(Photography by Don Kadair)
Hansel and Veni Harlan
Company: Marsh Dog
What they do: Make dog treats from lean nutria meat to help solve Louisiana’s nutria problem
Revenue: $200,000 to $250,000 (estimated annual 2015 revenue)
Address: 3185 Balis Drive
Next Goals: Expand distribution, scale up and turn everyone into “Canine Conservationists”
Conservationists and dog-enthusiasts-turned-entrepreneurs, Hansel and Veni Harlan have taken their compassion for animals and their concern for Louisiana’s wetlands and made it into a fast-growing business that serves both a need and a mission. Hansel conceived the idea after learning about the extreme damage nutria cause to marsh grasses and reading an article about how an expensive state campaign to promote nutria consumption proved ineffective. In search of meat to feed his dog suffering from food allergies at the time, Harlan began to toss around the idea of a business making nutria-based dog treats that would contribute to wetland conversation through nutria consumption. With the help of a $15,000 grant from the Barataria Terrebonne National Estuary Program, Hansel and Veni got their business started and began concocting their treats in the summer of 2012.
This brother-and-sister duo is riding the wave of a human health food craze and using capitalism to drive change. “There was an increase in natural, pure and local, and the pet food industry was right behind it, so our concept fit well in the marketplace,” Veni Harlan says. But how do they do it? “I’m a good shot,” she says, joking about the collection and processing of the nutria meat. “And Hansel skins them.” In reality, Marsh Dog works with hunters and trappers to secure the meat, which is then taken to its Baton Rouge facility and made into two products: Barataria Bites and Nutria Bark. Made with only seven ingredients, all natural and sourced locally, each dog who enjoys a treat becomes one of Marsh Dog’s “canine conservationists” along with their owners, whose purchase supports their dog’s health and the wetlands.
ALL IN THE BAG
The Harlans are no strangers to entrepreneurship and manufacturing. “Our ancestors made [Barq’s Root Beer], so we grew up in a manufacturing and distributing business, so the concept of taking raw ingredients, formulating something, packaging it—that idea wasn’t foreign to us at all,” Hansel says. Veni’s graphic design and marketing expertise combined with Hansel’s background as an attorney make for a fortunate partnership. They’ve managed to keep their day jobs, remain completely self-funded since their initial grant and become profitable. They’ve also fielded numerous offers from investors from across the country. “We don’t want to lose control,” Hansel says. Another challenge is making sure that the company does not grow too fast in an effort to maintain quality control. “We have to make sure we can provide, because you only have one chance to make a first impression,” Veni says.
Although they are closely monitoring and managing their growing pains, the long-term plan is to expand out of state to “make the whole thing work,” according to Veni. But when they do expand, you won’t ever find Marsh Dog products in the big box stores. Keeping in line with their brand mission, Marsh Dog is only sold in small businesses to support local commerce. Their trademarked tasty treats can be found in more than 60 local pet stores and eclectic community retailers across the state. Based on positive feedback in the past three years from pets and their owners, the Harlans are now hard at work collaborating with the LSU AgCenter Food Incubator to create new pet food products. “It is the small choices that each of us make in everyday life that add up to big change,” Hansel says.