This processor's canning facility in Markham, Illinois redefines minimally processed pet diets with its hand-packed and single-ingredient varieties.
Evanger’s has been family-owned for all of its 84 years, however not by the same family. The company’s pet food history dates back to 1935 when Fred Evanger, an immigrant from Norway who raised championship Great Danes, started making pet food on his dairy farm in Wheeling, Illinois. He sold the company in 1959 to two families who sourced fresh ingredients through local distributors.
Then, in 2002, when the Sher family took over, they started sourcing ingredients directly from local suppliers by cutting out the middleman, who at the time was Joel Sher.
When Joel and his wife, Holly Sher, purchased Evanger’s, the company was primarily a co-manufacturer and the Evanger’s brand represented less than 5% of the company’s business. Today, company-owned brands, including Evanger’s, represent 80% of production. The manufacturing arm behind the production facility is operated by Joel, his son Brett Sher and daughter Callie Sher.
The Evanger’s brand is owned and operated by Holly (left) with help from her daughter Chelsea, and another brand, Against the Grain, is owned solely by the second generation — twins Brett and Chelsea (right), who recently brought on their younger sister, Callie (middle). Starting with just 10 employees in 2002, the Shers’ not-so-small, family-owned business now employs about 100.
When the Sher’s purchased Evanger’s they inherited a brand of ground, loaf-style canned pet food and a processing system that had been triaged a few too many times. Joel made rebuilding equipment a priority to keep production running reliably. Holly focused on promoting the brand. Together they developed new innovative products using the simple, fresh, limited ingredients they already had.
Continuing on that quest to produce pet foods that visually showed the ingredients they contained, the Sher’s began a new concept of producing pet food by hand-packing bone-in chicken and hand-cut vegetables into cans and perfecting the retort or pressure-cooking process so the bones became soft and edible.
Evanger’s recently outgrew the 80-year-old facility at its original Wheeling location and moved its cannery in 2017 to a 5-acre property in Markham with room for future expansion. Evanger’s renovated a 70,000-sq.-ft. building to prepare to move production 50 miles across town. About 20,000 sq. ft. is devoted to production and the rest is raw material storage, warehouse, shipping and receiving.
There are five canning lines total, of which four lines accommodate different can sizes: 5.5 oz., 6 oz., 13 oz. and 22 oz. The fifth line produces 13 oz. hand-packed products. The company has the capability of a 3 oz. line but are not currently producing that size. Up to three lines can run simultaneously.
Each line was designed to require seven or fewer steps from raw materials to finished, packaged product. After raw materials are staged for a recipe, the batch starts at an MTC stainless steel heavy-duty dumper. Fresh meat and produce is lifted and delivered to an MTC stainless-steel belt conveyor. Ingredients are visually inspected before they are dropped into a 100 horse power Weiler grinder equipped with a die plate with 1/2-inch diameter openings.
The image above depicts Evanger's vegetarian dog food formula being ground for production, which includes fresh produce such as sweet potatoes and kale.
After ingredients are ground to a uniform size, they are blended in a Wolfking twin-shaft paddle mixer, constructed of stainless steel, with an open design for easy cleaning. Each blended batch is pumped to an Angelus inline filler/seamer.
Hand-cut ingredients are packed by hand into cans, bypassing the grinding and mixing steps, before those cans go through the seamer.
After sealing, cans are washed and put into large wagons with slatted sides to go into the retort cooking chambers, the door of which must be closed and the cooking process initiated within 60 minutes of sealing the first can in the batch. Up to eight wagons can fit inside each retort chamber.
When Evanger’s renovated the new production facility, they designed a recessed area for the retort machines so the wagons can be rolled directly in without being lifted. Evanger’s has six retorts that were custom manufactured to the company’s proprietary specifications, with plans to install more in the future.
Once cans are cooled, they go to labeling where they are coded with a traceable lot code and best by date printed by a Videojet Technology printer. Next, a label is applied to the can by a roll-through Burt Labeler at speeds up to 800 cans per minute.
From there the cans go to the case packer where they are lined up and ejected into a 12-pack or 24-pack case and onto a Texwrap shrink wrap system. Evanger’s can run three canning lines simultaneously with an average canning speed of 350 cans per minute.
Joel and Holly were the first owners of Evanger’s to put more of a spotlight on the company’s own brand and have grown the company, and specifically the Evanger’s brand, for the next generation to take over.
“We’re really excited to have our children involved,” Holly says. “Historically, the second generation is usually the one to take a brand and run with it. It’s cool to have them involved and watch them learn the ropes.”
Many on the list tout functional formulations to address key need states among dogs and cats.
Supporting mobility, anxiety relief, gut health, skin and coat health, and other in-demand need states.