Posted Feb 15, 2016 by Ashley Hoffmann, Ecwid Team

Tukabear Celebrates Love Your Pet Day

We are crazy about animals at Ecwid. Our support team even celebrates a monthly “Bring Your Cat To Work” day—no kidding! Pets are family for many of us. The furry creatures that we bring into our lives grant us unconditional love, stress relief, and companionship. I can’t help but smile after a long day when my own cat, Herbie “The Love Bug,” greets me at the door.

Treating our pets like family has resulted in a fast-growing, lucrative, business niche. In 2015, in the United States alone, we spent an estimated $60 billion on our pets! In anticipation of Love Your Pet Day—this Saturday, February 20th—we chatted with Erin Tonning of budding Memphis, Tennessee, pet treat brand, Tukabear Treats, to learn about her product and operations.

Tukabear Treats are freeze-dried, preservative-free dog and cat goodies made with 100% free-range organic ingredients without any antibiotics at all. Tonning is the owner, creator, and head chef of the Memphis company. The brand is affectionately named after her pup, Vegas, who goes by the nickname Tukabear.

Lil’ Chicken and Tukabear

Lil’ Chicken and Tukabear


Like many Ecwid merchants, Tonning works a full-time day job. She also loves to cook, and has become increasingly concerned about the quality of foods her family eats. She regularly seeks out locally sourced meats and organic veggies, extending this healthful mentality to her own pets’ diets, feeding them grain-free, limited ingredient foods at mealtimes.

Research and development for Tukabear Treats came about organically. Tonning began researching the ingredients in her dogs treats, only to be shocked at the amount of preservatives and unnatural additives she found they contained. “I could find healthy food for meals, but the treats were literally full of junk food,” she said. Through her research, Erin discovered that freeze-drying is a great way to extend the shelf life of these foods without requiring any additives or preservatives.

Tonning is happy with her day job and is lucky to have a supportive boss, but her entrepreneurial spirit was driving her to do “something more” with her free time, she said. Partnering with her husband, the pair turned a detached building in their backyard into a test kitchen.

Combo Pack: Memphis-Made Freeze Dried “The King’s Favorite” Organic Peanut Butter & Banana, Free-Range Chicken, & Organic Sweet Potato Dog & Cat Treats

Combo Pack: Memphis-Made Freeze Dried “The King’s Favorite” Organic Peanut Butter & Banana, Free-Range Chicken, & Organic Sweet Potato Dog & Cat Treats

The biggest expense was the purchase of a freeze-drying machine. “I thought if nothing else, I was embarking on a new hobby that would help make my family healthier, but I really believed I was onto something.” Tonning said.

She started experimenting with freeze-drying chicken and sweet potatoes, perfecting batch sizes, techniques, and timing. Vegas (aka Tukabear) and her newly adopted sister, Li’l Chicken, tested the treats and gave the final “paws up” seal of approval. Tukabear Treats was born in June of 2015, and is Tonning’s self-described “labor of love.”


We asked Erin about the process of creating her website, branding, and marketing tactics, and how she developed her customer service philosophy. She shared that this is her second online venture, so she had some valuable past experience to draw upon.

Back in 2010, Erin opened her first online shop, reselling collectible home and gift items. “That’s when I first learned about Ecwid, actually. My brother is experienced in e-commerce and web design and he turned me onto [Ecwid] back then. The free plan let me get started without any additional costs, and it was really easy to set up.”

Her past experience and knowledge gave her the courage to go bigger with the new Tukabear Treats website, but keeping her start-up costs as low as possible was critical. When asked how she—a “non-techy person”—created the site on her own, Tonning said, “I’m a creative person, so I really enjoyed the process of creating the site and look of the brand.”

She knew that she wanted a feminine, urban look and feel that reflected the company’s hometown of Memphis, TN. Her goal was to appeal to women, which her research indicated are the most likely buyers for high-end pet products.

Rather than create her website from scratch like she did in the past, she chose a $80 WordPress theme that fit her vision, hired a graphic designer friend to create her “paw flower” logo, and with only two products at launch, she integrated the free Ecwid plan into her site.

