Q&A with Lucy Postins of The Honest Kitchen

Read what else The Honest Kitchen co-founder has to say about the state of the industry, how the 2007 recalls benefited her business and why the dehydrated petfood-making process is different.

Lucy Postins founded The Honest Kitchen in 2002 with her husband after experimenting with making food for their Rhodesian Ridgeback, Mosi.
Lucy Postins founded The Honest Kitchen in 2002 with her husband after experimenting with making food for their Rhodesian Ridgeback, Mosi.

Check out our entire interview with the outspoken petfood purveyor, Lucy Postins, co-founder and president of The Honest Kitchen.

1. What new brands, products or packaging have you introduced in the past 12 months (or how many)? Can you provide information on how they are doing in the market to date? 

In the past 12 months, we've launched Litheâ„¢ a medicinal herbal tea for dogs to support bone and joint health, and Wishesâ„¢ dehydrated wild Icelandic haddock treats which are in soft-launch phase at this time but will be available through resellers in a couple of months' time. We also launched 'Made out of Love', a recipe book of meals that people can prepare for (and sometimes share with) their animal companions.

2. What are your company's keys to growth? 

I believe we have a very acutely tuned-in understanding of what companion animal guardians want and expect from a pet products manufacturer. This is mostly due to our own values as a company, and our innate love of our own companion animals; we share the same beliefs as our customers and this shines through in the products we make as well as the integrity and transparency with which we operate our business. Our company was originally founded from a quest to find a solution to a problem, not as a money-making venture. We maintain a very strong focus on personal, individualized customer service and on education.

3. What would you say sets your company apart from the competition? (R&D, product development, product promotion, etc.)? What do you strive to be known for? 

The main thing that sets us apart from the competition is the fact that The Honest Kitchen's products are made in a human food production facility and not in a pet food plant. This allows us to use the term 'human grade' legally on our product labels. Also, dehydration is a very different form of production from conventional extrusion or baking, used to make most pet food.

We have extremely strong connections with our customers and with fans of our brand and products. We're fortunate that our products actually speak for themselves in terms of real, tangible health benefits and this results in a large amount of The Honest Kitchen's growth being attributable to word of mouth referrals. Most of the stores who carry our line do so because a customer asked them to and a huge percentage of our customers learned about The Honest Kitchen from a friend.

At The Honest Kitchen, we are advocates for dietary variety and promote our products not as a sole source of sustenance but as a valuable part of an animal's total diet and a truly holistic approach to health. Our foods can be fed alone of course, but we want to teach pet parents that's it's also really fun and rewarding to create homemade meals and to steer away from an obsession with the science of food! Most people don't know how many milligrams of calcium they consumed today, yet there is this excessive focus on measurement and science in our industry, which is very counter-intuitive to me. Food is a gift from our planet and in my opinion, it should be enjoyed in a form as close as possible to the way nature intended it - not meddled with, genetically engineered, industrialized and over-processed to the extent that it is now.

It's also nonsense to think that a dog or cat should for some reason be exempt from eating a varied diet like we humans do. Nutritional balance can be achieved throughout the week for cats and dogs just as it is on our own diets. That's a message which we really want to get out. There is nothing about a pet's physiology or anatomy that says it should eat the equivalent of a highly processed breakfast cereal for every day of its life. I think The Honest Kitchen has spearheaded the idea of helping to get animal guardians to go 'back to basics' in how they regard food, and regarding nutrition is a cornerstone to health. It's crazy to think that optimal health can be achieved with such highly processed, monotonous products with dozens of synthetic ingredients added in to try to make them as nutritious as the raw natural state that they once resembled! We want to awaken people's minds to the concept that minimally processed, varied food is better - and we're working to provoke change in the way nutrition is regarded in the industry and among pet guardians.

4. Please provide sales estimates for the past year or current year to date-or a comment on sales trends. 

2009 sales were up about 27% over 2008 figures with an average growth rate of 56% for the past five years. In late 2009 and early this year we have picked up several new major distributors who are instrumental in the next phase of our growth. We're currently available in almost 2000 resellers nationwide.

