Lucy Postins, founder and CEO of pet food brand Honest Kitchen, can tell you one thing for sure: a homemade, raw food doggie diet yields amazing results, but it’s also “super time consuming and messy.” While Lucy’s healthy, whole food solution was doing amazing things for her dog’s skin and ear problems, Lucy wasn’t loving the process. So, she found a better way and knew almost immediately that she was on to something.
Utilizing dehydration to create human-grade, non-GMO pet foods, Honest Kitchen has grown from kitchen counter experimentation to an award-winning pet food company that employees nearly 50 people (and yes, office dogs are welcome). While growth has been substantial since the company’s humble beginnings in 2002, Lucy has a mission of staying true to her roots. “Following our true north … has been fundamental to our long term growth,” Lucy says.
And that true north, dedicated to producing quality products and a quality company, seem to be working well for Lucy. It’s all working so well that not much keeps Lucy up these days despite her intense dedication – except for one very furry bed hog. While she might not have advice on a surefire way to secure more bed real estate, Lucy does offer practical wisdom on being true to your mission, working hard and still making time for the things you love.
We understand Honest Kitchen grew from the meals you fed your own furry-friend. How did you grow from private puppy chef to industry leader?
I’d been feeding my Rhodesian Ridgeback, Mosi, a homemade raw food diet to try to address his persistent ear infections, because the drugs my vet was prescribing didn’t seem to really bring about a cure. My homemade diet yielded some amazing health results in Mosi, but I found it super time consuming and messy to prepare. I came up with the idea for dehydration as a way to continue feeding him a healthy whole food diet, without all the mess and inconvenience.
From there, I started to wonder if other people might be looking for something similar. I noticed there wasn’t anything like it on the market, so I decided to make my dehydrated pet food into a little home-based business! It really snowballed. My garage was bursting at the seams. (I packed 37 orders to ship out to customers the night before my first daughter was born.) We refinanced our house a couple of times to fund the company’s growth, moved it out of our home, brought on a shipping and logistics company and began to hire. We’ve been pretty methodical about how we’ve grown to maintain an incredible company culture and not get too big too soon. Right now, I proudly employ a total of 48 (mostly female) staff.
Before starting Honest Kitchen what did you do? How has the experience helped you?
I worked for another pet food company, initially in customer service, and then did marketing and product development. They were a conventional company selling ‘normal’ pet food that was nothing like I wanted to create, but it was a cool opportunity to learn the industry.
What’s a day in the life like for you at Honest Kitchen?
When I’m not traveling for work, I almost always start the day making a family breakfast. I check for any pressing emails, feed the chickens and dogs, and then head out to hike with my Rhodesian Ridgebacks. I place an immense value on this time on the trails, even if it’s only 20 minutes. I love the solitude and silence, and it gives me time to clear my mind and mentally prepare for the day ahead. Sometimes I come up with a good idea for something while hiking. I’m a big believer in the positive effects of decision-making and the clarity of thought that comes from the forward motion of walking versus sitting still – it’s great for productive meetings, too! At the very least, my morning hike is usually a good source of entertainment, because my dogs like to go a little crazy and wrestle and chase each other around.
Once at the office I reply to emails, have far too many meetings, work on new product ideas, and lately, I spend a huge amount of my time devoted to my book, which is being published by Rodale in the fall. It’s a fun, lighthearted lifestyle guide for the dog obsessed!
Voted one of the Best Places to Work by Outside magazine, you’re also committed to providing for your employees. How do you achieve that goal?
We place a big emphasis on having a strong company culture that’s true to our values and the company’s roots. Our values, which conveniently fit the acronym HONEST, are centered around Healthy living, Owning our work, Nurturing employees, Efficient decision making, Sincerely communicating and being Trustworthy as a brand.
From an employee perks perspective, we provide in office chair massages, chiropractic sessions, a monthly “Office Games” afternoon, “Wine Wednesday” with cheese once a month, as well as birthday celebrations for both people and pets. We also provide a monthly health and wellness benefit through wellness app MindBody.
In a pretty crowded industry, what’s your vision for the future?
