Q&A With Smalls Cat Food

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Publisher’s Note: The following interview has been condensed and edited for style and contains affiliate links.

Switch to a healthier cat food with Smalls, now delivering across the United States.

It’s not very often that you find an incredible pet food maker right in your own city, but I did just that recently when I discovered Smalls cat food.

Cooking out of a kitchen right here in Brooklyn, New York, co-founders Calvin Bohn and Matt Michaelson and their small, devoted team are churning out high-quality, nutritional cat food with human-grade ingredients and no fillers that is ready to deliver to homes across the United States. And it’s surprisingly affordable! Their guiding principles: Whole ingredients. Simple recipes. Cooked fresh.

I got a chance recently to tour the Smalls kitchen and talk with Calvin and Matt, which gave me fantastic insight into how their food is prepared with love (Calvin personally tastes each batch of cat food he makes, saying, “If it’s not good for us, it’s not good enough for our feline family”) and how Smalls hopes to make a big difference in cats’ lives. Below is my interview with them.

Matt Michaelson, left, and Calvin Bohn, co-founders of Smalls cat food.

Dave: Tell me about what inspired you to start Smalls. Do you have a cat?

Calvin: We were thinking about adopting a cat for a while. We want a pet here in New York City, but both of our lives are a little bit too busy to make having one at home feel OK.

Dave: You guys are roommates?

Calvin: We live about a block away from each other. We’ve been best friends forever, so we were thinking kind of a communal pet.

Dave: You went to school together?

Matt: Yeah, we went to high school together. We actually grew up as neighbors in Portland, so that’s how we know each other.

Calvin: We moved to New York City independently, actually, but ended up randomly living just a few doors down from each other.

Dave: So, you wanted to get a pet together.

Calvin: We thought about dogs and were a little bit worried about …

Matt: Space.

Calvin: … Having a dog at home. And time. Cats are definitely better at taking care of themselves and being left alone more. So we started thinking about, what are the ramifications of this? We started investigating food, litter, treats, training, everything.

Dave: There’s a lot to think about.

Calvin: Food was a real revelation, just trying to figure out what we were going to feed, and we couldn’t find very much that seemed true about what was good. It was difficult to differentiate between a lot of the pet foods on the market. It’s hard to get a straight answer from pet food companies: Why wet food? Why kibble? Why not raw? Why not fresh cooked? As we started investigating this, we kind of got obsessed and dove down the rabbit’s hole and realized that the truth of the matter is, kibble is inappropriate for cats. Wet food is better, but there are tons of problems with the protein sourcing. There’s nobody who sells cooked food except some mom-and-pop pet food specialty shops and a few really small companies. We realized it was just something that we would want to learn for that classic “Why don’t we just start doing it?”

Dave: Sure.

Matt: The first batch we cooked, we cooked in my kitchen at home.

Dave: Where did you get the recipe for that?

Matt: We developed the recipe in partnership with a woman who has a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences.

Dave: So that first recipe was developed with her?

Matt: Yeah.

Calvin: We iterated on it a few times since then, but we knew we were interested in making this.

Matt: We cooked the first batch at home and spent like 14 hours cooking, thinking it was going to be like a small project.

Dave: Whoa. Fourteen hours?

Calvin: We started at 3 p.m. thinking we were going to be able to deliver food that night.

Dave: Huh. So where were you going to deliver it?

Calvin: We had some friends and acquaintances in New York.

Matt: I had a sink full of cat food. So … small beginnings. We kind of worked from there and then iterated through the recipes. Calvin, for the most part, has been responsible for the manufacturing and production and figuring out the perfect recipes and iterating through them. There’s another person we worked with too, a feline nutrition expert.

Calvin: It was the perfect gut check for us, consulting with someone who knows what she’s doing.

Matt: And can make sure we’re on the right track. We feel pretty good about our recipes. They’re 90 to 94 percent meat based, which really is what cats need. I think it’s the most expensive ingredient, so in a world where you can mislead people and you can hide your ingredient sourcing and what the ingredients actually are, you avoid the most expensive ingredient, and we’re not doing that at Smalls — unfortunately for us, but fortunately for cats.