5. What is the outlook overall for the future of your company? Any projections or possible new directions? 

We are continuing to innovate and have a new dog food recipe in the works for this coming summer, which will be made with fish as its protein source. We're expanding online and community based grassroots marketing efforts with some exciting new initiatives in 2010. We also have a new groundbreaking, patent-pending initiative that will go live towards the end of this year and will further revolutionize the way companion animals are fed.

6. Where do you see your biggest opportunities? 

Our patent-pending project represents one of the most formidable changes to the feeding of companion animals in recent years and stands to raise the bar on how the industry serves its consumers. We see many opportunities within the holistic and conventional veterinary communities and are conducting a veterinary-based feeding trail this year which is already yielding some very exciting results. We remain highly committed to independent pet product retailers as well as natural health food stores.

7. How has your company changed over the past several years? 

We have added a number of new staff members in the past several years, including the beginnings of a dedicated sales arm on the road, for the first time ever. We've 'grown up' in many regards, with the implementation of a new SAP Business One system and an overhaul of our sales and marketing strategies as well as continued efforts to reduce our 'ecological paw print' - through we remain resistant to having too many 'grown up' minds on our team!

8. What are some of your most difficult challenges? In other words, what keeps you awake at night? 

I think our biggest challenges relate to the rate of our growth. We are so fortunate to still have such a fantastic growth rate, eight years after our company began, but maintaining our company culture as we add new team members, staying true to our core values and staying nimble enough to be able to follow our instincts in a timely manner without getting bogged down by the minutiae of the day to day running of a multi-million dollar business are pivotal for The Honest Kitchen. There is a fragile balance in maintaining the essence of what makes The Honest Kitchen what it is today while growing, maturing and also still allowing our brand to evolve and stay true to its roots. Our staff are absolutely instrumental in making the company what it is.

Coupled with that, on a more practical level, the constant need for working capital to simply keep up with demand, is a big focus for us. The economic climate has challenged us during the recession not because of low sales but with restricted access to lines of credit and sourcing other funding which we'd love to have on board to enable us to execute some of the ambitious new plans we have brewing!

9. Were you affected by the 2007 petfood recalls and, if so, how? 

We were positively affected by the recalls. It was a truly awful way to get new business but there was a tremendous spike in sales at that time which has continued to carry forward. We pride ourselves on customer service and hired new people to help staff the phones. Many animal guardians were turning to The Honest Kitchen after having switched brands three or more times already, only to find that each new food they chose, was subsequently added to the recall list. To some extent we 'broke ranks' with the industry and provided educational resources to pet owners to help them make informed decisions and to actually empower them to home-prepare meals for their animals rather than directly pushing people to use our products. We maintain a high level of transparency in our operations and this helps to ear the trust of our customers.

10. How do you think the recalls affected the industry overall, and do you believe those changes should continue? 

The recalls definitely opened up the eyes of the average pet owner to what goes on in the industry as a whole. I think man y people were shocked to learn how few actual manufacturers there are in relation to how many brands sit on store shelves. And even more than that - were horrified to learn that many companies whose names appear on labels, pled ignorance to the fact that formulas had been changed or claimed not to know what was even in their products. We purchase every raw ingredient that goes into our product directly so we're responsible from supplier to bowl.

11. How would you evaluate the current state of the petfood industry? 

In my opinion, the industry as a whole remains strong and is pretty recession-proof. I am not an expert on conventional pet food manufacturing or the mainstream part of our industry since The Honest Kitchen's products are made within the human food industry so it's difficult to comment on the state of any specifics within the pet industry.

12. What predictions do you have for the petfood industry? 

I believe there will be a continued humanization of pet products with trending towards organic and natural products. Animal guardians are becoming more and more savvy and demanding of quality and integrity, which is great, because this will continue to insight change for the better within pet food production. I believe the trend will continue towards products with tangible benefits for the animal and away from novelties and gimmicks.

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