Nishes Shrestha brought his dog along to the United States when he left Nepal for college. It was in Bellingham where he met fellow Nepali, Suman Shrestha.
“In 2003, I had a small business in handcrafted goods from Nepal,” Suman Shrestha said. “Then we became friends.”
During their budding friendship Suman Shrestha noticed the yak cheese treats that Nishes Shrestha was giving his pooch, Kaos.
The two, who share a last name but are not related, had an idea.
At Nishes Shrestha’s kitchen table in Bellingham, with $3,000 as start up money and a small supply of yak cheese, the two 20-something-year-old men launched Himalayan Dog Chew.
Today, their company, now located in Mukilteo, has revenue of $6 million per year.
Nishes Shrestha, 35, Suman Shrestha, 34, and Suman’s brother Sujan Shrestha have been voted The Herald Business Journal’s Entrepreneurs of the Year for 2014.
“I’ve been lucky to have these two guys,” said Suman Shrestha, the company’s president. “All three of us have always believed that the U.S. is the land of opportunity. It’s hard work, we never give up and are constantly working hard trying to improve.”
Years ago, while sitting around that kitchen table, Suman Shrestha and Nishes Shrestha put time and effort into their vision and goals, but also talked a lot about giving back.
They wanted their business to incorporate the love of their homeland, and bring work to farmers and others by producing healthy, nourishing treats for dogs, the likes of which had never been seen before.
In Nepal, yak cheese is dried and cut into small cubes. It’s a good source of protein and people pop a cube in their mouths and suck on it to extract the goodness.
“It’s used a lot by hikers, and walkers too,” Suman Shrestha said.
During the time of Genghis Khan, the people of Mongolia would make a dried cheese out of surplus yak milk. The method of preserving milk is an ancient practice, diligently kept alive in the company’s Mukilteo facility.
With family in Nepal networking with farmers on their behalf, Suman Shrestha and Nishes Shrestha’s first order was a two pound block of cheese.
“We did a lot of experiments to get rid of lactose and fat” from the cheese, said Suman Shrestha, who has a background in chemistry. “Otherwise it makes the dog’s stomach upset.”
The men worked hard to come up with the right formula, size and cost. The process was long and slow.
“In 2007, Sept. 2, we decided to launch it,” Suman Shrestha said.
Suman Shrestha and Nishes Shrestha hosted a booth at a dog park in Bellingham with 100 pounds of their yak milk cheese treat for dogs. The cheese had less than 1 percent fat and was almost lactose free.
“We got sold out,” Suman Shrestha said.
The owners of a local pet store cruised by the booth. They wanted to sell the dog chews. By January 2008, Suman Shrestha and Nishes Shrestha asked Sujan Shrestha to lead them in the company, which incorporated as the Himalayan Corp. later that year. He serves as CEO.
“Sujan is a good salesman,” Suman Shrestha said.
Nishes Shrestha is director of production and maintenance.
Himalayan Dog Chew products are an alternative to bone, rubber and skin treats for dogs. Rubber and plastic are not consumable and bone is a hard block of mainly calcium.
Rawhide, a popular treat for dogs, can swell inside the stomach.
Himalayan Dog Chew product is easily digestible with 60 percent protein, retaining essential vitamins and proteins dogs need.
“This is a super healthy chew,” Suman Shrestha said. “We used third party labs for testing.”
By the end of 2008, they were working with 50 Nepali farmers who were making 6,000 to 7,000 pounds of cheese for Himalayan Dog Chew.
Toward the end of 2009 Himalayan Dog Chew was importing almost 12,000 pounds of cheese and was being sold in 300 stores around the United States.
Sales increased to the point that in 2010 the company was taking in 20,000 pounds of cheese from Nepal.
At their first trade show, in Las Vegas, they met with distributor David Levy, owner of Pet Product Innovations, of Des Plaines, Illinois. He’d approached them before, in 2008, but at that time they were unable to supply enough product.
In Las Vegas, Levy said, he found Suman Shrestha, Sujan Shrestha and their mother working in a 10-by-10-foot booth. Levy told the brothers that he was still interested and that if they took a chance on him, he would take a chance on them.
“I told them, ‘I’ll work on ridiculously low margins,’” Levy said. “But when it grows I want to be the largest distributor.”
