but Cooper and Paige felt confident that their nostalgic hip-hop concept would resonate with customers as long as their packaging successfully stood out on the shelves.

“As a consumer, the packaging is the first thing you see, so we wanted our packaging to stand out,” Cooper said. “We wanted people to feel the same thing that we feel when we saw the package, which is a feeling of nostalgia.”

Each package features Benny, the D.R.E.A.M. mascot, sporting a tracksuit, gold chain and signature hip-hop Kangol hat. The playful packaging design aims to appeal to both kids and adults.

“In the CPG space, you’ve got to figure out a way to get people’s attention,” said Jaime Cooper, D.R.E.A.M. Pet Food.

“A kid walking down the pet treat aisle will see Benny and will be like, ‘Mom, that’s cool.’ And an adult will see it and notice the tracksuit, and the gold chain and Kangol hat and they’ll be like, ‘I recognize that, I remember that.’ And then, you’ve got them — at a minimum they’re going to pick up the package and take a closer look,” Cooper said. “In the CPG space, you’ve got to figure out a way to get people’s attention. Especially in the pet industry, we’re all vying for attention. How do we get attention? For us, the first entrance was through our packaging.”

The treats are sold in 10-oz bags on Amazon and in select independent grocery stores and pet retailers in Missouri, Georgia, Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Four- and 10-oz sizes are also sold on the company’s website. 

“If you walk down a pet food aisle, all the packaging looks the same. There’s no originality in the packaging,” Cooper said. “You can say what you want about our treats, but you can’t say that our packaging and our brand is not original or authentic or cool.”


Formulation first

Even though the company’s branding message and eye-catching packaging are cornerstones of D.R.E.A.M.’s mission, the product’s healthy formulation profile is also bedrock.

“It’s a two-pronged approach,” Cooper explained. “You can have all the cool marketing and branding in the world — which we feel like we do — but if your treats aren’t healthy, there’s no benefit. It’s not going to matter how cool you are.”

During the early stages of product development, Cooper and Paige researched formulation options to learn the best ways to incorporate the flavor profile and ingredient benefits they hoped to deliver in their pet treats.

D.R.E.A.M. pet treat packaging

D.R.E.A.M. pet treat packages feature the company’s mascot, Benny, sporting a signature hip-hop Kangol hat and gold chain.

| Source: D.R.E.A.M. Pet Food

“We took a number of formulations classes; we went to K-State to work with Dr. Greg Aldrich. We wanted to get it right,” Cooper said. “When we started creating the product, it was clear what we wanted it to be. We wanted the treats to be very limited ingredient and wanted them to be tasty. When we set out on our journey, those were the two must-haves.”

The end result is a limited-ingredient baked pet treat currently available in three flavors. Chicken+Veggie contains barley flour, palm oil, honey, rolled oats, chicken, oat flour, flax, coconut oil, sweet potatoes and parsley. Honey Cinnamon contains barley flour, palm oil, honey, rolled oats, oat flour, flax, coconut oil and chia seeds. Peanut Butter contains barley flour, palm oil, honey, rolled oats, peanut butter, oat flour, coconut oil, flax and peanut flour. 

The treats contain no artificial flavors, preservatives or dyes and can be fed to dogs of all breeds and ages. D.R.E.A.M. treats are recommended for treating and training. 


Outside assistance

Part of the D.R.E.A.M. team’s strategy to help grow their brand was to take advantage of all the resources at their disposal, which included working with SKU, a CPG accelerator program designed for early-stage consumer product companies. SKU brings together young brands with mentors to help new startups propel their growth. 

“SKU organizes two tracks a year and we’ve been doing it for 13 years — more than 140 companies run through the program,” said Buff Grebe, executive director of SKU. “It’s an ecosystem where we connect founders of startups with mentors and investors. We are always looking for emerging brands who already have traction in the market to take through the program.”

In 2023, the organization offered its first-ever accelerator track dedicated to pet care startups, and D.R.E.A.M. was lucky enough to be a part of that inaugural group.

