Small Business of the Year
In November of 2017, Samm Hutchison turned to her husband and said she was going to start a business—and it would launch on January 1. “He looked at me like I was crazy,” she recalls with a chuckle. “I knew nothing about starting a business, so it took a little longer than I thought it would.” But not much longer. “We ended up launching Bear’s Bites on February 8, 2018.”
Rewind to the late 2000s: the Hutchisons’ dog Sarge was having health issues. When the vet traced his problem to a food allergy, they successfully transitioned Sarge to a chicken-free diet. “We adopted Tank shortly after, and Tank had the same food allergies,” Hutchison notes. “After I had both of my boys on food that didn’t cause an allergic reaction, I started to look for treats. But all the dog treats either had chicken in them or ingredients I could not pronounce.”
Seeking a simpler, natural alternative, she decided to make her own dog treats. She started with organic sweet potato and organic banana treats, dehydrated and created in her own kitchen. Her two dogs took to them immediately. Then along came Bear.
“When we adopted Bear, I was so excited for him to have such good treats—but he would not even put them in his mouth,” explains Hutchison, who proceeded to develop a meat-based recipe for the finicky canine. “I found a local farm that raised their meat hormone-free, steroid-free and [used] antibiotics only when an animal was sick. Bear loved them!”
With Bear’s enthusiastic endorsement, the wheels in her mind started turning. “I knew that if I was having such a hard time finding quality treats… other people were also having a hard time,” she says. This realization grew into Bear’s Bites, whose homemade, single-ingredient pet treats would quickly take Peoria—and later the country—by storm.
As she maintained a full-time job, Hutchison spent her evenings on the new business, which quickly swallowed up the entire first floor of her home. She pitched Bear’s Bites at local farmer’s markets and special events, built a social media following, and word of mouth spread. Having started with a single small commercial dehydrator, she adds, “I had five of them by the end of my first year.”
In the summer of 2019, Hutchison was invited to meet with buyers from Camping World, a national retail chain. She received their first order by the end of the year, and it was substantial—the Hutchisons had to purchase new industrial-sized dehydrators and upgrade their electrical service to accommodate them. And now Bear’s Bites are carried in 70 Camping World stores across North America.
When COVID hit last spring, Hutchison turned to monthly, subscription-based “Bite Boxes,” and the company continued its upward trajectory. By the summer she was in need of a dedicated production facility—and found the perfect spot at Keller Station in north Peoria. On June 6, 2020, the business moved out of her home into what is now Bear’s Bites World Headquarters.
Meanwhile the business continues to add new retail locations and expand its production. They recently launched Bear’s Bites Banquet, a line of freeze-dried dog food, “and I cannot keep it in stock,” Hutchison notes. They also plan to open a retail location at Keller Station this fall.
In three short years, Bear’s Bites has evolved from a small, home-based startup into a nationwide company, and Hutchison continues to produce every batch in-house. “I know where all of our ingredients come from,” she explains, “and I only use the highest-quality, human-grade ingredients.”
Looking to the future, Hutchison is firmly focused on continuing their astonishing growth. “I want Bear’s Bites to be a household name,” she declares. “I just want to provide families with treats and food for their pets that they can trust.” bearsbites.net PM