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Taste-testing Proportions dog food, which you can customize online for your pup

Posted by Scott Kirsner  September 20, 2010 03:00 PM

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Screen shot 2010-09-20 at 2.24.13 PM.pngDoes your pooch deserve a higher-quality dish of dog food?

Brad Bishop, general manager of the canine business at Plymouth-based SmartPak, says that most American dogs (like their owners) consume too many carbs, and as many as one-third are obese. His solution? Replace kibble and canned food with a well-balanced meal of that includes white meat chicken, dried fruits and vegetables, and a tasty pumpkin broth.

“Kibble is basically dough that is fried, and then sprayed with synthetic vitamins to make up for the nutrient loss,” Bishop says. “What we’re doing is taking a lot of carbohydrate calories out of the meal, and replacing them with high-quality protein.”

SmartPak launched its Proportions brand of dog food this past spring. It can be customized online, based on your dog’s breed, activity level, and reproductive status (spayed, neutered, or not), to supply the ideal number of calories at each meal. You can also upload a photo of your dog, which appears on the packaging, along with her name. Depending on the size of the dog, each meal costs between $1 and $3. SmartPak purchases the ingredients from other companies, like Tewksbury-based WellPet LLC, and assembles the individual meals at its Plymouth facility.

With 225 employees, SmartPak’s main business is selling nutritional supplements for horses, and all kinds of other equine supplies and gear. The company says it operates the biggest equine catalog retailing business in the world, and not long ago, SmartPak began expanding into canine merchandise. “We realized that about 90 percent of horse owners also have dogs,” says Paal Gisholt, SmartPak’s CEO. And of course, the number of dogs in the U.S. (60 million) dwarfs the number of horses (about nine million.)

Gisholt says that the primary investor in SmartPak, founded back in 1999, has been Waltham-based North Bridge Growth Equity, which has put about $30 million into the company.

The company is targeting the Whole Foods shopper with the Proportions brand. (They describe Proportions, in fact, as "whole food nutrition for your dog.") “It’s for people who believe that their dog is a member of the family, and want to feed them consistently with their belief,” says Bishop. After rhapsodizing about the hand-carved, hormone-free, human-grade white meat chicken included in the meals, Bishop popped a morsel in his mouth.

That felt like a dare, so I decided to give Proportions a try myself. (See the video below.)

Proportions offers a two-meal trial pack through its Web site for free. It has also been promoting the food at farmer’s markets, with Internet search advertising, and through incentives that it offers to dog groomers, pet sitters, and trainers. Bishop says the company may soon offer the option to have nutritional supplements included with the food packages — like glucosamine for joint pain.

You can see my reaction to Proportions in the video below, but I also wanted to see what an actual dog thought of the food. So my sister, who owns a Goldendoodle, requested a free sample of Proportions through the Web site. Her dog scarfed it up, and so she ordered a four-week supply of the food — and also received another four weeks free through a promotion.

“I liked having Willow’s picture on the box, and the food really looks like people food,” she told me, adding that Proportions’ customer service reps were helpful on the phone. She said the food, at $144 for a four-week supply, was about as expensive as the Beneful brand food she already gives the dog. But she wasn’t sure she intended to sign up for the monthly shipments of Proportions. “It just seems more expensive when you’re paying for four weeks of the Proportions at once, as compared to when I buy a couple week’s worth of food at Target and it’s mixed in with all my other stuff,” she said. (I should perhaps add that she is not a Whole Foods shopper.)

Here's the video of my visit to SmartPak HQ in Plymouth.

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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