 

Dave: Let’s talk for a moment about kibble versus wet food for cats.

Matt: Yeah, there are massive problems where kibble leads cats to be chronically dehydrated. You hear all the time, “My cat’s fine.” Yeah, he’s fine for now, but if you were dehydrated for 5 years or 8 years, that would affect you. It wouldn’t affect you immediately, and you would probably feel better immediately if you started drinking more water and being better fed.

Calvin: [Standing up] Pardon me. We still have a pot boiling that I think should be done boiling.

Dave: Right! I almost forgot we were in a kitchen. Go rescue that pot.

Matt: You see things like these crazy statistics, like 30 percent of cats are obese, 58 percent are overweight. Cats aren’t naturally obese animals. So you see healthcare costs for pets rising faster than human healthcare costs in the past decade. It’s not very difficult to figure out that it’s about diet and eating well, and you have this entire world of cats that are eating pretty poor nutrition, and all these people who would love to know better, but the current pet food system is built for them not to. Here’s an example: Are you familiar with the class-action lawsuit against some of the big brands over prescription pet food? [The antitrust lawsuit was apparently dismissed this past summer.] This whole world of “prescription” implies that there’s a controlled substance, but there’s no controlled substance.

Calvin: [Returning] It’s a brilliant marketing ploy.

Matt: You have to get a prescription from a vet for basically the same pet food that you’re now being charged double for. Then you have these problems where it’s only a Band-Aid solution for cats who are dehydrated or getting poorly sourced protein, and that Band-Aid solution is just perpetuating the problem because it’s the same food.

Dave: You can’t compare what you guys are doing at Smalls with the stuff you’ll get with some of the lower-quality brands.

Matt: No.

Calvin: It’s like trying to solve your problem of internal bleeding by eating the same thing that causes your internal bleeding but adding a clotting agent.

The Smalls team consulted with feline nutrition experts to help create the perfect recipes without any fillers or grains and full of high-quality protein.

Dave: You were talking earlier about how expensive it is for you to put high-quality protein in your cat food. When I first looked at your website I was like, “This is actually pretty affordable,” at least compared to what I’m paying now for a premium cat food I buy at a grocery store. It’s very comparable.

Matt: Yeah, we try to keep our prices as low as possible. We can get away with that just because it’s a subscription service.

Calvin: I hope so. We’re still small enough where we can say to each other, “Did you see what’s happening with Sheila’s order?” “Oh, Sheila, did you say hi to her?” “Is Obi still 15 pounds?”

Dave: Real mom-and-pop.

Calvin: We know our customers!

Matt: I’ve had phone calls with half of them.

Dave: They love that probably, though. I mean, that’s such a benefit, to know where your food is coming from, to know that it’s cooked right. Great ingredients. And you can call your cat food makers up and talk directly to them? I mean, this is a no-brainer.

Matt: Yeah, we’ll answer your call. But all of our support is done through text message, and you’ll reach Calvin and me, and we’ll text you back.

Calvin: It’s us sitting on the other end.

Dave: OK, but I won’t tell my readers that they can just call you up.

Matt: No, go ahead. We’ll talk to them.

Calvin: Bring it on! [The phone number is 503-487-4303, or just check out the Smalls website for more info.] I think our big philosophy around this is that we want to improve as much as possible, and we know along the way it’s going to be hard to figure out lots of things. What’s the most palatable to cats? What is the best packaging? What’s the best delivery method? What we’re really hoping is that people can just tell that we are on the right side and trying to do this right, and stick with us and give us that feedback so we can grow together. I think we already are at a pretty incredibly place. The product, I think, is already close to the best on the market. The experience of shipping it is really seamless.

Dave: Have you looked at your competitors’ products?

Matt: There’s a million pet foods out there. We try to find this line where we call it homemade. We do everything here.

Calvin: It’s handmade by 4 people using no techniques that you don’t have available in your home kitchen. I think it’s fair to call it home cooking. Obviously, it’s at scale of some degree, but we don’t have any industrial processes in this.

Dave: Who else is making something like this?

