PART 4: LAYING ROOTS
Continuted from Part 3: Enter Alison.
Once we made the commitment to start a dog food company, it was a whirlwind of epiphanies, small triumphs and minor fumbles. Our first order of business was to formulate a food we could responsibly sell to the public, ensuring that it contained everything a dog needed to thrive. After intensive research, formulation and laboratory testing, we were pleased with our initial efforts and sent our feed application to the New York State Department of Agriculture. We naively assumed this was merely a formality, so we were unprepared for the rude awakening of the rejection that came because we included two ingredients that were not defined by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
In case you’re not familiar, AAFCO is a voluntary organization whose members are mostly feed regulators and industry insiders, with representatives from companies like Hill’s and Purina. AAFCO sets recommendations for acceptable ingredients, how those ingredients are defined and other parameters. Most of these recommendations then become the rules that individual states adopt. It sounds confusing because it is. It turned out that the burdock root and nettles in our food were not allowed in dog food, but corn syrup and propylene glycol were! Also, including nutritious animal organ meat such as gizzards and kidneys would mean we’d have to put “meat byproduct” as our second ingredient—other things that could be included in that vague category are the stuff that’s used in the cheapest and least accountably sourced pet foods on the market. We were bummed to have to remove some of our favorite ingredients, but these cuts inspired us to add wild blueberries and pumpkin seeds.
When it came to the quality of our food, we had all the confidence in the world, but we felt way over our heads when it came to branding, despite our decades of combined art and writing backgrounds. We hired someone to design our logo, packaging and marketing materials as well as another person to build our website; we didn’t even consider that we could do it ourselves. We quickly learned otherwise and have since become empowered to create and design all of our own branding and content. In fact, pretty much everything so far that has seemed like something we needed to outsource—from design to financial forecasting—has only gelled once the two of us have taken full responsibility for owning it (except bookkeeping, shout out to Profitas ☺).
With our packaging and product all worked out, it was time to pound the pavement. Our success rate was astonishingly high, especially given our novel category in the humongous pet food industry. We cold called or simply walked into stores—the overwhelming majority ordering on the spot—and spent weekends doing demos in front of our new retailers, scooping food and beckoning canine passersby’s to try a free sample. Almost every dog we encountered, including the pickiest and most skittish, devoured the food. This validated our belief that we were making the best food out there and gave us the chutzpah to try winning over some of the less receptive retailers. For example, after seven sales calls to one store in the West Village, the owner finally softened enough to allow us to leave product on consignment. Without skipping a beat, Hanna countered that instead of just leaving the food with him, we’d prove our merit by bringing a few cases into the store, setting up in front on a nice day and making as many sales as we could. He sheepishly accepted our terms. By the end of the day, we had practically sold through everything we had brought with us and landed the account.
In the early months, everything seemed exciting and possible. By spring, Evermore was sold in 32 stores throughout NYC and the Hudson Valley, and we thought we had arrived. Our optimism was matched only by our naïvete. Just a few short months after putting our life’s savings into the business, we were solicited by a payroll company and signed up immediately. We took a grand total of one paycheck before realizing that salaries would be in the distant future, one that we still await.
The buoyancy, of course, was counterweighted by Mary’s situation. Over the next few months, we visited frequently, sharing stories of Evermore’s early wins. She seemed genuinely pleased with our progress and celebrated our successes with us. Then in May, she was diagnosed with pneumonia, chose to refuse treatment and became a Hospice patient. Hanna brought her beloved dog, Bux, down to the care facility for a final visit. After Mary said her goodbyes, she had Hanna take him down to the beach, in view of her windows and watched him frolic in the sand. A week later, she passed away.
We both love Evermore and what we do—in fact, it’s hard to imagine making a product more impactful than ours; however, we have also had to grapple emotionally and spiritually with how the company came to be. When Alison told David, her private cooking client and an intuitive holistic healer, about the course of events as they were happening, he referenced divine intervention as a way to process it. He said, “It’s a beautiful cycle really. One person is ready to move beyond this world and has made space for others with shared passions who are ready to lay roots, allowing for something meaningful in the world to blossom.” His words still resonate with us, because it's really hard to imagine being on this path any other way.