It was reported last month that celebrity chef Bobby Flay and Food Network would be parting ways at the end of the year after a 27-year run that has made the native New Yorker, restaurateur and businessman one of the country’s most recognizable culinary figures. However, negotiations continued until Food Network announced on November 22 that Flay had signed a three-year contract that will begin once his current contract expires at the end of the year.
Flay became a household name thanks to such hit TV shows as “Beat Bobby Flay, “Iron Chef America,” “Brunch at Bobby’s” and “Boy Meets Grill.” In addition to his TV work, Flay operates several restaurants across the country and has authored more than a dozen cookbooks.
Earlier this year, the renowned chef and quintessential son of New York City made a big splash in the pet industry when he launched Made by Nacho, a line of cat food and treats. He spoke with Pet Age to share his inner feelings on cats and what could be best described as an unconventional path into the pet industry.
Q. You presently have two cats, Nacho and Stella. What can you tell us about them?
BF: Nacho is the orange tabby Maine Coon and Stella is a brown tabby Maine Coon. I’vehad Nacho longer. He just turned 7 [in October] and Stella is 3 years old.
I’ve had a long relationship with Nacho. He’s one of those cats who captures people’s attention and imagination as soon as they meet him. Even people who don’t consider themselves cat people or cat lovers fall for Nacho. He has a very special personality, and he’s also cool looking. He’s a 20-pound cat that’s bright orange and handsome. He has a serious presence about him. He and I are connected at the hip, so to speak. He rides on my shoulders every day.
Technically, I had another Maine Coon [named Taco] earlier, but he went the way of my marriage [to actress Stephanie March]. When the marriage ended, we split up the cats. I took Nacho and she took [Taco]. It was one of those things, the thing about cats. They pick who they want to hang out with, and it just worked out.
Nacho has a huge personality, and if I had to go to work all day, he’s alone. At some point, I felt he needed someone to hang out with besides me. I got Stella, and after a week or two of indoctrination in the house, they became great siblings.
Q. Nacho has more than 240,000 followers on Instagram. How did his popularity inspire the Made by Nacho brand?
BF: [Laughs] He’s very popular. It’s one of those things. This is how Made by Nacho really kind of got going. His Instagram account got some traction almost immediately, and then I started getting phone calls from pet food companies about doing something – an endorsement with Nacho or some kind of licensing deal. I said I’m not doing that. That would be like me teaming up with McDonalds.
It did get me thinking that I felt like cats have not had enough focus on them in terms of how they’re being fed and nourished. As a chef who helps feed people every day of my life for the past 30 years, and realizing how important these cats are to me personally, I felt it was time to do something. Obviously, Nacho inspired me. I did exactly what I always do when I start something. I do it from scratch.
It’s like anything else. I only get involved with things that I’m passionate about. Obviously, I’ve been passionate about the food industry and restaurant business for a really long time, and that continues. I’m also very passionate about my cats and cats in general. I’ve had cats in my life for my whole life. They’re an important part of my well-being and they’re a good part of my life.
I always had two or three cats when I was a kid. As an only child, I lived with my mom as my parents were divorced. I was living with a single parent. I had no other siblings, but I always had my cats. I always say I was raised by cats. They were literally the creatures that I hung out with. That’s who I spent all my time with, so they’ve always been important to me.
Q. Is there a story behind the brand name, Made by Nacho?
BF: We teamed up with a branding company calledA Studio. We kicked a lot of things around. It took us a long while to come up with a name. It’s not easy to come up with a name. Ultimately, we kicked around what this food was and what the inspiration was. We consider Nacho to be the founder because he’s the inspiration of the brand. It’s simply made by Nacho. “Made by” has a nice connotation of sort of hand-crafted, well thought out food. It’s made by somebody. Nacho is a cat with notoriety, so if you were in the cat parent business, there’s a chance you may know who he is.
Q. The Made by Nacho lineup includes wet recipes, dry recipes and freeze-dried treats. What has been the response from consumers?
BF: The biggest surprise to me is a good surprise, which is that the palatability has been through the roof. Cats, by reputation, can be difficult or finicky eaters, but we’ve had amazing success in terms of palatability. I think a lot of it has to do with what we call Nacho’s secret ingredient, which is bone broth. It has wonderful flavor, and it’s in the wet food and dry food as well, but it dehydrates itself as its cooking.