It was about Levy taking a leap of faith in the company and the brothers trusting him, he said.
“Their mother put a hand on my shoulder and said, ‘You do business with this man, I like him,’” Levy said.
Throughout the years both companies have continued to grow and the men have all remained friends as well as business partners.
Himalayan Dog Chew was the first company to bring the first yak milk (and now yak and cow’s milk) to the industry.
“But to be the first, to be the best and to maintain integrity to the product… They are the cleanest out there,” Levy said.
Of the thousands of dog chews that Levy has taken from Himalayan Dog Chew, maybe five pieces have had any type of issue, such as a crack.
Copycats aren’t up to snuff. “Others were horrible,” Levy said. “Mold, cracks, no buffing sharp edges.”
Himalayan Dog Chew now makes 13 different products, including dog cookies, yaky nuggets and yaky puffs, which can be popped in the microwave like popcorn.
Suman Shrestha’s Husky, Eddie, and Norgay, his Norwegian Elkhound, are the company’s two chief tasters.
As well as making delicious, healthy treats for dogs, the three men had visions and goals about their company. What is the most important? Their employees, they said.
Suman Shrestha, Nishes Shrestha and Sujan Shrestha did not take health insurance for themselves until their company could afford to buy health insurance for every member of staff. They also support the new dog park in Mukilteo, the Japanese Gulch Group, and KAT, the Kathmandu Animal Treatment Centre.
Whether they are inspecting every dog chew and product, hand-slicing the yak cheese, or working as an executive, every new employee starts in processing to get to know the product, see how it comes into the facility and learn what it takes for it to be good enough to sell.
When they have a future employee in mind they ask that person to keep their current job until they spend some time in Himalayan Dog Chew’s facility to see if they like it and the people there.
“We say, ‘It’s your guitar. You wanna play and rock over here?’” Suman Shrestha said.
They encourage people who want to move on to find another job before they quit.
“But if they (want to) quit we try and keep them,” Suman Shrestha said. “We have a transparent relationship with them.”
Business has been so good that Suman Shrestha, Sujan Shrestha and Nishes Shrestha have 40 staff in Mukilteo. There are another 10 in Nepal, where Sujan Shrestha spends much of his time.
Himalayan Dog Chew owners have helped almost 3,000 farmers in Nepal and began to think about incorporating farmers in the U.S. into their business to share in their success.
“We said, ‘Let’s start focusing on cheese made in the USA,’” Suman Shrestha said.
They hired a farmer from Moses Lake, who began by making 12,000 pounds of cheese a month, and have since added a few more cheese makers. Some products now are made with a blend of cow’s milk from Moses Lake and yak’s milk from Colorado and Montana.
Craig Weindling, owner of Edmonds based Smiley Dog, a pet product delivery company, started offering Himalayan Dog Chew items for his customers in 2009.
They are “a simple, natural, minimally processed healthy chew treat unique on the market,” Weindling said.
Himalayan Dog Chew also serves a greater cause as well as a healthy product. He finds it rare to come across a healthy treat that also preserves a traditionally simple production process that’s been passed down among generations, he said.
“It doesn’t get much better than that,” Weindling said.
The story of Himalayan Dog Chew, both the product and the company, fascinated Weindling. Smiley Dog staff often make decisions about what to carry based on supporting smaller companies.
“When these companies are local it’s even better,” he said.
In an industry dominated by corporate and global businesses, Weindling says that it is extremely gratifying for him to see the success that Himalayan Dog Chew has had throughout the past decade.
“From an outside perspective, they have always treated their employees and vendor accounts graciously and with respect,” Weindling said. “It’s difficult to maintain a family atmosphere as a company grows, but they appear to be pulling it off.”
Both Suman Shrestha and Nishes Shrestha say that using their traditional recipe and being extremely thorough in their manufacturing process has had a huge hand in their success.
The product line has grown in a controlled way that has not compromised the quality of products or service.
Their products are sold by 5,000 retailers, including PetCo and PetSmart, REI and at Amazon.com, and in countries including Japan, Korea, Canada and Hong Kong.
The company hopes to expand to the United Kingdom soon.
“The customer is buying the chew, but we want to satisfy the consumer,” Suman Shrestha said. “The dogs.”