Mud Bay began in 1988 when Elsa Wulff bought a tiny farm store.
The store was housed in an eighty-year old building on Mud Bay Road, which runs west out of Olympia and spans the bottom end of Mud Bay, one of the southern arms of Puget Sound.
The enterprise had been flirting with failure for years, but Elsa had an immigrant’s sense of possibility, a never-say-die spirit and a wealth of practical experience in animal husbandry. Years earlier, her children had filled her house with dozens of species ranging from goats and geese to dogs and donkeys.
Early on, Mud Bay sold a little of just about everything, from locally grown oysters, pop tarts and folk art to hog feed, fertilizer and hay. The store also lost money. In its first full year of operation, Mud Bay lost $46,000 on sales of $277,000.
Recognizing that his mother couldn’t afford for the business to fail, Elsa’s son Lars left a mountain cabin and a half-finished first novel to become Mud Bay’s third employee in 1989. Elsa’s youngest daughter, Marisa, returned from Holland, where she had just finished an MBA, and joined the effort in 1993.
During Mud Bay’s first decade, the company grew by giving things up. Item by item, the company eliminated everything that wasn’t made for animals. No more pop tarts. No more fertilizer. No more oysters.
With a tiny facility surrounded by farms that were giving way to housing developments, we realized that it was unlikely that we could excel at selling fertilizer and farm feed. Instead, we focused our efforts on researching canine and feline nutrition and on searching for healthy, natural foods for dogs and cats and other animals.
It was slow work. The foods and supplies we wanted weren’t carried by local distributors. The healthiest dog biscuits we could find were made by a little company on Long Island, so we shipped them across the country. Organic chicken feed wasn’t available, so we made a deal with a local farmer to produce our own. We even rented a local bagel bakery on Friday nights and used their oven to bake our own organic dog cookies.
We quickly recognized that giving people accurate information was just as important as providing them with healthy foods. So we became students of dog and cat food. Sifting facts and opinions, we trained staff members and wrote booklets to help Mud Bay’s customers make informed decisions about what to feed their dogs and cats.
Mud Bay’s focus on consumer education and healthy foods for dogs and cats worked. By 1999, Mud Bay had become one of the pioneers of natural pet care and sales had quadrupled. Manufacturers and wholesalers visited Olympia to try to understand why the tiny store above Mud Bay was growing so much faster than their other retailers.
As big box retailers filled with merchandise for hundreds of species of pets were springing up from coast to coast, Mud Bay was one of a small group of retailers who were doing something quite different.
Instead of carrying supplies for every pet, Mud Bay focused on dogs and cats. Instead of selling everything, Mud Bay focused on the healthiest foods and highest quality supplies. Instead of seeing a store as inventory and cash registers with a few employees to keep it open, Mud Bay saw itself as a place where knowledgeable staff helped dog and cat owners make informed decisions.
In short, instead of trying to be everything to everyone, Mud Bay focused on using natural food and accurate information to contribute to the health of dogs and cats and the happiness of the people who care for them.
In the summer of 2000, Seattle’s largest chain of small format pet stores became insolvent. When we learned that these stores were about to close and that their staffs were about to lose their jobs, we saw the opportunity to save sixty jobs and eight neighborhood stores—and to take our approach to healthy nutrition for dogs and cats to Seattle.
So with equity from family, friends and co-workers and an SBA-backed loan from Columbia Bank, Mud Bay took over operation of eight traditional pet stores that had a history of mismanagement and operating losses and no commitment to natural nutrition or consumer education.
The process of turning these stores into Mud Bays began with giving staff the kind of education in dog and cat physiology, nutrition and the pet food industry that would enable them to help owners choose the right foods for their animals. From education, we moved to inventory, phasing out lower quality, less natural products—and products for animals other than dogs and cats—to make room for a deeper selection of natural foods and supplies.
The turnaround took more than two years, but by the end of 2002, Mud Bay was a profitable company of eighty-five people who were contributing to the health of dogs and cats and the happiness of their owners in nine neighborhood stores around Puget Sound.
In recent years, we’ve continued to focus on becoming better at helping people choose healthy foods for their dogs and cats. The education in dog and cat physiology, nutrition and behavior and in the pet food industry that Mud Bay staff receive has become more comprehensive and more formalized. Our selection of healthy dog and cat foods—extruded, baked, canned, frozen and freeze dried—has grown to more than four hundred and fifty unique formulas and continues to grow every year.
Every month, we find new, well-made supplies for dogs and cats—many from tiny cottage industries and many made within the Pacific Northwest. In 2003, we opened our own distribution center to improve our ability to source directly from the smallest, the best and the most remote manufacturers in the world. In 2007, we tripled the size of our distribution center to accommodate the hundreds of manufacturers Mud Bay buys from.
In recent years, we’ve opened new stores, renovated old stores, bought trucks and invested in computer systems. We’ve provided free food to thousands of dogs and cats adopted through Puget Sound animal shelters through our shelter partnership program, and we’ve donated tens of thousands of dollars to organizations that contribute to the welfare of animals.
We’ve formally opened our books—sharing financial data, decision-making and profits with everyone who collects a paycheck. We’ve brought experts in natural pet nutrition to Puget Sound to educate our staff. And we’ve sent Mud Bay staffers around the country to talk with veterinary nutritionists and visit pet food manufacturing facilities. Along the way, we’ve become one of the top twenty pet retailers in the U.S.
Still, for all of the changes, Mud Bay continues to be owned and operated by family and friends, and the most important thing Mud Bay does today is the same as it was fifteen years ago: providing people who visit our stores with healthy foods and useful, accurate information so that they can make knowledgeable decisions about what to feed their dogs and cats.
If you haven’t visited one of our stores, please do. To find the nearest Mud Bay, please view our store directory. We’d love to hear about your dog or cat.