Thriving cities depend on the adventurous among us, who alter the urban landscape when they forge their own successful paths.
Each month, we ask an influential San Diegan: What was it like for you in the beginning?
Live: Bird Rock
Work: East Village
How Long: 18 years
What was the moment that propelled you to open your own business?
I first got started with The Honest Kitchen back in 2002. I’d been struggling to resolve the recurring ear infections of my Rhodesian Ridgeback, Mosi, and realized that his food could be the culprit – and that maybe food could also be the cure. I started making Mosi a raw diet from scratch at home and got great results.
His ear infections cleared right out, but it was incredibly messy to prepare. I realized that dehydration was the perfect way to continue providing him with a minimally processed whole food diet without all the mess of bloody meat in the fridge and spinach puree on the counter tops. There was nothing like it on the market so I decided to make my idea into a small business, selling to my first customers online. From there, The Honest Kitchen was born.
What struggles did you face starting The Honest Kitchen?
From a very early point, I decided that the best way to truly differentiate my product from conventional, old fashioned pet food was to make it 100% human food grade. That meant producing it in a human food production facility and using only ingredients fit for human consumption sourced directly from the human food supply chain.
I had a few slightly stressful conversations with both co-packers and suppliers. As soon as I would mention that dogs were going to be the consumers for the product, they didn’t want to know about it!
Once I finally got the supply chain set up and a co-packer to blend my recipe, I had another big setback with the very first test blend. They put it on the blender for so long that all my beautiful ingredients got pulverized beyond recognition. I cried when the sales guy came to my house and proudly opened the 20 pound sack of what they made – it was literally powder!
What was the riskiest business move you ever made?
It’s hard to narrow down one single ‘riskiest move,’ because business inherently is all about having a good appetite for risk. I’m a pretty intuitive person, so I often rely on my gut instinct to navigate through big decisions. I guess one fairly landmark moment was when I decided to sue the Ohio Department of Agriculture, because they were refusing to issue me a feed license to sell our products in their state. They were insisting I take the words ‘Human Grade’ off the product labels, because they said people in their state would be confused about whether the food was for them or their dog.
It was tempting to simply give up and just tell people they wouldn’t be able to buy The Honest Kitchen in Ohio, but we had customers who were literally driving over state lines to get it. We decided to move forward with the lawsuit. It was pretty nerve-wracking, but ultimately, the judge ruled we had a right to truthful, commercial free speech.
If you could change the past, is there anything in your career you’d do differently?
I don’t think I’d really change anything when it comes to my career. I think every job I’ve had has been of some value. There were multiple waitressing and bar jobs (plus a gig at McDonald’s!) during my four years at agricultural college in the UK. My first ‘proper’ job was at a conventional pet food company when I first moved to the states, in 1998. The lion’s share of my adult career (14 years) has been devoted to The Honest Kitchen, and when I look back I really wouldn’t do any of it differently.
Could you ever go back to a “normal job” working for someone else?
That’s an interesting question! Sometimes I think it would be nice to go back to basics and do what someone else said for a change! Ultimately though, I think I’ve been doing my own thing for so long, it would be a tough transition. I’d love to spend more time mentoring others in business, especially in the early startup stages. In many ways I think those really early years are the most beautiful and most pure, when you’re first getting everything off the ground, prior to the challenges of trying to scale.
What personality traits must a successful business owner possess?
For me, I think it’s being slightly stubborn and relentlessly fixed on the mission, vision and values. As you scale, there are always temptations to compromise these fundamentals, but if you’re stubborn, you can stay true to your roots. At The Honest Kitchen, our customers trust and expect us to always do the right thing, and it takes a bit of tenacity to hold true to that. I also think being able to trust your gut and having the deep-seated resilience to navigate through challenges are super important traits. As my husband Charlie and I often say, ‘If it were easy, everyone would be doing it!’
In the beginning, if you could have had a glimpse into where your work is today, what three words describe how you might have felt?
(Slightly) daunted. Amazed. Grateful.