Local pet treat pioneers
Food — it’s at parties and celebrations. Families connect over dinner. It’s what brings us together. And Aaron Merrell (2002, ’04), CEO of Plato Pet Treats, is using food to bring us closer to our pets.
“When you’re buying a pet treat, it’s not a necessity. You’re paying not for that product, you’re paying for the connection between you and your pet. You’re paying for that love. You’re paying to share that emotional experience with your pet,” Merrell said.
Merrell’s inspiration comes from Tugboat, an English bulldog he adopted in 2004 — while finishing his MBA at Fresno State, where he created the business plan for Plato Pet Treats. The concept was simple: high quality products with a high meat content.
“In the past 30, 40 years or so, pet food was kind of considered the garbage stream for food companies. I grew up working at a meat plant and I knew what was available. I knew there were better quality ingredients available. And, as a pet owner, I knew that’s what I wanted to feed my dog.”
Merrell was working in the pet food industry and presented the idea to his employers in 2005. He said, ‘It was kind of like a Shark Tank moment. I was sitting at a table with three millionaires. I was a 25 year old kid going, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Plato Pet Treats started in Indiana in 2006. It operated there for six years before relocating to Fresno, to be closer to resources and its customer base.
Having grown up in the Valley, Merrell was excited for the company to move to Fresno, where he has roots, a network of support and a culture he loves.
“July 2012, I shut the facility down, started ripping out equipment and shipping it to Fresno. It showed up around August 8. I had zero people move from Indiana to Fresno, so the only person that carried over any of the knowledge was me. I hired some people, trained them how to do everything, camped out 24/7, lived here for a while, got the place up to speed, and by the end of the month we were making product.”
The company’s sales had quadrupled by 2016. Merrell attributes this success to Fresno’s culture — people staying connected to help each other and better their city — and the work ethic of his employees, many of whom are also Fresno State alumni.
Nichole Nonini (2012), Marketing Director for Plato Pet Treats, said, “Victor E. is a kind of pioneer for understanding how to be a responsible pet owner, making local businesses open to being dog-friendly. He’s going into places animals have never set foot in. It’s very similar to what we do with pet treats. We’re the first pioneer in that.”