For as long as she can remember, Katelyn Kaney was part of Cattaneo Bros., the family business. She grew up working at the factory in San Luis Obispo, alongside her siblings and parents, Michael and Jayne. The Christmas holiday season was always the busiest, and she recalls how they would all pitch in to label packages, answer phones, string beef jerky and prepare gift baskets for shipping to customers.
“It was a fun time,” she said. “Sometimes, my mom would just get a tree three days before Christmas, but we didn’t know any different.”
While it was an integral part of her life as a child, and later, as a young adult, she never thought she would one day take the reins. Yet, since 2008, she’s been the company’s president and chief executive officer, retaining the legacy that her parents built and making her own mark.
Under her leadership, Cattaneo Bros. has shown steady growth and a willingness to expand with new product lines — including Range 100 percent grass-fed beef jerky — that meet customer demand for healthy options.
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The company’s products are now available in more than 600 stores, most in California but across the country as well, and Cattaneo Bros. jerky are official snacks for several athletic departments such as UCLA, Cal Poly, Arizona State University, the Utah Jazz and San Francisco Giants.
“I was prepared,” she said, thinking back on those early years. “And I didn’t even know it.”
Long before the Kaney family took over the local beef jerky and sausage business, Cattaneo Bros. was a fixture in San Luis Obispo.
Its rich history began in 1947 when William Cattaneo Sr., originally from Italy, his wife Mary, and William’s cousin, Pino, started a meat processing business here. In 1970, Cattaneo Bros. built the facility on Caudill Street, where the factory stands today.
In the late 1980s, Kaney’s parents, Cal Poly graduates, decided to buy Cattaneo Bros. after a friend of the Cattaneo family contacted Michael Kaney and asked him if he would be interested in purchasing it, Kaney said. Her father already thought highly of the product because he sold the sausage through his food service company.
With a background in his own family meat-processing business, Michael Kaney started Kaney Foods in San Luis Obispo in 1971, an idea based on his Cal Poly senior project. One of his first clients was Alex Madonna.
“My dad always loved taking care of people; in this case, he specialized in finding out what a restaurant needed that he couldn’t get, like a customized cut of meat, and he got it to them,” Kaney said, noting that he ran Kaney Foods with her uncle, Jim, until 1985. At that time, they separated from their family’s division in Southern California and reincorporated as AMK Food Service.
After the Kaneys bought Cattaneo Bros., the company developed some of its own sausage recipes and made substantial investments in new machinery to improve production and packaging. However, the Cattaneo name never changed, and for years, some customers assumed Michael Kaney was a Cattaneo, but that never bothered him, Kaney said.
“For him, it didn’t matter,” she said. “He didn’t boast about who he was.”
Kaney also described her father as a storyteller. “He would have conversations with people he didn’t even know, and he also loved to teach.”
It was the lessons that she and her three siblings learned from their parents that made a difference when faced with challenging times. Everyone in the Kaney household was expected to work in some aspect of the business.
“The biggest lesson is just hard work and that you’re going to get out of something what you put into it,” said Kim Frederick, Katelyn’s older sister.
FINDING HER WAY
In the summer of 2006, after living and working in the Central Valley on new sales accounts she had created for Cattaneo Bros., Katelyn Kaney returned to San Luis Obispo. Her mother, Jayne, had a seizure, and doctors discovered that her cancer (originally diagnosed as melanoma in 2001) had recurred in her brain.
Then, about a year and a half later, doctors diagnosed her father with leukemia, and Kaney had to step in to take the lead running the day-to-day business. “It all happened so fast,” she recalled.
“Michael (brother) was running the sales distribution division, and Kim went with my dad to Stanford Medical Center for four weeks of intense treatment,” Kaney recalled.
Their father’s illness came as a shock to the family, said Frederick, who from 1997 to 2002 worked for the company as its sales and marketing manager. Frederick, responsible for launching the website and working with Jayne Kaney on expanding gourmet food offerings and gift packs, eventually stepped down to get married and help her husband, Zach Frederick, with his export management business.
