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How We Turned Love and Grandma’s Bone Broth Into a Booming Dog Brand

Rachel Steinford
Rachel Steinford

Kim Hehir and Sue Delegan are the sister entrepreneurs behind Brutus Broth - the pet nutrition brand that they took from the kitchen to over 4,000 stores throughout the country, including Target, Petco, Wegmans, and a number of other major grocery chains. The duo were just selected as 2021 Tory Burch Foundation Fellows and are ready to ride this rise in dog ownership into the future.

Was it a lightbulb moment or gradual process of Brutus Broth?  

Everyone would ask how Sue’s rescue dog Brutus lived such a long, active life. The answer was love and Grandma’s bone broth. For us the light bulb moment was when we discovered that we couldn’t buy a pet safe bone broth and there was a hole in the marketplace for an affordable, all-natural product in the pet aisle of the grocery sector. After a year of R&D, we discovered  that consumers were visiting grocery and big box stores (like Target) once a week, if not more, and only visiting pet specialty stores once a month.

Bone Broth founders

We launched just as bone broth was starting to gain popularity for human consumption and since we knew pet food trends follow human food trends, it was important for us to be first to market. We were able to gain a large portion of the market share by offering every consumer the opportunity to find and afford a high-quality, value-driven product. Afterall, everyone that shops pet specialty goes to grocery stores, not everyone that shops grocery stores goes to pet specialty stores.  

How did you get your first three customers?  

We got our first clients through persistence and by tapping the networks we’ve built throughout our careers. Our brother, who owned a dairy company, had done a lot of work with Wegmans and we KNEW we wanted to be on their shelves first. He had made a few introductions, but it was really persistently calling the pet buyer over and over again until we got a meeting. We finally did and secured the deal. We had the same experience with our next two biggest customers, Big Y and Giant Eagle. We reached out to our networks to find people who could make an introduction to their buyers and then we remained persistent until we secured those deals, as well.

How did you validate the idea?

We tested Brutus Broth with a small segment of the market and listened to the consumer feedback before officially launching. We spent 18 months beta testing in Wegmans Food Markets and Big Y and were really able to collect key insights that would help us better the product for the official launch.

Brutus Broth products

We made some packaging changes, moved our product to different sections of the pet aisle to see where it performed better and, most importantly, found out we were bringing new customers into the stores. People who don’t traditionally shop a grocery pet aisle were now coming in to buy Brutus Broth. Finally, we found out that once a dog parent purchased it, they would purchase it again because their dogs would not eat without it.

Brutus Broth dog food

Just a few months after launching in Wegmans we got an email from a customer whose senior dog had stopped eating and she was afraid she would have to put her down. She said on a whim she saw Brutus Broth on the shelf and decided to try it. Her dog started eating again and thriving because of Brutus Broth. That is when we really knew we could make a difference in the lives of so many pets AND their owners!

Did you have any experience/expertise in the area?

NO!  The pet industry was new to both of us. We are both dog moms and consumers, but most importantly, we had prior experience in business. We also knew that the family recipe for bone broth that Sue fed her dog Brutus was an incredible product. We just had to find the right partners to help us bring it to fruition.  

Have you raised any money? How much?  

We are pretty much self-funded to date. We did a small friends and family funding round when we secured the Target deal because we had to produce a lot of inventory. We’re really proud of the fact that we’ve been able to launch a national brand on a shoestring budget.  It hasn’t been easy, but here we are!

What regulatory approvals did you have to go through?  

Most people don’t realize that the Pet Food Industry is regulated State by State and must abide by the AAFCO (American Association Feed Control Officials) Regulatory Guidelines. What we learned was that some States interpret guidelines differently than others, which means that in some cases, we’ve had to make packaging or  wording changes just to make sure we are adhering to all States’ regulations. As a small, family-owned, self-funded business, keeping up with those regulations is like a full-time job!

Who is your target demographic?

Anyone with a dog!

What is the funniest/most strange customer request you’ve had?  

There haven’t been too many strange requests. However, we did have one customer who happened to be a Veterinarian and let us know that she ran out of beef broth one night while making beef stew for her family. So, she used our Brutus Broth instead and her family said it was the best stew they had! (Don’t worry. Brutus Broth is made with human-grade bone broth, so there was no harm done!)

Where did you meet your cofounder/founding team?  

We’re sisters and our father is the Chairman and one of the founding partners. We like to keep it in the family ; ).

Any tips for finding first employees?  

We have used our networks and also bring people on as independent contractors first to make sure the fit is right.

Did you run any companies prior?  

Sue was involved in an innovative Dairy Company called Ilios for a few years prior to starting Brutus Broth. Kim oversaw and launched several ancillary businesses for a large luxury hotel chain.

What motivated you to start your own business?  

We come from a family of entrepreneurs and were raised to have that entrepreneurial spirit. Our father always encouraged us to start our own business and we knew that we had a great idea and high quality product.

Brutus Broth dogs

We did the research and identified an opportunity in the marketplace for a product that could change the lives of so many dogs.  

What were your family and friends' first thoughts on your company?  

They were all for it! I think what surprised most people is that we went to scale right away. We decided from the start that we weren’t going to be making bone broth in our kitchens and knew that we were going to do what it took to partner with some of the largest co-packers in the country. We were bold in our decision to go all in and because our friends and family knew we were determined to make it a success - we had their total support.

Do you have any advice for someone just starting out?

When growing a business, good relationships with partners are key to success. Building a business takes time. You’re not going to do it overnight.

What has driven the most sales?

What we’ve learned when it comes to marketing is that authentic content by fans of the product performs better than paid ads any day.

How do you protect yourself from competition?

We’ve engendered a strong customer following by being authentic and staying connected to our customers through strong customer service. At the end of the day, though, it comes down to having an amazing product.  

What are the top 3-5 apps your business could not run without?

We rely heavily on apps that help us stay insightful on how our direct-to-consumer sales are going, such as the Shopify and Amazon Seller apps. We also love having the guilty pleasure of using Instacart for grocery shopping. It helps us save hours that can be put toward growing the business

What are your favourite books?  

I (Sue) just started reading Shoe Dog by Phil Knight and Kim loves a good podcast. Right now she’s listening to Badass CEO and How I Built this.

What are the next products you’re working on?

We have about 10 new SKUs under development. We’re also working on a plant based broth right be released in the future.

Where do you see the company in 5 years?

We want Brutus Broth to be a household name amongst dog owners so that we can help as many dogs possible live healthy, happy lives!

Would you ever sell?

We are definitely open to having conversations. However, for us, it isn't about just making money. It’s about making sure that our brand continues to grow and stays authentic.

Brutus broth products

We have worked too hard to build the Brutus Broth brand. It would definitely have to be the right partner that can take the company to the next level.  

Company Name: Brutus Broth
Founders: Kim Hehir, Sue Delegan
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