Midwestern beef mixed with papaya and dandelion greens. Line-caught white fish with sweet potatoes and parsley. These are the meals that Taro and Willow, two Rhodesian Ridgebacks owned by Lucy Postins of San Diego, wolf down on a regular basis.
Postins is the entrepreneur behind the Honest Kitchen, a 26-employee company that concocts and dehydrates a range of delectable-sounding dishes for dogs and cats. Recipes are made with organic, non-genetically modified, gluten-free ingredients — the same ingredients that can be found in artisanal human meals. Pet owners who buy the dried dishes just need to add water. They can even grab a spoon themselves, if so moved.
“We’ve had a few customers over the years threatening to feed the food to their husbands,” she said. “I don’t know if anybody has, but there’s nothing in there that you can’t eat.”
Postins can market her pet food as “human-grade” because she says she can prove that every ingredient in it is fit for human consumption and the food is prepared according to Food and Drug Administration standards for people. She was inspired to start the line in 2002, when her Rhodesian Ridgeback at the time — Mosi, who has since passed away — battled ear infections and a skin condition and then responded well to a raw-food diet that Postins concocted.
Of course, a product that can be fed to both your dog and your significant other is not cheap. A 10-pound box of the Honest Kitchen food, which yields about 40 pounds of food when water is added, can run as high as $109.99. By contrast, 40 pounds or so of Pedigree or Purina — popular brands with crunchy kibble — generally costs about $20 at big-box stores.
Some might question whether anybody would (or should) pay such a premium for pet food. But Postins has proved that the demand is there: Last year, the Honest Kitchen took in $17 million in revenue. The company sells about 3 million pounds of food a year, through 3,000 specialty pet shops in the United States and Canada, some Whole Foods locations and its online site. In recent years, she has taken on investors, including Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford, the owners of Clif Bar, and Alliance Consumer Growth, a private equity firm in New York, although she and her husband, Charlie, are still majority owners.
According to Postins, the company has pretty much grown on its own. When she first decided to turn her dehydrated blends into a business, friends helped her set up a website and PayPal account. When she logged into PayPal to see if her test order had gone through, she said, “I couldn’t believe my eyes. Somebody from Virginia had actually beaten me to it and somehow tracked down our website and placed an order. I was just absolutely flabbergasted.”
Within months, mostly through word-of-mouth marketing, she was shipping enough that “the FedEx guy came to us” every evening rather than her having to drop off boxes. “We hadn’t got a business plan in the beginning, and we really didn’t realize what we had created,” she said. “And it turned out we sort of got a tiger by the tail.”
Postins, who has a degree in equine studies from Warwickshire College in her native England, said her blends are formulated to meet pets’ daily nutritional requirements of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Early on, she said it was difficult for her to find a human-food facility that would make her products.
“I’ve been to a pet food rendering plant and that horrific stench where you literally have to breathe through your mouth, it’s just too awful,” she said. Postins says she also declines to use ingredients from China, which has been implicated in a number of tainted pet food cases since 2007.
In 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture objected to her use of the term “human-grade” on her labels. “It was a really painful time,” she said. “All these battles I’d gone though, to make the product just the way I want, and have this line in the sand about quality. What was the point of even doing it if I couldn’t explain it to people.”
Postins reached out to the F.D.A.’s Center for Veterinary Medicine. She said she provided affidavits from all of her suppliers, attesting that the ingredient supplied (be it celery or cranberries) was for human food products. And the plants that manufactured her products testified that they made the Honest Kitchen food on the same equipment being used to make breakfast cereal and other human food. The F.D.A. dropped objections, she said. (The F.D.A. confirmed that it has worked with Postins, but doesn’t maintain a public list of pet-food manufacturers that have sought to include term “human-grade” on labels.)
Today, Postins works out of an old Wonder Bread factory in San Diego. Many of her employees have dog beds next to their desks, so they can bring their pets to work. (Postins said she has a third dog, a blind pug named Johnson, who “mostly telecommutes.”)
She is currently working on new recipes, swapping in chard for dandelion greens and debuting new packaging at this month’s Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, Calif., and Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Fla. The dogs (and sometimes cats) in her office give final approval to new offerings.
Postins said customers often tell her that the Honest Kitchen products have cured their pets’ chronic health issues or allowed them to stop taking steroids or antibiotics — “not that there’s something magic in our food,” she said. “It’s literally just sensible whole food.”
And now, with the organic food movement trickling down to pet food, Postins said, “there’s definitely a sense of being in the right place, at the right time.”