On the wet food side, You’re getting the protein and the balance of the other ingredients in it, but you’re also getting bone broth, which is giving the cat hydration right off the bat. It’s one of the most important things for a cat’s health. Their trouble spots sometimes can be their kidneys. And they need a lot of hydration. We started with that and worked our way backwards. Now, every time you open a package of wet food, the bone broth comes spilling out with the proteins and the rest of the ingredients.
The wet food is neck and neck with the dry. In the dry food, we put these chicken liver inclusions, so it’s almost like a treat in the dry food. It has tons of protein. The cats have really responded to it. I’ll get people telling me “my cat is obsessed with the dry food.”
I think the biggest surprise is how popular the treats have been. The treats are just one single ingredient. There are a variety of flavors, from ahi tuna to salmon to turkey to chicken to duck. They’ve been more successful than I thought they’d be.
And it’s all made in the U.S.A., which is very important. I think that people respond to that. It’s a thing that puts people at ease.
Q. Made by Nacho has been a three-year journey for you, from conception of the idea to the product hitting the market in April of this year. How would you describe it?
BF. It’s a new business for me. There have been a lot of things I didn’t really know about. Every industry has its own shorthand. To know the ins and outs takes experience, and it takes people who have been in it to understand that. I tapped Julie Nelson to be president of the company. Julie worked for Petco for about 14 years, so she is my pet food industry expert. From there, I started building out the team.
I utilized Dr. Katja Lang. She has been Nacho’s vet since he was a kitten. Having a good relationship with such a great vet is helpful when it comes to nutrition. I got a lot of information from her. Ultimately, I asked her to be on the advisory board for Made by Nacho so that we have her at our fingertips when we have questions or concerns. It’s nice to have someone like that on board.
I stand behind the brand. It’s me and Nacho. I support it. I don’t want people to think, “oh, this is just Bobby Flay’s cat food company.” It’s really inspired by Nacho. That’s why we call him the founder. We call it “cat-crafted cat food made by cats for cats.” That’s the whole point. Cats are the focus, and it’s made by the inspiration that Nacho brings to the table.
As Nacho’s lifelong veterinarian, Dr. Lang has been an integral part of Made by Nacho from the beginning. Dr. Katja contributes invaluable insights on what is best for feline diets, starting with nutritional content and flavor for palatability. When it comes to ingredients and digestibility, she believes that it’s the details that matter most, from ensuring the protein, fat, fiber and moisture in each diet is perfect for cats, to how the ingredients work together to optimize nutrient absorption.
“The needs of a cat are unique, especially when it comes to nutrition,” said Dr. Lang, who serves as the chief medical officer at Heart of Chelsea Veterinary Group. “In my opinion, protein and water are the most important nutrients in cat food. Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning their nutritional needs can be met by protein alone. The type of protein is very important since cats are unable to make certain key amino acids, which are the building blocks for proteins. Taurine and arginine are two amino acids that cats cannot synthesize that are required for organs to function properly. And if I haven’t bored you enough, cats also cannot build their own vitamin A and B3, so supplying those in the right type of animal protein is key to good health.”
Dr. Lang reiterates Flay’s comments regarding the importance of hydration for cats and how Made by Nacho takes that into consideration with its recipes. She notes one commonly overvalued ingredient that can be found in the Made by Nacho ingredient list.
“Bone broth is beyond underutilized and overlooked in the ingredient department,” she concluded. “Both Bobby and Nacho knew bone broth would help increase the palatability of the foods but also the plethora of health benefits it offers cats, outside of just hydration.”
Flay is already having an impact in the pet care community, as last month Made by Nacho donated more than 180,000 meals for kittens and cats to over 20 nonprofit and 501(c)3 animal welfare organizations that provide feline care, support and adoptable homes across the country to commemorate Nacho’s birthday and World Animal Day.
“I think we’re thrilled to give cats the attention they deserve when it comes to nutrition and being fed the right way,” Flay concluded. “It’s been a dog world for too long. As we like to say, it’s a cat thing. It’s the cat’s time.”