From a cultural perspective, it’s really to stay just as we are, but bigger. As we continue to grow, we’re also able to check off some of our loftier goals – such as transitioning to 100 percent free range (and some pastured) chicken, utilizing more organic ingredients, increasing the number of domestic ingredients and other sustainability goals.
Are there any challenges that keep you awake at night?
My dog Willow is really the one who keeps me up at night. Though our dogs have their own big, squishy dog beds in our bedroom, Willow is 10 ½ years old, so she’s decided she’s too good for that. Willow can only make it to about midnight before she hops into bed with us. It starts off okay, but as the night goes on, she starts to stretch out more and more. By the time my alarm goes off I’m usually clinging on to the edge for dear life, wondering where all the covers went.
What does work/life balance mean to you? Do you find it a challenge?
As the company has continued to grow and we’ve added more and more top talent in various roles, I’ve actually been able to grab back a much healthier work/life balance. I have some pretty bittersweet memories of the very early days, only having four days ‘maternity leave’ when my first daughter was born and trying to nurse my newborn while processing orders and answering emails. It was awful, but I didn’t have anyone to help me, so there was no choice.
I hadn’t realized the company was going to take off like it did when we decided to try for a baby. This was compounded by the fact that, although the orders were flying in, the company wasn’t making enough money for me to take any salary at all, because all the income was being put back in to the business to buy more ingredients. Anyway! Those days are behind us now, and I am able to be a lot more present for the children, driving for school field trips and sometimes even taking a day off to ride my horses. I’m very lucky now, but there were some pretty dark early days.
Was there ever a moment in your career where you’ve thought, “I made it!” What was it?
I don’t even like to allow myself to think like that. I’ve had some pretty proud moments, though, including obtaining a statement of no objection from the FDA to use the term ‘Human Grade’ on our product labels, winning a lawsuit against the Ohio Department of Agriculture after they refused to grant me a feed license in their state unless I removed the term ‘Human Grade’ from my labels (the judge ruled we had a right to truthful, commercial free speech) and some cool publicity features like Forbes magazine and the CBS Sunday Morning Food Show.
What are three pieces of career advice you’d like to share with our readers?
1. Focus your career on something you’re truly passionate about.
2. Find a point of difference for your offering, and stick to it. Be true to your original purpose.
3. Be stubborn! Starting and running a company is fraught with setbacks and challenges. You have to remain steadfast in your resolve in order to get to where you want to go. It’s an exercise in picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and being undeterred when things don’t pan out perfectly.
Any last advice for readers who may say, “Hey! I want her job!”
For me, being in the pet food industry, it’s about making decisions that customers trust me to make. I approach business decisions from the perspective of, “What choice would I hope the company would make, if I were in the customer’s shoes?” Following that mindset allows us to follow our true north, which has been fundamental to our long-term growth. People know we’re a company that they can rely on to do the right thing. We always do what we say, and say what we do.
Person I’d love to grab coffee with:
The Dalai Lama
You’ll find these three things on my desk right now:
A big glass of water; a notebook and pen (I’m very analogue and love making mind maps, sketches and notes for new products or campaign ideas.); and a thesaurus, because we’re feverishly working on a bunch of new product names
My go-to office outfit is:
Skinny jeans (probably from Scotch and Soda), ankle boots and a blouse
You can find me lunching at:
Sadly, my desk. I had grand plans to set an example to others about taking a proper break for lunch, but the tradeoff of my slightly unconventional, fragmented work day, which allows me time to hike, ride my horses and be present to my children means tradeoffs; one is eating lunch while I work instead of taking a break, and the other is often doing emails after hours, once my daughters are in bed.
I can’t live without:
A heartbeat. Everything else really is optional! Although, I do rather like Homeoplasmine, a homeopathic balm that’s absolutely terrific for soothing chapped lips. I keep one at work, one by my bed and one in my carry-on for travel.
My favorite way to unwind is:
Making a homemade dinner with a big glass of wine within arm’s reach. I love to cook (and am slightly obsessed with Nigel Slater at the moment). There’s something very meditational about chopping vegetables and stirring. And there’s nothing better than a slow, bantering dinner with family.
I feel my best when:
I’m riding my horse or walking home after a particularly strenuous barre class. I’m addicted to Studio Barre in Bird Rock, where I live.