After college, Marie Moody ’90 moved to New York City, studied acting, got fired from waitressing jobs, worked in fashion marketing, and adopted two dogs: first Stella, then Chewy.
Chewy’s health was failing, and Moody learned that changing his diet had the potential to help. She began preparing her pups meals of raw meats, fruits, and vegetables: a fresh, unprocessed menu intended to be closer to the animals’ ancestral fare. The raw-food diet helped Chewy fully recover — and fired up Moody’s entrepreneurial spirit. She filled her tiny Manhattan apartment with industrial freezers, made her own raw-food blends, and took taxis to personally deliver her small-batch product to customers.
Fifteen years later, Stella & Chewy’s is a multi- million-dollar, national pet-food brand, headquartered in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Moody has stepped away from her role as chief executive; she now serves as founder and chairman of the board.
What keeps you most engaged with Stella & Chewy’s?
Getting people on board who are much smarter than me has been so much fun. To build a brand is like pushing a boulder uphill, so the more people doing it, the better it is.
How have the preferences of pet owners changed over time?
People are able to access so much information, and I think that helps [them] make more educated and intelligent decisions about what they want to feed both themselves and their pets. Pets are our family members, and the kind of unconditional love they give has become really important. With the evolution of the internet and social media, there’s something in between us and other people oftentimes. With your pets, you communicate in person.
You were one of the first entrepreneurs to bring raw pet food to market.
When I started, raw was a bad word. People were like, “Oh, you can’t call it raw. Can you call it gently uncooked?” When people hear raw meat, they still need to sometimes be talked through it, because they might think there could be a food-safety concern. But openness to raw feeding has come a long way.
Is it true that you collaborated with UW scientists on food safety?
I could not have done it without people at the UW. It’s funny, because I was an English major and a women’s studies major, and I came back and worked with an animal nutritionist and a meat scientist. I didn’t even know there was a building for meat science [on campus].
You know more about pathogens than the average person.
I know all about bacteria. More than I want to.
When you worked with UW scientists, was there a breakthrough moment?
They were able to point me to a technology called HPP [high pressure processing, a food-preservation method that retains nutrition and eliminates harmful bacteria]. There was one place to have it done [on a fee-for-service basis] in the United States 10 years ago, and it was in Milwaukee. It was pretty serendipitous.
How did your women’s studies major influence the Stella & Chewy’s brand?
I was coming out of the fashion industry, so I was looking at things like how to name it something besides “Natural Champion,” you know, like a really boring name. Because raw diets were already a brand-new way of thinking, I wanted something that was a little more approachable and friendly. Women’s studies really forced me to question the existing corporate hierarchy. For example, when I wanted to build a manufacturing plant, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t. And that’s thanks to the women who came before us. So I do feel a sense of responsibility to pass that on and to help women coming up now. That gives me great joy.
Has your advice changed for those who want to step forward in business as you did 15 years ago?
It’s fun to be at this point in my life and to have anything to offer the next generation in terms of advice. People complain about millennials, but I love millennials. I love the way they’re going about building businesses that are more concerned about the environment and sustainability and giving back.
How many pets do you have at home?
One cat, one dog, one kid. We were getting hate mail at Stella & Chewy’s that we weren’t focused enough on cats. My son and I were at a rescue event, and I told him he could pick one out. I just wanted to understand. You know how cats are.