Marie Moody, founder and chairman of Stella & Chewy's, a frozen and freeze-dried dinner and treat manufacturer based in Milwaukee, discusses how her company and the raw food category have transformed over the past decade.
PET BUSINESS: Stella & Chewy’s is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. How have the company and the raw food category evolved since you got into the business?
MARIE MOODY: When I started Stella & Chewy’s 10 years ago, I was operating out of my apartment on the Upper West Side [of Manhattan]. Now, we have a corporate headquarters in Milwaukee, which includes a 50,000-square-foot manufacturing facility. And we’re already considering additional expansion to meet our growth.
Our distribution reach when I first started included just the stores I could reach in my minivan. Now we are in every state in the U.S., and we have a 13-person sales staff, which we are in the process of increasing. We are also planning on going into Canada—hopefully, this summer—having just received the necessary certification for that expansion.
The freeze-dried segment of the category, which is driving the growth of Stella & Chewy’s, is really evolving. I would characterize it as being where the frozen segment was a decade ago. However, in 10 years, I think freeze-dried will be a much bigger category than frozen is now or ever will be. Freeze-dried products are easier to merchandise and sell. They are also more appealing to mainstream consumers.
The frozen segment of the raw food category has evolved significantly and has become a more widely accepted category. It is much more prolific, and you are seeing an increasing number of pet stores with freezers—it’s not just the outliers anymore.
PB: Tell us about the patent that Stella & Chewy’s recently received for its food safety process.
MOODY: Food safety is important for obvious reasons. Consumers want to be able to assume that their foods are safe, and recalls are not good for manufacturers or for retailers, because it undermines everyone’s credibility. We are very proud of our food safety track record and are committed to the quality and safety of our products.
In the raw food category, our patent is particularly noteworthy because up until HPP [high-pressure processing], there was no way to have a raw product that was free of salmonella and E. coli across the board. In the past, the only way you could accomplish this was with heat or irradiation. Using high-pressure processing really opened up the door for raw food companies to provide safe products.
Stella & Chewy’s was the first company to use HPP technology on products before packaging. Historically, companies used HPP post-packaging. Our process combines HPP with other steps—specifically, using ozone in an environmental pathogen-reducing treatment system.
PB: Stella & Chewy’s recently introduced dinners formulated with exotic proteins such as rabbit. Can you tell us about these products?
MOODY: We launched rabbit and venison at Global Pet Expo, and we’re planning to introduce another exotic this summer. We recognize we weren’t the first company to offer exotics, so to differentiate ourselves we created a formula unlike the others. Our products use just a single protein source. So, 90 percent of the diet is rabbit or venison, and the other 10 percent is made up of organic fruits and vegetables, probiotics, and olive oil. Building a sustainable and reputable supply of protein is important to us. This not only helps us with quality, which is always our number-one priority, but also with our fill rates, which are over 99 percent.
PB: What is the biggest mistake that retailers make with the raw food category?
MOODY: The biggest mistake that retailers are making in the raw food category is not thoroughly vetting the safety procedures of the raw food brands they carry. Retailers that want to grow a sustainable raw food business should carry brands that are in compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act, which is right around the corner.
Some retailers believe the only way to be in the raw category is to have a freezer. The freeze-dried segment represents a way for retailers to get into the raw food category without the upfront investment in a freezer. And again, it’s easier to sell freeze-dried products because pet owners understand dry food. Typically, the way people use freeze-dried products is by adding it to the pets’ existing diet, so the retailer does not have to convince a customer to change his/her current brand. It’s more of an add-on sale.