Cuisine goes to the dogs
Having a beef with available pet food, company makes natural alternatives
By RICK ROMELL
Posted: May 21, 2007
Muskego – Marie Moody, former best-dressed senior at Muskego High School, had one of those lives that’s the envy of old friends at the class reunion: living in Manhattan, working in the fashion business, choosing each day’s outfit from a closet full of great clothes.
Now she makes dog food. She’s a lot happier.
Moody owns Stella & Chewy’s LLC, a firm she started four years ago in a New York apartment and named after two much-loved mutts who share the offices at the company’s new home in Muskego.
It’s a small company, but a rapidly growing one, and an outfit with impeccable timing: The expansion that brought it from Manhattan to Muskego in January came just before recalls of tainted pet food spurred already-growing interest in the sort of “natural” alternatives that Stella & Chewy’s
For Moody, 39, who has carried a bit of a New York accent back with her, it’s a homecoming on a couple of levels. She grew up here and, in running a company that makes what she believes is the healthiest type of food for dogs and cats, she feels like she’s found her calling.
Moody used to be a sales rep for Three Dots, a designer firm known for pricey T-shirts sold in boutiques and stores such as Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus. The job meant travel, nice clothes and a good living.
At the same time, Moody was becoming a dog person. Living alone and wanting companionship, she first adopted Stella, then Chewy.
She didn’t cook for herself and still doesn’t – her biggest problem with Wisconsin is that there’s not enough take-out. But because Chewy was ailing when hewas first adopted, Moody began preparing raw, natural meals for her dogs in her kitchen.
Wondering why raw food wasn’t generally available in Manhattan’s pet shops, she eventually decided to start supplying it. That, she figured, mattered more than outfitting style-conscious consumers.
By then, Moody was managing the Manhattan showroom of a designer who used a lot of fur – something that made her conclude “that I had really sort of lost my way, that it was really sort of the antithesis of who I am.” Fashion was fine, Moody thought, but it wasn’t for her anymore.
“I really just didn’t care,” she said. “I cared about my dogs.”
After locating suppliers, she set up distribution from her one-bedroom apartment on the upper west side. She filled the living room with industrial freezers, and filled the freezers with meat the suppliers dropped off at 4:30 a.m.
“I did my first deliveries with a taxi,” Moody said. “I couldn’t afford a delivery vehicle.”
Using $50,000 advanced by her father, Moody bought 35 or 40 sliding-top ice-cream freezers and persuaded pet supply shops to set them up and try the Stella & Chewy’s line.
“Within a year I had freezers in every top store in Manhattan,” Moody said.
Dimitri Kelembelidis Jr., owner of two Beasty Feast stores in New York, said he has stocked Moody’s raw patties for about four years and that they sell well.
George Zimmerman, owner of PetHealthStore, also in Manhattan, agreed, though he said “there’s really still an education factor involved.”
“People are mostly used to standard supermarket fare – dry foods, canned foods,” he said.
Attention to safety
But there’s been a trend toward feeding pets a diet based largely on raw meat, vegetables and fruits. And pet food recently has been linked to the deaths of at least 16 animals, prompting a nationwide recall of more than 100 brands because of tainted ingredients.
That could prompt even more interest in raw diets, which people such as Moody believe is the healthiest choice for pets.
“There are a wide variety of benefits,” said Melinda Miller, president of the North American Raw Pet Food Association and administrator of a large, holistic veterinary practice in South Salem, N.Y. Animals with arthritis and longstanding gastrointestinal ailments or skin problems often improve significantly after being placed on grain-free raw diets, Miller said.
Others, though, say raw diets pose safety problems both for pets and their owners.
Sandra A. Sawchuk, a clinical instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, pointed to a study that found bacteria in 99% of the samples from 21 commercially available raw meat diets, and salmonella in many.
These microorganisms can be passed to humans, Sawchuk said.
On its Web site, the American Veterinary Medical Association says “scientific research has shown raw food diets to frequently be tainted with microorganisms known to cause disease in pets.”
Miller said no study “has ever correlated human illness with raw-fed dogs or cats.”
As for the animals’ health, she said, “Dogs and cats didn’t evolve to eat diets that would kill them, and this is what they would eat on their own.”
Moody returned to Wisconsin after deciding she wanted to make her own beef and chicken patties rather than contracting for the production. She looked at opening a factory in the Bronx, but the costs were too high.
So with the encouragement of her father, and willingly accompanied by her husband, Doug Siegal – a Long Island native and Wall Street veteran who this week mowed a lawn for the first time – Moody moved back to Wisconsin in January.
Armed with about $500,000 in loans and “a couple hundred thousand” from herself and Siegal, Moody has launched production in a 12,000-square-foot building in Muskego.
She hired James Marsden, a professor of food safety and security at Kansas State University, to analyze how to control potential hazards and how to deal with them if they were to arise.
Marsden praised Moody’s attention to safety, saying she has equipped a pet food plant with “state-of-the-art technology” used in production of food for humans. Among steps Moody has taken is installation of a system that uses ultra-violet light to kill bacteria, Marsden said.
“They’re way ahead of the curve on being proactive” on safety, he said.
Zimmerman, one of Moody’s New York customers, also likes Moody’s approach.
“We have found that she doesn’t take shortcuts,” he said, “that she always tries to do the right thing.”
Stella & Chewy’s employs 15 people, and is turning out 30,000 to 50,000 pounds of meat a month, Moody said.
That’s to supply just two markets – New York and Los Angeles – so Moody believes the company has strong growth potential as she looks to expand, first in the Milwaukee and Chicago areas.
“Our sales have doubled every year since we’ve started, and this year we are on target to have revenues of over $1 million,” she said.
As for the transplanted New York couple, they profess to be delighted with Wisconsin life and their house in New Berlin.
Yes, there are some little problems. It would be nice if Moody didn’t have to drive all the way to Blue Mound Road in Brookfield to get a good chopped salad. And to palates accustomed to New York pizza, the stuff here isn’t so great.
But life with a two-year-old son – his name is Charlie – is much easier in Wisconsin. It’s also nice to see deer in the yard instead of the less-desirable wildlife that roams New York. And Siegal remains excited about his garage – with an opener.
“I still tell people about that,” he said.