Stella & Chewy’s fills natural pet food niche

When Marie Moody rescued her dog Chewy from an animal shelter in California, he was very sick. A holistic vet in Los Angeles told her to try feeding him a raw food diet.

When Chewy thrived on the diet, Moody tried to find a commercially available pet food made with similar ingredients, but there weren’t any. So she started Stella & Chewy’s, a raw pet food company named after her dogs, in 2003.

“I noticed that people were spending a lot of money on their pets and my observation was they were missing the point of it,” Moody said. “The same things they’re looking for in their own diets, they’re also looking for their pets.”

Healthy food is the most important thing owners can use to impact the life and longevity of their pets, she said.

Stella & Chewy’s makes food for dogs and cats using raw beef, chicken, duck, goose, lamb, venison, rabbit and fish. The protein is mixed into a patty with organic fruits and vegetables and then frozen or freeze-dried.

At first, Moody ran the business out of her apartment in New York, where she had moved by 2003. Because raw pet food was not available on the market, it was an uphill battle to convince pet owners to try Stella & Chewy’s.

Osvaldo Olea uses a packaging machine to bag freeze-dried patties.

Moody brought samples of her products to pet stores for owners to try on the weekends. Eventually, they became popular enough that store owners placed orders. She made the food at home, had it freeze-dried at a co-packer and delivered it to each pet store herself.

Eventually, Moody wanted to control the whole process in a dedicated manufacturing facility, so she decided to open a plant back home in Wisconsin. Stella & Chewy’s opened in a 13,000-square-foot building in Muskego in 2007.

In November 2011, the company grew too large for that space, and moved to its current 50,000-square-foot building at 2842 S. 5th Ct. in Milwaukee. That building is filling up, and the company plans to add on.

“Over the next year and a half, we will be further expanding this building,” chief executive officer Jen Guzman said. Specific plans have not been set, but the growth will expand manufacturing capabilities by 50 to 100 percent, she said.

The company makes a variety of pet foods, like this Yummy Lickin’ Salmon & Chicken Dinner.

The food product mixtures are about 95 percent meat, organs and bone and five percent fruits and vegetables. The diet is based on the prey dogs’ ancestors ate.

“This is what the dogs ate in the wild. This is what they were used to eating,” Guzman said.

The ingredients are ground and mixed together, then sent out for high pressure processing at American Pasteurization Company in Milwaukee. The process extends the shelf life of foods without preservatives.

When the product returns to Stella & Chewy’s, probiotics and antioxidants are added and then it’s mixed again and formed into patties.

The patties are put on trays and either packaged and frozen or put into the freeze drying machines that remove moisture with a vacuum, Guzman said. Throughout the process, the product and environment are sanitized.

Owners can serve pets the patties as is, rehydrate them into wet food or crumble them over kibble.

“Stella is always involved in the testing. She’s still the number one taste tester,” Guzman said. “Some dogs are very picky, so if you can even get the picky dogs to like the formula, then you’ve got a winner.”

The company has 170 employees and is continually adding more. The company expects to add 20 additional jobs this year, Guzman said.

It now has $20 million in revenue and 51 food and treat SKUs that are available in more than 3,000 retail stores nationwide.

Some of its employees are based around the country, conducting demonstrations for retailers.

Stella & Chewy’s also supports animal welfare efforts, and is hosting a pet adoption event at the Iron Horse Hotel in Milwaukee on June 15. The hope is to become better known locally.

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