How I Covered Up a Packaging Mistake to Rescue Our Company Before It Even Launched

Brutus Bone Broth co-founder and CEO Sue Delegan.
Brutus Bone Broth co-founder and CEO Sue Delegan. Photography by Justin Gellerson.

Brutus Bone Broth CEO Sue Delegan had to act fast when she learned their marketing language ran afoul of state regulators. Her solution helped a charity as well as the new brand.

The week that Brutus Bone Broth, a pet food maker, launched in May 2018, co-founder and CEO Sue Delegan, 44, was recovering from a double mastectomy. The surgery was preventative, a decision taken after she learned that she carried the BRCA2 inherited gene mutation, which put her at high risk for breast cancer. Despite the operation, Delegan was overseeing shipments from the warehouse to Wegmans, displaying the sort of resilience she would need to overcome a major packaging misstep — one that boiled down to a single missing word. She and her sister and co-founder, Kim Hehir, 50 (who had endured the same surgery), had to act fast to save 200,000 units of product — not to mention the startup itself. –As Told to Melissa Angell

We had shipped our labels to the New York director of agriculture in Albany. We were co-packed in New York and were launching there. So when the state received our labels, we were in full-on production. Our manufacturer in Minnesota was making the broth, our aseptic packaging was being produced in Sweden — it’s the gold standard of sterilized packaging — and everything would get shipped to New York to be packed. We were filling 200,000 units of this packaging with our bone broth, which we infuse with glucosamine and chondroitin for hips and joints. I was sitting at my desk, making sure everything was ready to go out on time, when New York’s agriculture director called. He said, “You cannot say ‘with glucosamine’ on your label. It has to say ‘with added glucosamine.’ ” Our packaging was en route from Sweden to New York and he told us we couldn’t use it.

The first thought that went through my head was, “That’s it. We’re out of business before we even started.” I took a deep breath, hung up with him, and called my brother; he’s a mentor to me since he also owns a business. He told me that this was not the end, to not give up, and that this was just one of many roadblocks.

Then I called my sister, Kim, and said we needed to work around this problem. We had to quickly come up with a solution to avoid losing about $125,000. We bootstrapped the company and this was most of our money, which we had dumped into our first production.

At first, we thought we could donate the product, write it off, and raise more money. But that didn’t make sense financially. The other thing we thought about was scrapping the product and chalking it up as a loss — but again, financially, it didn’t add up. And it would have pushed our launch back by three or four months.

Within about two hours, we had this aha! moment: What if we keep the packaging, but make it so that “with glucosamine” is not visible? That’s when we started thinking about products with stickers that say “new,” like they’ve just been thrown on.

One facet of our company is philanthropic, and we had forged a partnership with Project K-9 Hero, a national organization for retired police and military working dogs. So we decided to make stickers that said “Project K-9” with its logo, and use them to cover “with glucosamine.” I called the state regulator back and he said he would accept it.

We had to find a company to print the stickers and hire extra labor — basically around the clock — to put these stickers on 25,000 units. It took weeks and pushed off our launch by about a month. A lot of new business owners would probably have completely rolled up in a ball and wanted to quit. But for us, it’s always about getting things done.