Matt: Well, there’s The Farmer’s Dog and Ollie, which make it for dogs.

Calvin: Really, no one’s doing exactly what we’re doing in cat food yet — this frozen product that comes out looking like a ground meat salad. There’s a few people who do raw food, which we think is great, honestly. It’s way better than the processed stuff. We think raw is largely safe, but that big concern is what happens when a cat eats out of the bowl and then goes to lick something and starts spreading bacteria around the house. It’s not dangerous for the animal most likely, but for everybody else the risks are tricky. But yeah, we’re cooked for that reason. We started from that mentality of, what do cats eat in nature? How can we approximate that? So we thought about raw for a while before deciding it’s too much of a hurdle.

Dave: Have you eaten the Smalls cat food yourself?

Calvin: I take a spoonful out of every single batch.

Dave: Nice!

Calvin: It’s a little livery for my taste [laughing], but it’s more than edible and totally good.

Matt: If anything, we want to make it taste a little more livery.

Calvin: Cats like that a lot more than I do.

Dave: Speaking of which, what has been the reception from the cats?

Calvin: Cats really like it. We’ve gotten some amazing feedback, in terms of almost immediate impacts from eating the food. The very best one is a cat who had lip ulcers and had been taking medication for months. Then within 2 weeks of eating our food, the lip ulcers had all cleared up, and they were able to stop taking the medication. We’ve had cats who stopped taking naps during the day and instead were energetic all the way through.

Matt: Cats sleeping through the night better. If you think about it, if you eat more nutritious food, you’re full for longer. So for cats who used to wake up, people are now saying, “My cat’s finally sleeping through the night.”

Calvin: “I don’t get woken up by a kitty sitting, looking over, begging me for food at 5 in the morning.”

Matt: Yeah, we’ve had really good stories like that. I mean, obviously, cats can be finicky and they like a certain thing. Cats are tricky, though. They don’t give the most detailed feedback.

Calvin: One of our big focuses as a brand is helping with the transition process. So we do the text support, we send out a brochure with every first order that shows step by step, here is how you should transition your cat. Please text us if you have any trouble.

Matt: We just give you our phone number, and you can have a conversation with us, send us a picture of what’s going on, and we’ll just try to help you through that process. All cats can transition; it’s more a matter of getting the human to take them off the not-so-great food they’re on and get them to eating healthy. It’s about being patient and being persistent, and using the right behavioral techniques to switch the cat over.

Calvin: We do a few things, also. We include dehydrated chicken liver powder and bonito flakes, both of which are really delicious for cats …

Dave: My cat loves bonito flakes!

Calvin: Perfect. We just tell everybody, “If your cat doesn’t recognize this as food, which is totally reasonable given that they have not ever eaten food that looks like this before, this is how you get them to come over and smell it, have a few bites.” By day 2 and day 3, they’ll start to recognize that, yeah, this is food.

Dave: Well, for me, what I like about Smalls cat food is it looks like the closest thing to homemade that I could give — me making it myself, which I just can’t bring myself to do.

Matt: It’s really hard.

Calvin: It’s honestly dangerous to make your own cat food at home. To get the vitamin mix right it took us 6 months of working on it full time, working with experts, to make sure that we had the right nutritional profile.

Matt: If you’re going to feed your cat the same thing every day, and have a complete and balanced diet, it’s very tricky. If I were to say, “Hey, Calvin, you’re only going to eat this for the rest of your life,” I’d have to be pretty careful about what I chose to make sure that he was not malnourished in some capacity. So, same thing with cats. I mean, you just have to be careful about it. We also think that it’s good to rotate diets, and we have multiple recipes. You can sign up for a mix of our recipes to kind of keep things rotating. If your cat likes all the recipes, that’s awesome — you can just rotate through.

Try Smalls Now for 75 Percent Off!

For a limited time, Petful readers like you can get an amazing 75 percent off your first order of Smalls cat food. Just use code PETFUL75 at checkout. Act fast, though — this code expires Dec. 1, 2017. Give Smalls a try today and get your cat thriving on a healthy, wholesome diet that’s just about the closest thing to homemade out there! Learn more here.



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