At age 10, Lars Wulff got a puppy—two, actually, brought home from the Thurston County Fair in a cardboard box without asking parental permission. This February, nearly half a century later, Wulff got another puppy. But not before lining up a certified breeder, veterinarian, nutrition plan, and an expert to “train us to train the dog,” he quips.
“Fifty years ago a dog was kind of an appendage,” he says; today owners optimize their pets’ diets, their behavior, their entire lives. In the Northwest that often happens with help from his company, pet food and accessory retailer Mud Bay.
When Lars joined his mother operating a rural farm store outside Olympia in 1989, they sold everything from Pop-Tarts to cigarettes, and more pig food than anything else. Sensing a literal appetite for quality pet food, the Wulffs decided to ditch alfalfa and Timothy hay sales in favor of natural forms of dog and cat food. “If we can source healthy stuff, and help people make the right choices, we can contribute to the health of the animals,” he says. But the shop was merely a local favorite until it purchased a chain of eight stores, mostly in Seattle, in 2000; today Lars calls the city their “center of gravity.”
Now 60 locations strong from Bend to Bellingham, Mud Bay has redefined what it means to feed a Northwest pet. Staff don’t simply ring up squeaky toys, they take courses on how to determine a four-legged customer’s optimal diet among small-producer, raw, fresh, or other specialized foods. Known as Muddies, workers get more than a crash course in kibble: In 2014, Lars and his co-CEO, sister Marisa, converted the growing company to an employee ownership plan. Every year, every store closes on the same spring day for a company-wide Mudstock celebration.
Lars’s dreams for the future include finding a compostable solution for pet poop to protect Northwest groundwater. Until then, Mud Bay’s comparatively modest endeavors include a series of Mud Room grooming salons and a planned Delivery Plus program to empty litter boxes and haul kibble bags for senior pet owners.
“Seattle is a Dog. Crazy. Town.” Lars says. “It pushes us, how people are caring for their animals.” So when he’s not taking the overnight shift with his pandemic puppy, he ponders how Mud Bay can help.