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From fashionista to pet food mogul

Marie Moody didn't even cook for herself when she developed a raw dog food for the sensitive digestion of her adopted pet.  Now Stella & Chewy's is on track to be a $10 million business.
Marie Moody started her Stella & Chewy's dog food business in her Manhattan apartment but now runs it out of a factory in Muskego, Wis.
Marie Moody started her Stella & Chewy's dog food business in her Manhattan apartment but now runs it out of a factory in Muskego, Wis. Kyle Edwards / Courtesy of SecondAct

Marie Moody's career went to the dogs. Specifically, to two pooches: Stella, a terrier blend, and Chewy, an Airedale-Shar-Pei mix. Stella and Chewy led this fashion rep to leave the world of design and start her own dog food company.

A busy New Yorker who marketed such high-end labels as Three Dots, Moody never intended to become an entrepreneur, much less a doggie chef. But when she adopted Chewy from a local rescue, he was so sick and his immune system was so compromised from distemper that she couldn't feed him regular dog food. A veterinarian suggested switching to a raw food diet.

"I started doing a lot of research, and it made perfect sense," says Moody, 42. "Animals don't cook for themselves."

Since there weren't any commercial raw dog foods available, Moody decided to make meals for Chewy herself.

She created a diet of raw meat and bones supplemented by uncooked vegetables and fruits--a menu based on what the domestic dog's ancestors, coyotes and wolves, eat in the wild. Moody used free-range and antibiotic- and hormone-free meats, as well as organic produce, but no grains--a key ingredient in many commercial dog foods.

Not only did Chewy's health improve, but he became so healthy that when Moody adopted Stella a year later, she began to prepare food for her, too. That got Moody, who didn't even cook for herself, thinking about her fellow animal lovers.

"If people knew how good this diet was for their pets, and if it wasn't that difficult for them to provide it, then I thought that a lot of people might do it," she says. "I wanted to create a food that had what's best about a raw diet, but was convenient and not dangerous."

Armed with a $50,000 loan from her father (she used the money to purchase freezers for 50 of the top pet stores in New York City), Moody started Stella & Chewy's in 2003 from the kitchen of her Manhattan apartment. With only her dogs as co-workers (and taste testers), Moody hand-prepared, marketed and sold her dog food. "I used taxis to make deliveries," she says.

Four years later, she outgrew her apartment and needed a factory. Since real estate in New York was too expensive, she returned home to Muskego, a suburb of Milwaukee, to expand her business in 2007.

In Wisconsin, she started with two employees, two dogs and herself in 12,000 square feet of factory space. Today, she's maxed out her existing factory space of 20,000 square feet and is looking to expand further. Moody now employs 66 people and has dog food in 2,500 stores nationwide. She says she's on track to make $10 million in sales this year.

Her fans include Carrie Marble, owner of Bark N' Scratch Outpost pet store in Milwaukee. "A lot of people feel that this food has saved their dogs' lives," Marble says. "We created kibble--God or Mother Nature didn't.

"Stella & Chewy's is wonderful. It's healthy and nutritious, and we're extremely lucky to have them as part of our community."

Moody remains excited about her job, and she donates a portion of her profits and products each year to animal rescue and welfare organizations. Her dogs, Stella, 14, and Chewy, 15, still help out as company greeters.

"I started this without any expectation of what it would turn into," Moody says. "The business has become this, but it wasn't what I had intended or planned. It was just something I felt passionate about, that meant something to me."

Ready to Start Your Own Gig?
Marie Moody offers this advice:

1. Look at your enterprise from a consumer's perspective.
The main objection to switching to a raw food diet is safety, so Moody worked with a professor at Kansas State University, and they came up with--and then patented--a food safety system that kills harmful bacteria without cooking the raw food. An independent lab tests every batch, and results are posted on her company's website.

2. Know what you don't know, and don't be afraid to ask those who do.
"If you're going from one career into a passion that's totally different, you have to expect to not know everything and be okay with that," Moody says. "But there are people who do know the things you need to know, and you have to find them, and then really ask a lot of questions. What surprised me the most when I started is how generous people were with their time and expertise before I could even pay them as consultants."

3. When you grow, be willing to delegate.
"It's hard for some business owners to give things up," Moody says. "They're used to controlling everything, and when you grow, you have to be willing to evolve and to give up certain decisions."

That's why it's important to hire good people. Says Moody, "You're only as good as the people you bring on board."