- Associated Press - Sunday, October 1, 2017

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) - Having grown up on a dairy farm in northeastern Pennsylvania, Dan Lavin has been around animals for most of his life.

So it’s sort of a full circle thing for Lavin to be operating a natural pet food business out of his home in the Pennyhill Terrace area of Wilmington at the end of his working career.

Lavin’s company, Junior’s Pet Food, is an all-natural, handmade dog and cat food business that provides a nutritional diet for pets.

The business is named after Lavin’s Rottweiler, Junior, whom Lavin and husband Michael fell in love with when they spotted him at the New Castle Farmer’s Market a few years back.

Shortly after Junior was brought home, he was routinely getting sick. Junior’s illnesses ran the gamut from ear infections to kennel cough to puppy warts. Junior was eventually diagnosed with pneumonia, and his veterinarian didn’t expect him to live much longer.

For about a month, Michael worked from home while Junior spent most of his time in a crate with a humidifier going. He was taking antibiotics so strong that they were provided by Walgreens.

“Junior has a customer care card at Walgreens,” Lavin said, laughing.

Junior beat the bout with pneumonia, and at his final checkup, his doctor had determined an underdeveloped immune system was plaguing his health. The recommendation was a raw food diet.

So Lavin made the switch, and all the animals in the house (at the time, three dogs and a cat) switched to raw food. But a few months of that had Lavin a bit curious while lamenting how much money he was spending to feed the animals. A self-proclaimed “do-it-yourself” type of guy, Lavin bought a grinder and started to experiment.

The timing was perfect. Lavin, who was working in a managerial role at Raymour & Flanigan at the time, was fed up with the corporate world. So he started doing research into how to start a pet food business out of his home and had his food tested in a lab.

“I didn’t want to be the guy selling dog food out of my back door,” Lavin said.

He contracted a website designer and at first offered free trials to get his product out there. Junior’s Pet Food was born. The business serves dogs and cats.

Junior’s offers beef and chicken dinner “meals,” a variety of fruit and vegetable biscuits, 15 different jerkies - like ginger peanut butter chicken, lemon mint liver, molasses mint chicken and more. Other products include “stix,” similar to a pretzel stick, with flavors like cheeseburger and chicken pesto.

All the food is made inside Lavin’s kitchen.

He calls it an “ancestral diet.” Dogs, like wolves, are natural carnivores and in the wild would not typically eat a daily balanced meal.

“Every single meal that you feed a dog does not have to be complete and balanced,” Lavin said. “Over a 30-day period, it should balance out. You give them all different things.”

Most of the food Lavin uses to make Junior’s products is local, like the beef and chicken products and Delaware produce.

For the last year and a half, Lavin, 54, has devoted most of his time to Junior’s. The company serves 30 to 40 customers on a regular basis and has products in a few local businesses.

Knowing he couldn’t compete with much bigger companies, Lavin said he’s found a niche using human-grade local meat and vegetables while offering good customer service. Junior’s also specializes in making specific foods for dogs and cats that may have a food allergy.

For a $5 delivery fee, Junior’s delivers food to customers in a 25-mile radius from Wilmington in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Lavin is the driver, and he will sometimes make exceptions to the radius.

He said he’s not in business to get rich and is using this to ease into his retirement years.

“It will always be my hands making it,” Lavin said.

Junior, whose lifespan was once in question, recently turned 4. He weighs 130 pounds. Lavin joked that he’s too fat. Perhaps the Rottweiler has been spending too much time playing sous chef.

___

Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., https://www.delawareonline.com

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