Local pet food company an industry leader thanks to NC research partnership

Company owner and president Matt Bonanno with four canine friends in front of Iron Will Raw’s temperature- controlled delivery vehicle.

In just five years, Niagara Falls entrepreneur Matt Bonanno went from making raw pet food for his dog in his home to a 12,000-square-foot state-of-the-art production facility. With the help of Niagara College’s Research & Innovation division, Bonanno’s brand Iron Will Raw has become an industry leader in holistic pet food.

“It’s hard to believe how far Iron Will Raw has grown in such a short amount of time,” said Bonanno, company president and CEO. “I started the business believing 100 percent in the benefits and values of a species-appropriate, quality raw diet for pets, and I was committed to producing the safest, highest quality of raw pet food. One of the reasons for our success is because we had help from Niagara College to optimize our processes.”

Bonanno was working full-time as a carpenter and training dogs as a hobby, when he noticed a demand for raw pet food. The raw food diet for dogs and cats consists of recipes containing uncooked meat, organs, edible bones and vegetables, designed to mirror the animal’s ancestral diet. After launching his operations, he had help from NC’s Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre and the Canadian Food and Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre to scale up manufacturing and ensure quality control.

“This project is an example of the impact NC’s applied research is having on emerging industries. We always welcome opportunities to collaborate and help budding entrepreneurs like Matt succeed,” said Marc Nantel, associate vice-president, Research & Innovation. “By working with our industry partners, like Iron Will Raw, our students not only help businesses innovate but gain valuable real-world experience.”

Company owner Matt Bonanno (right) and NC’s Culinary Innovation and Food Technology program co-op student Nathan Knapp-Blezius inside the factory.

Bonanno noted that the HACCP process involves plans, documentation, education, training, protocols 
and traceability in order to receive certification, all of which are expensive. “It’s probably out of reach for a lot of companies cost-wise.”

From six employees to 15 and with revenues up by more than 300 percent, Iron Will Raw is an example of the many engagements and support that NC provides to industry partners on their journey to expansion. “I can say one of the reasons why we are the only raw pet food company in Ontario with a HACCP certification is because we had help from Niagara College,” said Bonanno.

Two of the three NC research projects Iron Will Raw qualified for were with the College’s CFWI Innovation Centre – in 2016, with federal funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and in 2018, with funding from the Niagara Region. Bonanno collaborated with world-class experts in food and beverage research at NC, while students received real-world knowledge guided by expert staff, including an industry HACCP specialist.

In total, Iron Will Raw worked with NC’s Research & Innovation division on three separate projects — the first was with NC’s Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (WAMIC) — which connected the company with funding from the Niagara Region. Student researchers at WAMIC conducted a productivity/improvement assessment utilizing their FARO 3D scanner to create a layout of Iron Will Raw’s production facility.

Researchers also analyzed the flow of materials and information to make the raw food product, and made recommendations to optimize the manufacturing process. Iron Will Raw is the first and only pet food facility in Ontario – and one of only three in Canada – to be Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) certified, a systematic and preventative approach to food safety which helps to find, correct and prevent hazards throughout the production process.

Nathan Knapp-Blezius, a third-year student in NC’s Culinary Innovation and Food Technology program, has worked with Iron Will Raw throughout his time at NC. In his first and second year, Knapp-Blezius was a part-time research assistant with NC’s Research & Innovation where he worked on the applied research project for Iron Will Raw. Following his time with Research & Innovation, he did his co-op placement with Iron Will Raw as part of his NC program. During his co-op, Knapp-Blezius ensured that all food safety programs were implemented properly and executed staff training. He was later hired by Iron Will Raw as a quality assurance coordinator working part-time while he’s still at NC.

“Co-op placements not only prepare you for industry challenges, they immerse you in the challenges,” said Knapp-Blezius. “Immersion is the best path to mastery, in my opinion.”

With strict manufacturing practices in place at his production facility, Bonanno is focused on moving his business forward. “We’re now leading in the food safety division – we’re putting out a great product for our customers and now it’s time to build on the volume and locations across Canada,” he said.

Iron Will Raw’s range of raw meat products are sold mainly through pet specialty retail stores in Central and Eastern Canada. Visit ironwillraw.com.

NC’s Research & Innovation division provides real-world solutions for business, key industry sectors and the community through applied research and knowledge transfer activities. This includes conducting projects that provide innovative solutions, such as producing and testing prototypes, evaluating new technologies, and developing new or improved products or processes for small- and medium-sized businesses. Visit ncinnovation.ca

Niagara College offers more than 130 diploma, bachelor degree and advanced level programs; as well as more than 600 credit, vocational and general interest Part-Time Studies courses. Areas of specialization include food and wine sciences, advanced technology, media, applied health and community safety, supported by unique learning enterprises in food, wine, beer, horticulture and esthetics. Visit niagaracollege.ca.