(Image courtesy FreeHand)
(Image courtesy FreeHand)
(Image courtesy FreeHand)

SUNSET PARK — A premium dog food brand with celebrity firepower has set up shop in Santa Monica, but this chow company put as much stock in how many animals it feeds as how well it feeds them.

FreeHand is to dog food what TOMS is to shoes — for every bag of specialized kibble purchased, another will be donated to a local shelter or dog rescue.

In Santa Monica’s case, that’s Santa Monica Animal Shelter and Take Me Home, a mobile rescue organization that takes dogs off of “death row” at the county pounds.

That local aspect was important to Tom Bagamane, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of FreeHand. Bagamane has worked for the past two years to create not only a brand of dog food that the canines both enjoy and meets their needs, but a business model that can support the one-for-one proposition.

In the six months since the product launched, the company has already given away 16,000 pounds of its Rescue-1 dog food, a formula that can be eaten by most dogs regardless of size or breed. That’s 46,000 meals that shelters haven’t had to buy, allowing them to spend money on things like vaccinations and medical care.

“It’s a model that has yet to be seen in the pet food industry,” he said.

That model was a selling point for Fit Dog Sports Club, the only Santa Monica store currently offering the product, according to FreeHand’s website.

“We liked the idea of high-quality food and the character of FreeHand itself,” said Terrance Walker, manager at Fit Dog.

The company chooses to donate its free food to the Lange Foundation, a group that rescues homeless animals.

“It’s all about giving,” Walker said. “It’s doing really well, catching on with clients.”

Bagamane hopes it will also improve adoption rates as healthier, happier, well-adjusted dogs have a better shot at rescue. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that between 3 and 4 million dogs and cats are euthanized each year, in part because no one brought them home.

Of course, there’s a premium to even supermarket philanthropy. FreeHand costs around $40 for a 15-pound bag of food and almost $65 for a 25-pound bag, putting it squarely in the filet mignons of the dog chow world in terms of price.

That’s certainly a challenge amid an economic climate marked by anemic growth, but one that loyal consumers overcome when they realize what they’re buying — the life of a dog they will probably never meet. In fact, consumers wouldn’t trust it if they didn’t have to stretch their wallets farther.

“Focus groups are what gave us confidence,” Bagamane said. “They said, ‘If we don’t pay more, there’s a catch, a gotcha moment.'”

Bagamane knows what he’s talking about. After 30 years in various aspects of the consumer products business and with some significant nonprofit credentials under his belt, marrying the two seemed almost a natural progression.

It may be easier to do in the pet market, which continues to be a growth industry even during the downturn, than other projects that bear Bagamane’s fingerprints, like Giving Spirit, an all-volunteer operation that distributes survival kits to children, women and families living on the streets of Los Angeles.

Bagamane founded a pet toy company in 2006 that was bought by a larger, privately-held company. He stayed for a few years to learn the ropes of the industry and discovered a salient fact.

“The pet food product business is recession-proof,” Bagamane said.

People will continue to care for their pets even when they must cut back on things for themselves, he found. Add in the charitable component of feeding other hungry, local dogs and the idea seemed fated for success.

Ryan Kavanaugh agreed.

Kavanaugh is the CEO of Relativity Media, the company responsible for movies like the recently-released “Safe Haven” and “Frost/Nixon.” He and his wife Britta Lazenga-Kavanaugh, along with other partners, announced that they had purchased FreeHand just last week for an undisclosed amount.

The Kavanaughs have a passion for saving dogs — they have five rescues of their own — but it wasn’t until FreeHand that they found a way to make their philanthropy self-sustaining.

“We’re building a business that’s self-sustaining, combats euthanasia and feeds the best food. Put those together and you have a good business,” Kavanaugh said.

It didn’t hurt that premium pet food has been one of the only industries to post 10 percent gains each year since 2007, Kavanaugh said. According to a report by Transparency Market Research, the American pet food market was worth $21.7 billion in 2011 and is forecast to hit $26.6 billion by 2017.

Dry pet foods like FreeHand account for 39 percent of that market, which is populated by a range of products offering different price points.

With new capital and awards for taste and quality lining up behind the young company, it’s already been voted one of the top 25 companies to watch in 2013 by Pet Product News International.

Bagamane hopes that translates into sales, both for his bottom line and those of area shelters.

“We can’t save dogs unless we sell food,” he said.



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