A History of Helping Dogs Thrive: Bil-Jac Celebrates 75 Years in Business
On Jan. 8, 2022, Bil-Jac celebrated 75 years of successfully providing exceptional nutrition and ultimate taste for dogs via dog food and treats. What started out as a dream to help dogs live to the fullest of their potential, has turned into a family business dedicated to helping dogs thrive.
“People care so much for their pets – their four-footed family members,” says Bil-Jac President Bob Kelly, son of founder Bill Kelly. “After 75 years, we want to continue to meet the needs of dogs and their pet parents with our high-quality food that delivers on the taste dogs love.”
Since the beginning, Bil-Jac has always been about dogs and the people who love them. That commitment began with a pair of brothers, a tradition of nutrition, and a dedication to helping dogs thrive.
A History of Supporting Animal Nutrition
Long before Bil-Jac was founded, the Kelly family’s passion for animal nutrition began at home. Brothers Bill and Jack Kelly grew up on a farm in Ohio, taking care of hundreds of animals. It was there that Bill and Jack experienced how quality ingredients and proper preparation impacted the overall health of their animals.
The brothers’ passion didn’t end when World War II intervened. Bill was drafted into the Army in June of 1944, sending the young farmer to Fort Benjamin Harrison for boot camp. The base was home to a large kennel of bomb sniffing German Shepherds.
When Bill saw the dogs, he knew he could help them nutritionally and with their shelter, so he spoke to his superior. The commanding officer agreed, so Bill called home for supplies. Soon, Bill completely dug out the old, basic shelter and rebuilt a new kennel with bedding, proper drainage, and the high-quality food that Bill formulated. It wasn’t long before the German Shepherds looked and felt better.
The experience was so fulfilling for Bill that he requested to be assigned to the Canine Corps. The lieutenant colonel at “Fort Ben” was so impressed that he agreed and put in a recommendation for him. Unfortunately, assignments were classified and Bill was eventually commandeered to the Air Corps to learn electronics and serve as a bombardier. Bill, Jack, and their sister Gene, all proudly served their country up until the war ended in August of 1945.
Bill Heads Back Home
While Bill and Jack went back home following the war. Unfortunately, the family farm did not last with the boys off at war. Without the family farm and with his new bride, Ruth, Bill had to find a new job. He received multiple job offers from electronics companies, but that urge to follow his passion kept him from accepting them. Bill and Ruth were down to their final $38 in severance pay when Bill thought back to his boot camp experience. If his dog food formula could help those German Shepherds, maybe it was time to develop a premium food that would help dogs live to their fullest potential.
Bill identified that there were around 42 companies making dog food in Ohio in 1946, but that none of them were good sources for canine nutrition. After months of research and testing, Bill developed a formula that provided the best combination of ingredients, including fresh meat as the number one ingredient. Once Bill took the food and froze it to preserve the freshness and ingredients, a new company was born.
The Start of a New Family Tradition
On Jan. 8, 1947, Bill and Jack Kelly officially founded Bil-Jac Foods, Inc. The name Bil-Jac came from their father’s recommendation to combine their names for this joint venture. The brothers would make batches of food in the morning and deliver them to friends and neighbors around their home of Medina, Ohio.
On the first day of sales, 11 customers bought 75 pounds of Bil-Jac for $11.27. Friends and neighbors quickly bought in, and the Kellys grew their brand the old-fashioned way – by going house to house and knocking on doors.
After making a new batch of food each morning, Bill would visit new homes and invite them to try the Two Bowl Challenge. The homeowners would place two bowls next to each other and fill one with their current dog food and the other with Bil-Jac. Being so fresh and delicious, dogs always chose Bil-Jac.
Between word of mouth and sales calls, more dogs and their pet parents sought out Bil-Jac. Bill also stopped by boarding kennels in northern Ohio to talk to local pet professionals and trainers. Professionals quickly bought into the benefits of premium dog food, while kennel customers soon learned about how much their dogs loved Bil-Jac when they would refuse to eat their usual food at home.
What started with $38 in severance pay and a passion for animal nutrition slowly grew into a burgeoning business with loyal customers. Bill also discovered that because of its unique formulation and manufacturing process, Bil-Jac was eligible for a patent. After an application process, Bil-Jac became the first dog food to ever be granted a patent in the U.S.
New Ideas, Same Values
After a couple of decades, Bil-Jac continued to grow in popularity among families, breeders, trainers, and anyone else who wanted to feed their furry friends top-quality food. Customers loved the frozen dog food, but Bill began hearing more and more people asking if the company would ever make dry dog food.
It wasn’t that Bill wasn’t interested in the idea. The problem was that Bil-Jac would not sell a dry food unless it adhered to the same level of uncompromising quality and nutrition as the frozen formula. While competitors were content to sell shelf-stable, but basic kibble, Bill spent several decades working on a method to produce a premium dry dog food.
After more than 30 years of work, Bill’s efforts paid off in the ‘80s with the Nutri-Lock cooking method. Bill had devised a way to slow cook small batches of dog food before gently drying the kibble at half the typical temperatures used by other companies. This new method allowed Bil-Jac to focus on four key differences to set it apart from the competition.
- More fresh chicken than anyone, with 25 pounds of chicken used to make a 30-pound bag of dry dog food.
- Low-temperature, vacuum drying to protect the all-important key nutrients.
- More highly digestible carbohydrates so that dogs can fully utilize ingredients.
- No added fat, unlike other dog foods that rely on sprayed on flavor to make up for lost nutrition and flavor.
In addition to dry food, Bil-Jac also began making treats in the ‘80s. Between the new dry food and various lines of treats, Bil-Jac could start shipping products to stores across the nation and introduce even more dogs and their pet parents to Bil-Jac.
Today, Bil-Jac ships frozen food regionally and sells other products in stores and online for customers both across America and internationally. Bil-Jac has also found other ways to make a difference, including a partnership with America’s VetDogs. This partnership has resulted in more than $1.25 million in donations to provide assistance dogs to disabled veterans and first responders through sales of America’s VetDogs Training Treats.
From Humble Beginnings to A Family Commitment
While a lot has changed since Jan. 8, 1947, the company is still very much the same as it was 75 years ago – now a thriving family business from Medina, Ohio that believes in doing things the right way with its products, consumers, retailers, and employees.
“I’m proud to say that after 75 years, we’re still focused on the principles that Dad and Uncle Jack built the company on – making the best food we can to support the health and happiness of dogs,” Bob Kelly says. “Dad always said that the goal was never to be the biggest pet food company – it was to be the one that made a difference in the lives of dogs and their pet parents. I’m pretty sure he’s looking down and smiling.”
Bill’s passion for supporting animals laid the groundwork for Bil-Jac, but its ongoing success is a family effort. Of course, that family includes all the people who gave Bills’ dream a chance.
“We would like to say thank you to everyone who has been a Bil-Jac customer,” Bob says. “We are very grateful to be here 75 years later and we thank all of our pet parents, retail partners, and amazing employees for all their support over the years. We wouldn’t be here without you!”
After 75 years, there’s no sign of Bil-Jac slowing down either. 2022 will bring a formula upgrade to all the Bil-Jac Dry and Frozen Food – probiotics to help support healthy digestion and immune function as well as an updated packaging design, Bil-Jac fans have more to look forward to in the future.
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