A new deli in Sudbury is offering quality, ready-made meals with ingredients from local producers.
Sounds like a familiar story, except it's not for humans.
Max's Deli is strictly for canine and feline customers.
Steve Kneller opened the new shop on Notre Dame Avenue in early August, with the intention of offering natural pet food made completely in-house, using meat and produce from regional farms.
“It's all human-grade, meaning I use methods used to produce human food that is safe and nutritious,” Kneller said. “I've been working on this for about seven years, feeding it to my dogs, and it seems to work, so I'm sharing it with the rest of the world.”
The business is named after his Austrian shepherd Max, which Kneller said has never eaten kibble in his life, only food he's made.
Natural pet food isn't new, but Kneller says his stands out as it is completely local, made on-premises, and sealed in plastic bags and slowly cooked in either a giant hot water bath, known as a sous-vide, or an industrial-sized drier.
Those methods, Kneller said, help seal in both flavour and nutrition, as well as making them safe enough for pets to eat, with minimum risk of passing on bacteria to humans.
All his ingredients are listed on the packaging, as well as on boards in the store, so everyone knows what is in the food.
Dried treats, like bully sticks, chicken feet, beef liver and spleen slices, and parts like the trachea of cattle, as well as dried vegetable chips are also available. Some come in reusable glass packaging for easy refilling or recycling.
“The natural chew treats, they have a lot of nutrition like glucosamine and chondroitin, very good for their skin and bone health,” Kneller said. “Plus, especially for the tracheas, they are fibrous, so they are really good for cleaning teeth.”
The deli is constantly working on new products, such as custom cakes made from their own food production scraps, new types of treats and custom pet food orders.
Kneller also stocks a variety of popular dog toys, dishes, and other supplies like leashes and grooming products.
To make pet food on a mass scale, he had to design a giant sous-vide vat cooker and heating and cooling system just for his store. He took his designs to a local machine shop and worked closely with them to create a system that cooked accurately and ran efficiently.
“It's a beast, but my energy bills are quite low thanks to this system,” he said. “If we are really successful, I'm going to be patenting it for future expansion plans.”
The store design is also all his creation. Customers can watch through giant glass windows as staff prepares food in the back. The front half of the store is open concept, with white tile to mimic a classic deli and barn wood trim to invoke a farmhouse kitchen feel – as an homage to his grandparents' home.
The idea of making natural dog food came to Kneller out of tragedy. One of his shepherds died suddenly after eating mass-produced kibble. An autopsy showed the dog had in its system a barbiturate commonly found in euthanasia drugs and rubber compounds. Kneller realized these are also found in many kinds of pet food.
“I fed him on a Friday, and by Sunday, he was gone,” he said. “I looked into the standards of the pet food industry and discovered there are really none.”
That led him to experiment with making pet food at home. For the past seven years he said he's perfected recipes his dogs love, carefully accounting for maximum nutrition and food safety.
While working on his line of foods he began to research diseases, life expectancy and allergies affecting pets. He said he is sure many mass-produced pet foods are causing a lot of problems, pointing to sudden changes in pet longevity in the 1970s.
“My grandparents used to have dogs, and it wasn't unusual for dogs to live around 17 years or longer. And you never heard of things like cancer or allergies,” Kneller said. “I'm sure there's a lot of factors, like overbreeding and lack of exercise. But the one common factor seems to be food.”
As his customer base grows and people talk about his product, many have been telling and showing him how their pets' health and vitality seem to improve after they consume his products. He has many pictures of pets who came in, looking overweight, lethargic, and had allergies.
“They say allergies virtually disappear, their weight goes down and they are more energetic,” Kneller said. “I think, rather than feed them medicines to treat these problems, let's feed them proper diets and stop the problem altogether.”
He credited his staff for the early success, praising them for their hard work and creativity.
The current store is the first in what he is planning to be a nationwide chain. His long-term goal is to have franchises that source their ingredients locally.