Creating Connections and Marketing Tukabear

Marketing her new idea required some trial and error. “First, I looked at what other pet brands were doing,” Tonning said. “Then I attended a pet expo and other local crafting events to get the word out.”

Tonning discovered that some events are more worthwhile than others. She advises new business owners with limited marketing funds to attend events focused on shopping. “For me, holiday bazaars and local craft markets had a much better return on investment than pet adoption & walk/race events, but both helped to get our brand out there,” she said.


Now, Tonning prefers to donate to a rescue organization instead of purchasing a booth at an event focused on entertainment because it’s a better use of her time and marketing budget (we’ll discuss her awesome donation program below). Tonning’s best advice is that if you need to recoup the cost of your exhibit space, you’re better off participating in a shopping-focused event. She also recommends that you bring more product than you think you’ll need. “I sold out of our Sweet Potato treats on the first day of a weekend-long event!”

Providing free shipping in the United States is another proven sales tactic that Tonning embraced. “I build the cost of shipping into the price of the products. I want to keep the business direct for the time being, and online customers don’t want to pay extra for shipping.”

This dovetailed into another piece of valuable advice: Start small, and grow your supply orders as you start to better understand your market. “Now I order larger quantities of labels, packaging, and shipping supplies than I did a few months ago, so I’m paying less for each item. But in my effort to keep startup costs down I needed to prove the concept before I spent a lot on supplies.”

To further personalize the buying experience, Erin also writes a personal note on each invoice and invites her customers to share their pet photos by tagging her on Instagram at @tukabeartreats.

Pawtners = Direct Sales to Boost Profits

Tonning’s commitment to direct sales is rooted in her need to achieve profitability with a small-batch handcrafted product and the desire to have an authentic connection with her customers. One of the most unique marketing tactics she has implemented is her new “Pawtnership Program.”

Pawtners are four-legged “sales reps” whose owners share their #tukabeartreats love on social media platforms, Instagram being the most popular of them. Tonning recently upgraded to the Ecwid Venture plan to take advantage of discount coupons, which drive the Pawtner program. Each Pawtner has a unique coupon code, earning a small commission and credit towards  treats for each sale they influence. One of the things the Ecwid crew absolutely loves about the Pawtner Program is that participants can opt to donate their commissions to a favorite animal rescue organization and Tonning will match the funds.

Ecwid Pets Test Drive Tukabear

Last month, Erin introduced Tukabear Treat’s third variety—“The King’s Favorite”—an organic peanut butter and banana treat commemorating the ultimate Memphis celebrity, Elvis Presley. We ordered Tukabear’s newest variety pack and enlisted some Ecwid pets’ opinions on the three flavors. (Importantly, we ordered before we met with Erin for this story!)

Lola went for the whole bag. Photo by Ecwid’s Nick Bergin

I loved the order status emails, cute paw print packaging, and personalized note enclosed, each touch a testament to Tonning’s commitment to customer connection. The real test came when we engaged our four-legged friends. Nick’s pup, Lola, is a huge fan of The King’s Favorite.

Mori finished all of his Sweet Potato Treats, Photo by Jim O’Hara

Ecwid President Jim’s dog, Mori, went crazy for Sweet Potato. My kitten, Herbie, can’t get enough of the Chicken variety. Ecwid pets are unanimous in their feedback: 12 paws up!

Herbie digging for more. Photo by Ashley Hoffmann

Tukabear Treats has already processed hundreds of orders and the young brand is off to a fantastic start. The Tonnings just purchased their second freeze-drying machine in order to keep up with demand and have great things in store for 2016. You can keep up with them on their Instagram account and on their blog.


In celebration of National Pet Day, Ecwid fans are invited to discover Tukabear treats at a special 5% discount rate. Just enter the coupon code “Ecwid” at checkout and get ready for your pet to thank you!

Interested in sharing your story with other Ecwid fans? Send me a note and we’ll chat!

About the author
Ashley leads Ecwid’s customer success initiatives and is passionate about creating happy customers and maximizing value. When she isn’t chatting with customers you’ll likely find her playing outdoors on a surf or snowboard.
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