14 years ago…
…Marie met Chewy, a sweet slightly destructive pup looking for his forever home. Marie and Chewy instantly fell for each other and there was nothing Marie wouldn’t do for Chewy. Soon after rescuing Chewy, Marie found out he was sick with distemper and began to prepare and feed him a raw diet. Chewy’s health quickly and dramatically improved and Marie was determined to bring raw food to the masses. Inspired by her own dogs, she has created a movement that has inspired the overall health and happiness of hundreds of thousands of pets and pet parents all over the world.
Marie Moody, Founder and President of Stella & Chewy’s, a multi-million dollar pet food company, reflected on her company’s history as we were sitting in a café in New YorkCity. In 2002, she had just been given the boot at her third fashion industry job. But this serendipitous event launched her career as a raw, natural pet food advocate and manufacturer.
While living in Los Angeles, Marie adopted Chewy, a rescue dog who was seriously ill. Following her veterinarian’s advice, she fed Chewy a homemade diet of raw meats and vegetables. Chewy’s rapid return to health inspired Marie to learn more about the benefits of feeding less processed, grain-free foods to animals. The more she learned, the more convinced she was that there were other pet parents like her who would want to feed their animals high-quality meals. After relocating back to New York City and finding herself between jobs, she started preparing raw pet food in her Manhattanapartment. Her two dogs, Stella and Chewy, were early product testers. Now, nearly 10 years later, Stella & Chewy’s frozen and freeze-dried raw, natural dog and cat food is available in more than 3,000 retail stores nationwide.
But how did a young, single woman living on the Upper West Side, who didn’t even cook her own meals, start to tackle that project? Marie took it on with single-minded determination – and no shortage of obstacles. She purchased huge quantities of organic ingredients and several industrial freezers, which took up residence in her living room. Then she had to market, sell and deliver the food to retailers in New York – all without owning a car. During our meeting, she described hailing taxis with her boxes of frozen food stashed behind parked cars (because no taxi driver wants to pick up a fare hauling that sort of baggage). In the process, Marie attracted the interest of a young Wall Street trader who helped her in her delivery efforts as a part-time job on the side.
“I guess I thought he needed the extra money.” He eventually became her husband, and despite no longer being married, works closely with Marie as Director of Sales for Stella & Chewy’s.
Expanding the Business
As her operation grew, Marie outsourced the manufacturing to a production facility. That worked well for a while (and liberated her living room from the freezers), but it brought on additional challenges.
“Imagine a semi pulling up at 4 a.m. and having to unload it using the residential elevator!” Furthermore, the lack of control over the process irked her. “The equipment broke down; and the manufacturer wasn’t able to do more flavors. Then I wanted organic fruits and vegetables; I wanted statements where the meat was sourced from; I wanted proof. So it became apparent to me that if I wanted to grow the business, I was going to have to figure out the manufacturing piece of it.”
In 2007, Marie relocated her family and opened a small manufacturing plant in Muskego, Wisconsin – a suburb of Milwaukee and her hometown, an area well known for food and beverage manufacturing. Her timing was impeccable. Suddenly, many pet food manufacturers were facing product recalls because of contaminated ingredients sourced from China. People were paying much more attention to where and how their pet food was manufactured. Health and safety – for people and animals – became the primary focus.
The ability to control all phases of her raw pet food operation led Marie, working with a leading food safety scientist, to develop an exclusive, patent-pending, food safety procedure called Hydrostatic High Pressure Process (HPP). HPP kills pathogens, such as E. coli and salmonella, using high pressure without diminishing the health benefits of raw ingredients. “Nobody had ever considered using HPP on a pet food product before it was further processed.” In addition, Stella & Chewy’s has an independent lab test each batch to check for pathogens and they post the results on their website. You’d be hard pressed to find a human food manufacturer that’s using such stringent food safety processes.
Marie has implemented some other “non-traditional” activities in her female-dominated manufacturing operation. Of 155 employees, 98 are women – or 63 percent. And just over half of her senior management team is female, which is typical for a woman-created enterprise. “Our first banker was a woman, and presently our accountant, attorney, and CEO are all women. We really have a lot of women in management positions and that’s just part of our culture.”
“I find that the types of people who thrive in the Stella & Chewy’s environment are really good at what they do, and self-starters. They wouldn’t work well if they were being micromanaged. They tend to need room in order to fly and they need the right tools. I feel like that is our job – management’s job – to give people what they need in order to best do their jobs.”
“We went through a couple of plant managers. The first one had a military background, which is great and can really be an asset. But he used to not let the guys on the line take a bathroom break. They could only use the bathroom on their break. When I heard this, I said, ‘No, that’s not okay. I’m not comfortable with that.’ He just didn’t know how to manage. Then we had another plant manager and he was very political. It was all about his ego. He forbade people to come and talk to me. They had to go through him and that’s just not the culture of our Company. I’m always available.”
Traditionally, the command-and-control manager tends to be associated more often with men. Marie seems to embody a type of management philosophy that is more “female,” and certainly at odds with many of today’s alpha-driven entrepreneurs.