The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at email@example.com.
Richard Acain is the founder of Sonny Nation Dog Food Co., a Middletown-based micro-business offering “human grade” dog food using locally sourced ingredients. He launched the company in September 2022.
Q. Tell me the story behind the Sonny Nation Dog Food Co. How did you come up with this idea?
Acain: I’m a private chef based in Newport, and have been cooking for about 25 years. A few years ago, I noticed that the kibble and canned food I was feeding my two dogs — Sonny and Nation — wasn’t good for their stomachs. I’d often take them to the vet, and the doctor was always sending me home with instructions to make rice and chicken for the next week.
I started doing some research and looking up different recipes that were recommended for dogs, and realized there was a lot I could just cook myself to completely bypass the mass-produced food at the pet stores. I started preparing fresh “human grade” food regularly, and would even bag, freeze, and store it. I looked inside my freezer one day and thought it looked like I had purchased these bags from a real store or brand. I saw the difference the food had on my own dogs, and I figured it could help others. So I started putting pen to paper, and saw I could turn this into an actual business.
Q. Who are you selling to?
A. It started off as mostly friends and family, and the local, wealthy families I cook for. I am now also offering delivery for free. We provide our customers a cooler that they leave outside. And every Thursday, we will deliver fresh dog food for free all over Rhode Island. All customers have to do is order online on our website. (Acain also sells at the Aquidneck Island Growers markets.)
Q. What makes Sonny Nation Dog Food Co. different from other premium dog foods?
A. There are other companies, such as The Farmer’s Dog, that offer this kind of quality food as well. But all of my meals are prepared the same week you purchase them, and my ingredients are fresh and local.
Q. You say this is “human-grade” food. What do you mean?
A. Here’s an example: Our turkey recipe has peas, carrots, quinoa, rice, and pumpkin. I toss it at the end with salmon oil additive. If I didn’t add that additive at the end, a human could consume it. Some of my customers will talk to their veterinarian to figure out some vitamins, or other additives.
Q. How much does Sonny Nation’s dog food cost?
A. It’s around $5 per day for my 30-pound Boston Terrier mix. She eats a little under a pound per day (Acain sells one-pound packages of his dog food, which can be frozen). That’s a different amount compared to the portion of dry food you would feed a similarly sized pup. Kibble is made differently and is more dense.
Q. Where are you making this dog food?
A. In a commercial kitchen (which was certified by the health department) my partner owns in Hopkinton, Rhode Island. The restaurant the kitchen is located in is not currently open, but I also plan on transitioning to a commercial kitchen in Newport this fall.
Q. The pet food market is a $99 billion industry that’s dominated by a handful of brands. How do you plan to break into the market?
A. I am mostly reaching out to local food stores that specialize in products that are made locally. The farmers’ markets have been successful, but in order to better reach customers year-round in New England, I need to find a few stores — starting on Aquidneck Island — where I can sell the food. I am in a conversation with someone who is opening a new local foods store in November on Broadway in Newport, and they plan to sell it there.
Q. What about shipping?
A. That’s what’s coming next. Being in Newport, I’ve had lots of customers all summer who had their boat or yacht docked in the harbor, or who had summered here. They’ve seen the difference it has had on their dogs, but with the summer nearly over, many of these folks are leaving for the winter. And they are asking me to ship their food.
Q. Have you fund-raised through a Kickstarter?
A. Not at all. I kind of just started this business while sitting at my kitchen table one night, writing down ideas of how I would make it work. A year later, it amazes me to watch how it has grown. I never expected it to take off like it has.