Palmer, AK

Some positive things came out of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of them was the inspiration for the launch of Mountain Dog, a company specializing in all-natural dog treats made from wild-caught Alaskan salmon. Kevin Thompson, the founder and CEO of Mountain Dog, started the company after spending a month in the hospital recovering from COVID. He needed a new challenge, and it was the right time to launch a new idea that offered a unique brand in a crowded market.

Before his illness, Thompson had planned to build on his military experience fighting in Iraq to become a commercial pilot. When he became sidelined by COVID he needed a new plan. While he was recuperating, his wife purchased a freeze dryer to create nutritious meals for her husband’s wilderness treks. The freeze dryer was the inspiration Thompson needed to create a new kind of dog treat.

Mountain Dog Treats are a single-source product made from wild-caught salmon, which offers the ideal high-quality protein for dogs. Alaska is known for producing wild-caught salmon and there is a lot of waste in salmon production. Thompson’s uncle was a commercial fisherman, so he knew there was an abundance of waste salmon, most of which is ground up and put back into the sea. Thompson approached a local fishery who agreed to supply all the salmon he needed. Thompson estimates that he has access to millions of pounds of salmon for dog treats; if he needs it.

Using the newly acquired freeze dryer, he started experimenting with turning salmon trimmings into all-natural, fish-shaped dog treats. After test marketing the product at a local farmer’s market, Thompson knew he was on to something unique. When his dog treats caught the attention of the regional Walmart, his new company was on its way.

Building from the Ground Up

Like many entrepreneurs, Thompson started Mountain Dog in his basement with a total investment of a couple hundred dollars. As orders started to come in it was clear they needed a new facility, so the company moved into 2,000 square feet of commercial space in Palmer, Alaska.

The first step was to scale production and that meant new equipment. No one had ever been successful at freeze-drying fish and molding it into dog treats. Conventional freeze drying wouldn’t work, so Thompson invented a new approach and built the equipment needed to produce treats at scale.

“Being in Alaska you have to be incredibly inventive,” Thompson said. “It would be one thing if I could go and look at a machine and see if it works, but that’s a plane ticket. So, we create every process we have by putting parts together to make it work.”

Thompson adds that he also doesn’t have access to 3D printing, he would carve prototype parts out of wood and give them to a machinist to produce.

Thompson had some additional help getting the business off the ground thanks to his status as a veteran. Warrior Rising, a non-profit organization started by veterans for veterans, provided valuable advice. Thompson participated in a CEO accelerator course where seasoned CEOs coached entrepreneur veterans about building a business. His initial deal with Walmart was a direct result of his participation in the program.

The Alaskan Advantage

Being headquartered in Alaska is what makes Mountain Dog Treats a unique brand. As Thompson explains, nowhere else can you get access to quality salmon in quantity at an affordable price. Alaska also has a mystique that contributes to the Mountain Dog brand. 

“One of the things that gives us amazing brand differentiation is the fact that we’re in Alaska,” Thompson said. “There is an Alaska dream that runs through the lower 48, so Alaska itself is a premium brand. We are selling the dream of Alaska through dog treats.”

Alaska is also a great place to do business. As Thompson explains, “You can drive down to Anchorage, walk into the governor’s office, and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this issue.’ Pretty soon you’re talking to the Commissioner of Revenue or the Commerce people. You have direct access to your representation to find out what’s going on in your state.”

Thompson loves Alaska and is adamant that his business model would be hard to replicate elsewhere. “There’s nobody in the entire world that does what we do. Because nobody has the resources that we have.”

Even though Mountain Dog Treats is located north of Anchorage, finding personnel is not an issue. The company is very much a family business, and as they grow Thompson is committed to bringing on people who fit the culture. However, he’s not worried about recruiting. He just talks to the leadership at area military bases to recruit military families. “We love hiring military dependents because they’re hardworking and understand how to work in situations that are less than ideal.”

Thompson also has a workforce training program for young autistic adults who are graduating high school with few job prospects. Mountain Dog brings these students in twice a week to help bag salmon treats, and they love the work. “If you can just think outside of the box and redesign your production facility a little bit they really fit in, and they’re amazing employees,” he said.

The Success Has Just Begun

After only 18 months in business, Mountain Dog Treats is already a success story, and it continues to grow. The company is already planning a move to a new 4,000-square-foot facility. (Thompson spent three days using painter’s tape to map out the production layout of the current operation.) And sales are booming. Company revenue for January 2024 was the same as for the entire first quarter of 2023.

To sustain growth, Thompson is focusing on his target market. In addition to online orders, he has been approaching boutique pet stores and natural food stores, and he has a distributor who has placed Mountain Dog Treats in gift stores throughout Alaska. Now he’s working with convenience stores, gas stations, and truck stop companies like Speedway to carry his dog treats. As he explains, 65% of people traveling by car bring their pets, so spending less than $10 on dog treats at a gas stop is an easy sale.

In addition to selling more dog treats, Thompson is looking to add a fish oil replacement for dogs. The challenge with fish oil is it’s messy, and unless it is properly stored it becomes rancid. He is using his freeze-drying technology to address the problem and is already testing products with the 75th Ranger Regiment.

“We have a good idea of our demographic and target market. Now it’s just brand penetration, marketing, and push,” he said.