1988: Mud Bay Begins
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.
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. Recognizing that his mother couldn’t afford for the business to fail, Elsa’s son Lars became 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.
Pioneering Natural Pet Care: 1989 - 1999
With a tiny facility surrounded by farms that were giving way to housing developments, Mud Bay 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. 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. 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. 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.
Overnight Expansion: 2000 - 2002
In the summer of 2000, Seattle’s largest chain of small format pet stores became insolvent. When Mud Bay learned that these stores were about to close, 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.
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.
Improving Distribution and Education: 2003 - 2012
In 2003, we opened our own distribution center to improve our ability to source directly from the smallest and the best manufacturers we could find. In 2007, we tripled the size of our distribution center to accommodate the hundreds of manufacturers Mud Bay buys from. Every month, we found new, well-made supplies for dogs and cats—many from tiny cottage industries and many made within the Pacific Northwest.
As we continued to grow, we worked on becoming better at helping people choose healthy foods for their dogs and cats. We hired a veterinarian to help us educate every Muddy on the basics of dog and cat physiology, nutrition and behavior. We brought experts in natural pet nutrition to Puget Sound to educate our staff. And we sent Mud Bay staffers around the country to visit pet food manufacturing facilities. Mud Bay also worked on formalizing the training that all Muddies received to become more comprehensive, so everyone could offer the best solution-based advice to every dog or cat owner who came into the store.
Mud Bay also worked on opening new stores, renovating old stores, and investing in our company. We provided free food to thousands of dogs and cats adopted through Puget Sound animal shelters through our shelter partnership program, and we donated tens of thousands of dollars to organizations that contribute to the welfare of animals.
Expansion to Oregon and Company-Wide Community Building: 2013 – 2014
In 2013, Mud Bay was thrilled by the opportunity to take our mission south, and we opened our first stores in Oregon and southeast Washington. We also took the opportunity to further expand our shelter programs into those areas.
Meanwhile, Mud Bay formed a community outreach team, so we could do even more work partnering with different animal welfare organizations. Our community outreach team also supported our stores, so individual Mud Bays could partner with local schools and non-profits on specific projects to learn more about dogs and cats.
Mud Bay celebrated our 25th anniversary in 2013 by closing all our stores for the day and bringing all everyone who works at Mud Bay together for a day of learning and fun. Celebrating our anniversary was so powerful that we committed to doing it every year. Every year, all Muddies get together to celebrate and learn for one day in May that we call Mudstock.
Employee Ownership & Pet Retailer of the Year: 2015 to Present
By 2015, Mud Bay launched an employee stock ownership program, which gave every Muddy a path towards owning a part of Mud Bay. Muddies also read and discussed Zeynep Ton’s book The Good Jobs Strategy. A group of 20 Muddies got together to craft a vison of the company they wanted to create.
In 2015, we also launched our Volunteer Award of Excellence, which honors people who volunteer at animal welfare organizations with a cash award. Mud Bay also launched its first Mudlet—a mini Mud Bay that benefits an animal welfare organization—in Seattle Humane’s new building in 2017.
Mud Bay also looked at ways of expanding our private product line. We may have started baking our own organic dog cookies in the early nineties, but we transitioned into working with another manufacturer who could bake many more biscuits than we could. We also began adding a few more products each year, ranging from fish oil to cat litter.
Mud Bay was named Pet Business Pet Retailer of the Year in 2015. Since then, we continue to carefully consider new ways of expanding to meet our customer’s needs. Mud Bay focuses on measured growth—we never want to grow faster than we can grow well. And along the way, we’ve become one of the top 20 pet retailers in the nation and the largest pet retailer headquartered in the Pacific Northwest.