KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Gigi Samandari, founder of Le Petit Treat, knows firsthand the health problems that mislabeled or tainted dog foods can cause a family pet.
She started hand-making pet treats for her dog after conventional pet foods made him sick. She feels misled by ingredient labels on those products, and she’s not alone.
“I had a customer who had a dog that experienced near kidney failure because of tainted food,” she continues. “As I went through this journey of figuring out what to put in our treats and how to craft a good treat, I did learn a lot from our vet about why these things happen to dogs.”
Samandari believes part of the problem is misinformation and mislabeling of pet foods. “Pet parents can only do the best they can with what they’ve been told, and it’s not until you have an animal that develops a problem that you start to become keyed into these issues,” she says.
Because of her personal experience, Samandari explains, she founded Le Petit Treat to bring the same level of love, care and trust she wanted for Ralphie, to everyone. “I don’t want anybody else to go through what I went through, which is having a dog that was sick on the basis of a mislabeled product,” she says. “And then, to not be able to share that gratitude for that animal in their life by not having a good, trustworthy treat.”
Le Petit Treat products are made in small batches using grain-free, food-grade ingredients from local sources whenever possible. Samandari used her skills as a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef to create flavors that are inspired by classic French dishes such as Coq au Vin and Beef Bourguignon.
From burnout to a business
Samandari’s journey to Le Petit Treat started after graduate school and a career in international public health. Feeling burned out, she decided to take a year-long sabbatical to attend culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu. While working as a chef in France, her dog, Ralphie, became sick.
“My dog started to develop allergies to foods that we thought were — or that were advertised, anyway — as being all-natural and wholesome and all these things,” Samandari says. “So, as a pet parent I thought I was doing what was best for my dog. Unbeknownst to me there were shady practices in the dog food industry.”
Ralphie became so sick that he had to adhere to very specific meals; he couldn’t eat anything containing grains, additives or animal by-products. There were no pet treats on the market at that time that Ralphie could eat. So, Samandari started doing her own research and developed, with the help of a veterinarian, treats that she could make at home. Ralphie’s health started to improve, and Samandari started sharing her homemade pet treats with her pet-parent friends who appreciated knowing the ingredients used in the treats.
The vet helped Samandari select the ingredients and the quantity of each ingredient that goes into Le Petit Treats. Pet parents want to reward their animals, but without causing unintended health problems. Samandari cleared a list of ingredients with her vet with the goal of including only ingredients that would be healthy for dogs. “For instance, in our Coq au Vin treats we have beets, which are rich in antioxidants and are very good for the coat. But because beets do have sugar in them, we didn’t want to include too much,” she explains. “It was both finding the right ingredients and the balance of ingredients that should go into them.”
“There’s nothing in our treats we can’t eat ourselves,” she adds. “In fact, I do all of the taste testing. I have another dog, Ellie [Ralphie passed away], and she’s our official taste-tester, but I definitely try everything myself, as well.”
Samandari also worked hard to make the treats affordable, while reassuring her customers that the ingredients were of the best and highest quality. She says Ralphie got sick at a time when the pet food industry was starting to pay more attention to high-end pet treats and making them widely available. But the premium treats usually were sold at what Samandari calls “super-ultra-chic” boutiques, at $20 for a 5-oz. bag of treats.
“At the time that I was developing these treats it was also cost-prohibitive for me because I had just finished grad school, and I had just taken on this debt from going to cooking school, so it was cost-prohibitive for me to actually buy what I would consider good treats,” she adds.
Sometimes dogs aren’t very discerning about what goes into their mouths — Ellie recently became ill after eating another dog’s poop while Samandari wasn’t looking. But Samandari says dogs do have preferences for some foods.
“I think that there are lots of dogs out there that are picky, and you wouldn’t think it even though they are total garbage boards and will eat anything off the street, for the most part,” she says. “I think as dogs have evolved with their owners, they can become finicky.”
Samandari tested her current product line with Ellie and a series of other dogs; and she continues to taste test the treats herself.
“Why do I test the treats? Because, frankly, they’re actually not bad-tasting,” she says, laughing. “But I’m looking for the texture and chew-ability. Even as a pet owner you want to be able to smell and look at the thing and make sure that it seems like what it’s made of.”
Le Petit Treats are made in a bakery based in Illinois, and Samandari works with the bakery to source specific ingredients as close to the bakery as possible. “They do produce for other people, but when it comes to us, we’re very particular about what exactly the ingredients are that we want to put into our treats and what form we wanted them in,” she explains.
“When you see ‘chicken’ on the label, that’s not chicken beaks or chicken hearts, it’s actual chicken meat. Same with all the vegetables — you can actually see carrots and peas. We insist that all of the ingredients be sourced from the US. We don’t want anything that’s imported from abroad because we believe that here in the US, you know what the standards are and you know what you’re getting.”
BarkBox and other breakthroughs
Although working as a small business operator has its challenges, Le Petit Treat has scored some successes. The premium treats were featured in Bark & Co.’s BarkBox, a monthly subscription service that delivers pet treats and toys. Samandari describes her pitch to BarkBox as a ‘Hail Mary!’
“I sent them a box and a very heartfelt letter that I wrote myself about who I was and why I’m doing this,” she says. “We were looking to get into a bigger audience and grow as BarkBox grows; and sure enough, they picked it up. They’re always looking for unique, funky treats or products in general that their clientele will like, and I think we fit that mold for them.”
Samandari says she hopes Le Petit Treats will be included in the December BarkBox. In the meantime, the company is preparing to launch a new website and e-commerce shop in the next couple of weeks. The brand also will open a new store with online retailer Amazon — including free shipping.
And piggy-backing on a successful appearance at the Global Pet Expo held March 22-24 in Orlando, Florida, Samandari is working with several international partners to export Le Petit Treats.
“Really, our core goal is to create an organic following in America through independent boutique owners,” Samandari says. “That’s really where our heart is. So, we’re hitting the pavement from here until forever trying to get our product out there.”