In 2002, at the age of twenty-seven, Lucy disrupted the pet food industry with the world's first truly human grade food for pets. Today, she serves as our Founder, Spokesperson and Chief Integrity Officer to ensure that The Honest Kitchen continues to raise the bar in pet food quality, safety and integrity.
In honor of International Women's Day, we sat down with Lucy to ask her a few questions about her experience starting a business and her advice for budding entrepreneurs.
How did The Honest Kitchen become the first human grade pet food?
When I first started the company, I knew that I wanted to make the product tangibly different from conventional pet food offerings, as a way to really differentiate it in a way that people could understand. I fundamentally believe that pets deserve to eat good quality food just as people do and I was aware of the horrid ingredients that end up in poor quality kibble and cans. I knew that by sourcing ingredients only from the human food supply chain, I could make sure only the most pristine meats and produce would end up in my products.
After lining up ingredient suppliers from the human food world, I then had to work incredibly hard to convince a human food producer to blend dog food in their plant! Despite all these efforts, it turned out I still couldn't put human grade on the packaging without FDA approval.
When I talked to the FDA, they told me that it had never been done before, but they laid out all the steps I’d need to go through if I wanted to try and prove it for my product line. Everything had to be thoroughly documented, from the supply chain, storage facilities, production lines, and more. The FDA made it sound like an impossible task, but in the end, I succeeded in proving The Honest Kitchen’s case and it officially became the first ever human grade pet food in the world.
I have some very bittersweet memories of this time, because I’d recently given birth to our first daughter. Other than one amazing part-time employee (who’s still with us today) I was really running the company single-handedly back then, and I’d had to return to work with only 4 days off for ‘maternity leave’ because the business was taking off in leaps and bounds. I was packing orders in our garage every afternoon and literally nursing her at my desk while sending emails to the FDA to get human grade status approval. I definitely wouldn’t recommend that working-parent system to anyone.
Thankfully, today I’m very proud to say we have much more robust parental leave policies in place! In fact, we’ve been ranked many times as a Best Place to Work by Outside Magazine and we’re officially certified as a Great Place to Work thanks to our staff perks and benefits.
When you first started The Honest Kitchen, did you have an idea of where it would be 20 years later?
When I first started the company, I never even dared to think about whether we’d even exist twenty years out! I think in some ways that the fact I was twenty-seven made me a bit more audacious and I was definitely determined to make it succeed, but there was never a focused business plan for long term growth. It was simply about my passion for making a top quality, tasty product according to a set of moral standards I chose to adhere to, and I purposely made decisions that allowed the company to grow in a manageable way because we had no outside funding for the first seven years and that forced us to focus intently on being profitable because if we didn’t, the company simply couldn’t have survived!
Originally I imagined it would just be a small local company: Make good food, sell it to good people and make a difference for the pets who eat it. But it became obvious early on that there was a huge amount of potential. It’s cool to see the way the entire pet food landscape has evolved over the years to create more natural, nutritious and creative offerings, and I’m very proud to have played a role in that evolution by raising the bar for the industry, proving that human grade, gently prepared foods are possible, and demonstrating that our company could make a difference.
What advice do you have for people who want to start a business?
The most important thing I always say to this question is that it’s essential to have an undying, burning passion for what it is you are trying to build! You have to love it, live and breathe it, and constantly be thinking about ways to overcome challenges in order to bring an idea to life. It can be quite brutal starting a business from scratch especially without outside funding. My husband funded the initial production run with a seven-thousand-dollar loan, and we re-mortgaged our home multiple times in the early years to fund ongoing growth and enable us to hire more people.
Many entrepreneurs will agree that creating a business can actually be quite a lonely process, as many people don’t understand the mental capacity and grit that’s needed to get the thing off the ground. The early days can be all-consuming which can cost you in terms of reduced bandwidth for friendships, family, and more. You have to be uncompromising in your mission and dead passionate about it in order to give a company the best chance of succeeding, and of course have a product that truly resonates with people.
Do you have any advice specifically for women in business?
I think sometimes there can be an underlying pressure on women in the workplace to try and emulate the way men work in order to succeed. I volunteer as a mentor for several other female entrepreneurs, and I always tell them it’s not necessary to adopt male working styles in order to succeed. Both masculine and feminine attributes provide essential value in the workplace. Women should be true to themselves, work hard to prove their value, and advocate for themselves (and one another) when necessary.
A key belief of mine is that many traditionally-female working styles, particularly when it comes to respectful communication and instinctive decision-making, are usually hugely valuable to an organization and I’ve seen many young female-led businesses get off the ground successfully because of them. For the company’s part, it’s essential to make sure there’s an infrastructure in place that allows women to grow within the ranks of the company and thus to ensure that they’re always considered for promotional opportunities. This is something we’re continually working to build upon at The Honest Kitchen and I’m proud of how many of our female workers have grown with us over the years and now fill managerial and VP-level roles.
If you're interested in learning more about how The Honest Kitchen has grown, our current female-identifying workforce and the commitments we make, check out our Impact Report.