The Honest Kitchen: Expanding in dehydrated pet food

The Honest Kitchen, a family-owned company, uses human-grade ingredients and a focus on quality to stand out in a niche market: dehydrated pet food.

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Courtesy The Honest Kitchen | The Honest Kitchen Founder and CEO Lucy Postins, here with Rhodesian Ridgeback Willow, has grown her company from its origins as an online, home-based business to a family-owned business focusing on expanding in the dehydrated pet food market.
Courtesy The Honest Kitchen | The Honest Kitchen Founder and CEO Lucy Postins, here with Rhodesian Ridgeback Willow, has grown her company from its origins as an online, home-based business to a family-owned business focusing on expanding in the dehydrated pet food market.

The Honest Kitchen began as a home-based online business in 2002, producing out of founder and CEO Lucy Postins’ own kitchen and garage. Since then, the company has seen rapid growth in the niche market of dehydrated pet foods (often included in the raw, fresh and frozen pet foods segment when being discussed in the industry). According to Postins, growth and success so far have been a journey of quality.

The Honest Kitchen’s biggest differentiator is the fact that we have FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) approval to label our foods as human grade,” says Postins. “Our recipes are made with 100% human-food-grade ingredients and produced in a human food facility. Our co-packer is FDA inspected and SQF Level II certified. Being human grade is really a line in the sand when it comes to the quality and integrity of our finished products. We have a huge focus on quality and safety, and for us that begins with the sourcing of raw ingredients; we do not purchase any ingredients at all from China, and that even includes the individual components of our vitamin-mineral premix. I’m incredibly proud of our supply chain and the standards we’ve put in place when it comes to procurement.”

The company is growing at 30% to 40% per year, says Postins, and is on track to become a US$100 million company within the next few years. The Honest Kitchen is performing more than 95% to plan in terms of sales projections and other financial goals. “We’ve created more than 23 new jobs to double our workforce over the past 24 months and donated a significant portion of our profit to charitable organizations,” says Postins. The company has been featured in Forbes Magazine, the New York Times, HuffPost Live and the Wall Street Journal, has been named to Outside Magazine’s Best Places to Work list for the past five consecutive years, and ranked as the 22nd best place to work in the US in 2015. Clearly, The Honest Kitchen is on to something.

“We’re known as a company that people can rely on to do the right thing,” says Postins. “We do what we say and say what we do. That trust has been key to the natural expansion of our brand and is especially important for word of mouth between customers, and for other influencers like veterinarians.

“We’ve worked really hard to build out a team of top-class talent in the past several months, so we’re perfectly poised to execute this next phase of our growth plan,” she says. “One thing that’s been key to me ever since [the company’s founding] is growing in a sustainable way. We’ve been fortunate to be able to borrow some best practices from the Clif Bar Triple Bottom Line (Clif Bar Founder Gary Erickson is a minority shareholder in The Honest Kitchen, through his investment firm White Road Investments). It’s essential to always have a solid foundation on which to scale the business, and to ensure that growth is thoughtful and responsible.”

The Honest Kitchen takes pride in its method of pet food production, the most significant thing that sets the company apart in an industry already increasingly focused on specialty options. “Dehydration is an incredibly gentle method of food production, which takes place at much lower temperatures than canning and extrusion, so it helps to maintain much more of the natural nutrition and goodness in the fresh ingredients,” says Postins. “Dehydrated foods are colorful, so they contain natural phytonutrients, and they hydrate to four times their original weight, which means they’re great value for money, too.”

The company has taken its methods and, combined with consumer desires, has launched several new products in the last year, with more to come in 2016. “We launched a line of three limited ingredient diets (LIDs) [in 2015] and they’re dramatically outperforming our sales projections,” says Postins. “Our ‘minimalist’ line of LIDs contains products made with just six whole food ingredients, plus vitamins and minerals. We were really pleased to be able to create these new diets in close collaboration with Honest Kitchen customers to better understand the types of ingredients they most want to avoid for their dogs, and also with two key food allergy testing labs, to understand the ingredients that most commonly trigger pet food allergies and sensitivities. We then created our LIDs using utilizing more novel ingredients like parsnips, coconut and navy beans.”

Love Brave Thrive 1603 Pe Thonest

Courtesy The Honest Kitchen

The company’s “minimalist” line of limited ingredient diets includes products made with six whole food ingredients, plus vitamins and minerals.

The Honest Kitchen is also in the process of launching a new, ready-to-serve dehydrated product called Proper Toppers, which addresses the growing trend of pet owners wanting to be more proactive in customizing their pets’ bowls, for a broader spectrum of nutrition, as well as variety in taste from one meal to the next. “Proper Toppers are a nutritionally balanced and complete product made from 90% meat, plus superfoods (blueberries, pumpkin and apples),” says Postins. “They can be used as a whole food topping to boost taste and nutrition, fed as a complete meal or even used as a treat.”

Proper Toppers 1603 Pe Thonest

Courtesy The Honest Kitchen

Proper Toppers are a nutritionally balanced and complete product made from 90% meat, plus superfoods such as blueberries, pumpkin and apples, according to The Honest Kitchen. They can be used as a whole food topping to boost taste and nutrition, fed as a complete meal or even used as a treat.

