Natural Living poll winner: The Honest Kitchen

Natural Living poll winner: The Honest KitchenIt's easy to see why The Honest Kitchen lives up to its mission of creating wholesome pet food products—their own pets are their first customers. Not as easy to do, however, which is what makes their transparent ingredient sourcing so impressive.

The company's now 26 human employees and eight four-legged executives have pioneered human-grade (and human taste-tested), dehydrated food for pets that sources organic whenever possible and chooses sustainability over cost. Fair trade, cage-free and improving pet health are also part of the lexicon and DNA of The Honest Kitchen, and it's clear that pets love them for it.

Lucy Postins, founder and CEO/CMO lets us in on what keeps them purring.

Years in business: 10 1/2

Mission statement: To create healthy, wholesome pet food products that make a positive difference in pets’ lives.

What was your reaction to being nominated? To winning? We were very excited to be nominated at the show and thrilled to have won! It was exciting to mobilize our brand's fans via social media to drive the votes, and I think many of them were as pleased as we were when the final results were in. Our CFO promised to bring in his blender and make margaritas for the team if we won… so we enjoyed those last Friday and posted a photo (12-year-old blender an' all) on Facebook to connect it back to our fans!

You've won a NEXTY, what will you do NEXT? We’re just in the process of launching another new product—instant goat's milk with probiotics for cats and dogs. We're also working on some fun new treats for cats and a clicker training treat for dogs to be launched in about eight weeks' time.

How did you rally your resources to rock the vote for your product/brand? We announced our nomination via Twitter and Facebook, and some of our employees also shared it on their own Facebook pages so our friends could vote, too. We saw an initial flurry of voting when we first posted and then the excitement really built up with about two days to go when we saw we were in second place. I think that really got everyone going and helped push us into first in the final hours because we could see we were so close.

The Honest KitchenMost challenging thing about new product innovation? For me, it’s the balance between instinct—knowing in my heart that a prospective new product is the right fit for our consumers and our brand based on their values and the products attributes and function—and trying to be a bit more methodical in terms of consumer research to fine-tune something.

I love charging ahead once a new idea takes hold and going on gut, and I always try to retain that approach, remaining nimble and just going for something. But at the same time, there is so much to learn from actually speaking directly with consumers and finding out what they think, at least to fine-tune messaging on the packaging to make sure it captures everything that needs to be said, if nothing else.

What inspires you to keep plugging along as a brand? I think the constant flow of communication between ourselves and our consumers is a key driver. In many ways, we are our own customers—we’re a company of pet lovers, essentially creating products for ourselves, and so we have this natural connection with our customers because they are passionate about most of the same things we are.

Reading amazing posts on Facebook about pets enjoying their first meal in ages when they first switch to The Honest Kitchen from, say, prescription food is so inspiring to keep wanting to do more. That’s something we’ve really tried to bring to life with our new True Stories campaign, which brings that product feedback to life via social media—and ultimately will do so at the retailer level as well, with POS signage that shows our True Stories Poster Pets for other customers to ready and learn about their experiences with the products. That energy back from our consumers helps to keep a constant cycle of evolution going for the brand.

Where was your business 1 year ago? Where do you hope to be in 5 years? We had about six fewer employees a year ago and plan to add several more this year as well. We have an exciting product pipeline sketched out for the next five years, and I hope we’ll have more of a presence in natural specialty retailers.

Currently, most of our business is made up of independent pet specialty retailers, veterinarians and so on. We’re committed not to go through the big box retailers, but there are so many amazing opportunities in the natural channel.

Honest Kitchen pet loveAdvice to budding natural products entrepreneurs out there for getting off the ground? I think retaining a steadfast commitment to your initial vision, not compromising on values and straying true to your idea are key. It really takes some dedication and sheer stubbornness to turn an idea into reality. You have to be relentless and fixated on what you want to accomplish; but the heart of the idea, I think, is what usually strikes a chord with the consumer.

If you can keep the essence of it alive, that’s what people connect with and ultimately what will inspire them to tell their friends. We have been so amazingly blessed with a tremendous amount of growth through word of mouth alone (especially in the early years), and I do think that's what has set the solid foundation for our growth. If you compromise and cut corners, there's no way people are going to make that connection and share you with others!

Anything to add about this whole experience? We're thrilled to have won this award for the natural products industry and to be recognized for the work we're doing to raise the bar in pet food, for more sustainable ingredients choices, packaging and production. It's been really exciting for the whole team and added yet another layer of motivation and impetus to what we're all working for.