All dog owners are guilty of saving small portions of their dinners for their pooches to enjoy. But, for Henrietta Morrison, cooking for her pet has become a £30m business. Steve Dyson reports.
When Lily the Border Terrier developed a severe skin allergy back in 2008, she refused to eat her usual dog food. Her owner, Henrietta Morrison, was so worried that she cooked special dishes for Lily, who fully recovered within a couple of weeks.
“I really enjoyed cooking for her,” says Morrison, “but I didn’t really have the time to do it and dreamt about being able to have a ‘ready-made’ wholesome meal for her that I could dish up and trust that everything in the recipe would be good for her.”
And so it was that Lily’s Kitchen was launched, Morrison developing a unique range of home-cooked food for pampered pooches. This meant no fibrous leftovers, as all her products are made only using fresh meat, fruits and vegetables, and specially-selected botanical herbs.
Fast-forward nearly ten years and Lily’s Kitchen now employs 65 staff, most of them full time, and is turning over £30m annually from its base at Hampstead in London. But thing weren’t that easy in the early years.
“2008 was probably the worst time to launch a premium pet food,” says Morrison. “Lots of retailers I talked to asked me to reduce the price of my food due to rising economic pressure, however to do this would have meant I had to drastically reduce the quality of the ingredients.
“This was something I simply was not prepared to do. My recipe contained more than 60% freshly-prepared meat. There was no way I was going to reduce this or replace the meat quality for meat-meal or cheaper fillers. That was the root cause of Lily’s problems and I had confidence in my recipes and the difference it could make to other pets.
“So, I stuck to my guns. All you need is one retailer to give you a chance and one pet owner to try your product and then you’re up and running. After the first two weeks, we had customers asking how quickly could we get another delivery to them.”
Lily’s Kitchen first built a dedicated customer base of independent traders, such as small organic delicatessens, pet shops and local vet clinics. But the breakthrough moment came in 2010 when it launched with online supermarket Ocado. Then came Waitrose, followed by Tesco and most recently Pets at Home.
Morrison’s key to her success was “growing slowly”, as the business’s supply chain is complex: “Getting hold of the best quality fresh organic meat for our different tray recipes can be extremely challenging, so we spent time working with a number of producers and built our distribution slowly in the independent channel.
“Our recipes are now sold nationally through hundreds of independent retailers, vets and farm shops and also through supermarkets, but it takes time to build up to that.”
For most pet owners, a bit of spare meat and a few dry biscuits are fine for their dog’s dinner, but Lily’s Kitchen products are described as “proper food for pets”. Is that really needed? “Absolutely,” insists Morrison. “We only use proper ingredients. That means real food with an ingredient list you can understand and trust with each ingredient serving a specific purpose. Our recipes are created alongside nutritionists and vets to ensure they are complete and balanced.
“The most common ingredients in pet food are cheap fillers such as meat-meal, animal derivatives and wheat or maize. These are not easy to digest and provide less nutrition than freshly-prepared meat, fruit and veg, which is why we never use fillers and only the real deal.”
But do pets really need such posh food? “Our food is by no means posh,” she retorts. “It’s just proper: meat, veg, fruit and herbs. Pets are family and as we are becoming more aware of the health benefits of our diet, so we are now thinking more about our pets.”
Morrison gives me a few examples of the different types of food she produces, from the everyday to the more exotic-sounding, and what it sells for. For dogs, this includes: cottage pie with carrots and peas, costing consumers 99p for a 150g tray; chicken and turkey, at £2.19 for a 400g tin; surf and turf, £2.49 for a 400g tin; chicken and duck dry food, £6.99 for a 1kg bag; and super foods natural snack bars, at £1.99 for two bars.
Then there’s Lily’s Kitchen food for cats: catch of the day, at 80p for an 85g tray; hunter’s hotpot, also 80p for an 85g tray; delicious chicken dry food, £9.95 for an 800g bag; and little lovelies’ treats, £2.95 for a 60g bag.
Morrison was born in Beirut in 1968 and educated there until the age of 12, when her family permanently moved to England. She read oriental studies at Cambridge and, before Lily’s Kitchen, she set up and ran a magazine publishing company, producing recruitment magazines for students and graduates. Her first publication was for graduates with a disability.
Today, she’s obviously proud of the way Lily’s Kitchen has developed its range: “Last year, we received the Queen’s Award for Enterprise: Innovation. Not only did this recognise the hard work the team puts in every day to push the boundaries of what’s possible, but I had the chance to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
“Innovation is in our blood here at Lily’s Kitchen. We believe all pets deserve proper food, because they are family. This underlying mantra drives our thinking and helps us deliver the unexpected and seemingly unachievable.”
This is the sort of thinking that Morrison advises for other would-be entrepreneurs: “Only choose something you are totally passionate about. You spend so much time working day and night that you need an endless amount of enthusiasm to get you through those early days.”
Lily’s Kitchen is still privately owned, although L Catterton, a United States consumer private equity firm, invested in the business in 2015 to help its expansion. The company is still growing in double-digits year-on-year, expanding into key markets such as Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. There are also plans to develop the environmental side of the business, which is already the UK’s “number one ethical pet food company”, as named by the Ethical Company’s good shopping guide.
“While we’re on a mission to feed pets better, we want to ensure we protect the planet while doing so,” says Morrison. “We work hard to ensure our environmental impact is as low as possible and make decisions based on this. For example, we don’t sell our wet cat food in pouches as they are not recycled and go straight to landfill, regardless of the commercial opportunity this represents.
“I just couldn’t sleep at night knowing the impact this has on our beautiful countryside. A cat would go through 1,460 pouches per year alone – that’s 11 billion pouches to landfill if you consider how many cats there are in the UK. We are the first pet food brand to become a B Corp [a certification of for-profit businesses that meet rigorous environmental standards] and are a founding member of B Corp UK.
“We are also recognised by key retail partners, for example we won the ‘Waitrose Way Award for Treading Lightly – Packaging’. These all reflect the amount of dedication and responsibility demonstrated by the team to ensure making our food does not have negative effects on the planet, from recyclable and compostable dry food bags to providing completely biodegradable dog waste bags free of charge with our food.”
Lily’s Kitchen also donates food to animal charities, last year giving away more than 650,000 meals to dogs and cats in need as part of its “Dinner’s on Us” campaign. This year, the company has joined forces with vet charity PDSA to support its work in providing pet healthcare for families who can’t afford to pay private vets’ fees. The company also supports smaller charities: for this April’s “Good Deeds Day”, the team at Lily’s Kitchen gave up its free time to sew 50 dog jackets for Street Dogs Matter.
Meanwhile, Lily the dog who gave the company its name is still great company. She was 15 years old in May, but despite her age she still comes to work with Morrison every day, from where she’s lovingly walked on Hampstead Heath. And no new Lily’s Kitchen recipes are created without what’s called Lily’s “official paw of approval”.
“She’s a great source of inspiration,” says Morrison, “and provides a sense of purpose for the team and me. She’s the reason we exist as a brand and have helped so many other pets become healthier and happier with better diets.”