The Honest Kitchen has added more than 1,500 new retail doors in the US and Canada in 2015, which Postins says has been a major driver of the company’s growth. In addition, the company continues to invest in its people. “We’ve made a massive investment in key staff in the past couple of years, including building out an incredible field sales team, as well as adding key marketing, finance and operations personnel,” says Postins. “We’ve also worked hard to develop and implement new processes across the business that streamline the way we work, enabling us to be more efficient in the way we support our distributors and retailers.”

The Honest Kitchen remains on a significant growth trajectory, according to its founder. “We’re tracking to plan,” she says. “We have an exciting pipeline of new products, many of which will launch in the next two to three years. We’re exploring new form factors, an expansion of our treat line and longer-term diversification into other categories—we’re doing an initial test on our own website at the moment, to assess consumer interest in a line of all-natural goat’s milk pet shampoo bars. Early consumer feedback has been incredibly positive.”

The Honest Kitchen’s commitment to the quality of its products and the satisfaction of its customers will continue to be the base from which the company expands. “We remain a family-owned company,” says Postins. “We’re a team of truly passionate animal lovers who also happen to be foodies. We pride ourselves on our uncompromising standards and even though we make life a bit more difficult for ourselves, upholding the ‘rules’ we’ve made for the way we do business, we think it’s worth it to make a clean, colorful, tasty product.”


Just the Facts

Honest Kitchen Logo 1603 Pe Thonest

Headquarters: 111, 14th Street, San Diego, CA 92101

Facilities: Illinois

Officers: Lucy Postins, founder and CEO; Michael Greenwell, president; Charlie Postins, founder and chief strategy officer; Mike Steck, CMO; Steve Donzelli, vice president, sales

Sales: Growing at 35% to 40% per year

Brands: The Honest Kitchen

Distribution: Nationwide US and Canada, limited distribution in Asia

Employees: 43



Industry opinion: The ‘pet health foods’ segment

“The ‘pet health foods’ category, which includes dehydrated, raw/frozen and freeze-dried diets, is the fastest-growing food category in pet food,” says Lucy Postins, founder and CEO of The Honest Kitchen. “Overall as a category, we and our peers are growing at more than 26% (with The Honest Kitchen’s growth rate sitting at around 35% to 40% per year). This is in stark contrast with more conventional form factors like kibble and canned foods, the lower-quality offerings of which are growing in the low single digits, or flat.

“Some areas of the pet food industry are pretty slow moving, but many smaller and more nimble companies like The Honest Kitchen are able to act on inspiring human food trends (such as turmeric, coconut and bone broth) to offer pets dynamic products that are current, relevant and boast natural health benefits,” she says.

One area that Postins is especially passionate about is GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in pet food. “Customers are becoming more and more aware of the ‘unknowns’ of consuming genetically modified ingredients,” she says. “Manufacturers like The Honest Kitchen have led the charge in setting the standard for ingredient sourcing and helping to grow awareness of the GMO issue among pet owners, and I think we’ll see a growing trend towards non-GMO verified offerings in other categories of the industry over the coming years as consumer pressure continues to mount.”

Customization of pet food options, according to Postins, is also top of mind. “I think there’ll be a continuing trend in customization, with a major increase in the way customers tailor their pets’ meals to incorporate variety in taste and texture as well as a broader spectrum of nutrition,” she says. “This means an increase in combining different form factors (e.g., mixing diets like The Honest Kitchen’s with conventional foods like kibble) as well as custom-made toppers and mixer products.”

A third area of interest is in limited ingredient diet product offerings, as well as some simplification of existing recipes, as customers seek out solutions to ever-increasing pet food allergies, says Postins.


Opportunities and challenges in the dehydrated pet food market

“We have a tremendous opportunity to really broaden our reach, to introduce health foods to a wider audience who historically have only fed ‘fast food’ to their pets,” says Lucy Postins, who founded The Honest Kitchen as an online business from her home in 2002. The company, which produces dehydrated pet food formulas, has since grown exponentially within its niche segment. “The most exciting part is the fact that once customers switch their pets to our food, they see tremendous health benefits, and this in turn fuels word of mouth, and creates lifelong loyalty to our brand and the products we create.

“We’re on a mission to help as many pets as possible on the road to good health, through good food,” says Postins. “The Honest Kitchen, along with other key players in what I call the ‘pet health foods’ category, has tremendous opportunities for expansion. We started off as a very niche product that was often described as being ahead of its time. Besides the US and Canadian markets, we have tremendous opportunity for overseas expansion too, when the time is right. I think we have Europe in our sights as an exciting opportunity for growth and driving brand awareness in the next year or two.”

Such growth isn’t without its challenges, however. “Maintaining our company culture as we continue to scale has been a big focus for us,” says Postins. “We recently created a new corporate responsibility manager role to specifically tackle this area of the business. It’s essential to us that we remain ‘the same, but more’ in terms of culture and living our values as we grow. We have a big focus on employee health and wellbeing and an incredibly close-knit team. Translating the office culture to the field sales team is a big focus, as well as continually building on the values we have.”

The Honest Kitchen also has a philanthropic arm, Pawlanthropy, that Postins says she hopes to make more meaningful as the company grows, as well as formalizing employee volunteering opportunities and improving the role the company plays in the local community.

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