D.R.E.A.M. Pet Food Co-Founder Paul Paige’s dog Apollo

D.R.E.A.M. Pet Food Co-Founder Paul Paige’s dog Apollo shows off his love for the brand.

| Source: Paul Paige

“Pet care is hot. We all know about the humanization of pets — it’s a $150 billion industry and it’s still growing really fast,” Grebe said. “It’s a booming business with a lot of activity, so that’s why we got so hot on pet care.”

During each 12-week program, SKU presents the brands with a customized curriculum focused on the entire CPG ecosystem, advanced operations support, and access to funding. The program combines online training with in-person networking and a course finale brand pitch session. Throughout the program, participating brands are partnered with a team of six to eight mentors — subject-matter industry experts, successful entrepreneurial brand leaders, CPG executives and investment professionals.

“We had a beautiful set of mentors,” Cooper said. “There were data people on our team. We had people who were co-manufacturing experts, business consultant experts — across the gamut... They were a great group of people — they really made it easy for us.”

SKU’s curriculum promises to deliver an understanding of everything needed to succeed as a new brand, from channel strategy to fundraising. Participants develop and produce a video investment pitch during the course, which can be used later for potential investors. 

The 12-week program culminates in Showcase Day in Austin, Texas, where all founders in the current track make a five-minute pitch to Angel investors, venture capitalists and fellow SKU founder brands. 

“Talk about nerve wracking — for Paul and I, it was the first time we had pitched live,” Cooper said. “Our mentors had done a good job of getting us prepared for that moment. Then we got on stage and reception was positive.”

In addition to the assigned mentors working with the brands, participants work alongside other brands in the program, which provides a peer network to learn from during and after the course. 

“SKU is a tool that provides resources and relationships during the program, but also after,” Grebe said. “We have continued founder education, different topics once a month — all alums are invited.” 

Many SKU founders go on to work as advisors, mentors and even board members with SKU after completing the program.

 “I think the SKU program positioned us well to take advantage of everything we learned during our 12-week program. Paul and I said from the beginning that if we aren’t able to take the information that we learned, and the relationships that we built from this program and take the next step in our business, then that’s on us,” Cooper said. “We’re just trying to take the information that we learned from SKU and run with it. We’ve been walking since we started, but now I think we’re ready to run — and that’s all due to SKU.”


Evolving the brand

Following suggestions from the SKU mentors and other founders involved with the SKU program, Cooper and Paige are making small adjustments to their original packaging design.

“One of the things we learned from SKU is that when you do a packaging redesign it’s important not to stray so far away from the original that loyal customers won’t be able to recognize you,” Cooper explained. “So, we’re keeping the colors the same, and many of the same elements — it won’t be a stark departure from what we’re doing now.”

D.R.E.A.M. Pet Food is where “hip-hop and pet treats collide.”

D.R.E.A.M. Pet Food is where “hip-hop and pet treats collide.”

| Source: Egan Fitts

D.R.E.A.M. products are currently produced by an Illinois-based co-manufacturer and distributed to six states. A recent distribution partnership with Fresh Thyme stores marks the brand’s first foray into grocery stores — previous store distribution was through corner store markets and independent pet shops.

As a small brand, finding co-manufacturers willing and able to produce smaller production runs has been a challenge.

“There are levels to co-manufacturing. There are those that exist at the top and work with larger companies and there are those that play in the middle — there’s not a lot of co-mans for smaller brands,” Cooper said. “I noticed those smaller brands get left out and are left to fend for themselves. That’s the kind of situation we ran into at the beginning.”

Cooper and Paige are looking for a second co-manufacturer to help them meet their goals to expand production and distribution. 

“If we are able to secure a second supplier, it’ll open us up to be able to make different flavors, maybe different shapes,” Cooper said. “Maybe because we’re a hip-hop brand, we could do treats shaped like letters that spell out ‘hip- hop’ or spell out ‘rap.’ That would be something cool and unique.

 “We love this industry, which is why we’re in it and why we do what we do,” he continued. “But a regular brand that just comes out with bones and soft chews, those are a dime a dozen. How do you separate your brand? For us, it’s creating something that’s fun.”

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