“We didn’t fully deal with it” (the fact that their father was now ill as well), Frederick acknowledged. “But you can’t stop running a business. You have employees who are dependent upon you. And it was our mother’s income. She was still alive at that time.”
After their father’s death, Jayne Kaney owned the business, but because she was extremely ill, Katelyn Kaney took over, with Frederick providing guidance and support.
In 2008, both parents died in their late 50s, leaving the Kaney children to find their own way.
“I think it was just the strength instilled in me from my parents,” Kaney said. “They had a huge amount of faith in me. I just thought there has to be a greater purpose. I have to use all this pain to find a greater good.”
At the age of 24, Kaney found herself diving into her new position.
“You are responsible for the jobs of 20 people, you have expenses to manage on a P&L and then you also have a family home full of memories to clean out and pack up,” she recalled. “You really don’t even have time to step back and evaluate each decision. Forget the fact that the emotional gravity of each one might swallow some people whole.”
Office manager Becky Tiedmann, who has known Kaney since she was a toddler and whose husband worked for Kaney’s father, said Katelyn overcame those initial hurdles.
“She stepped in her dad’s shoes from the get-go at such a young age,” she said. “She does a great job, and I’m amazed at how much it’s grown.”
As an employee for 27 years, Kenny Castro, production manager, also watched Kaney and her siblings grow up.
The family atmosphere is the main reason why Castro said he’s remained fully committed to Cattaneo Bros. and the Kaney children.
Kaney exhibits the same qualities as her parents, who gave Castro strength during his own fight with cancer.
“Some of the traits I would use to describe Katelyn would be strong, faithful, family-oriented, hardworking, passionate, compassionate, vision-oriented, goal-driven, respectful and generous,” Castro said. “All these traits I have mentioned are like a carbon copy of her parents. I’m often reminded by her actions, traits, or a statement that’ll make me reminisce about her parents, like déjà vu.”
A DELICATE BALANCE
Despite the longstanding traditions established by her family, Kaney has, over time, become more comfortable in her role.
“I had this mindset of doing everything the way Mom and Dad would want it,” she said. “But I needed to infuse the business with my ideas and my own strengths. I had to get over that I felt like I was changing what they had worked on for so long.”
Kaney acknowledges that she may have missed some opportunities along the way, perhaps by “being too conservative.”
However, she is proud that she’s been patient enough to “learn the details of the business and build a strong foundation.”
The wisdom of her parents will never fade, no matter how the company evolves.
“My dad taught me to always focus on what I’m doing,” she said. “He said if you focus on what the competition is doing, then you’re not focused on what you’re doing.”
It’s a delicate balance, she said, between maintaining the original vision and pushing in a new direction.
In recent years, Kaney said she has focused on three key initiatives for the company: improving its ingredients and brand offerings, expanding sales territory, and building new marketing materials to promote its products.
The company has added hundreds of new accounts in SLO, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Kern and Bakersfield counties. In addition, its mail-order program reaches more than 20,000 customers annually.
Cattaneo Bros. has a new event marketing program, which includes touring all spring and summer to events like CrossFit Games and Sunset Magazine’s Celebration weekend. This year, it will launch its booth at national food exhibitions such as the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco.
Increasingly, Kaney has been motivated by changes in customer appetites for clean, nutritious snacks, and she touts the company’s high-protein, no-sugar meat snacks, and the fact that it’s continuing to develop products made without nitrates. She’d like to introduce a healthy snack line for children one day, too.
“You can read our label and understand all the ingredients,” she said. “We have a lot of exciting new products in development, but we can’t share any specifics until we are closer to launch on new items.”
Rekindling a passion of her mother, who once operated a home décor and gift boutique in downtown San Luis Obispo called The Backdoor (and later renamed A Bushel and A Peck), Kaney in 2013 opened The Mercantile on Chorro Street, in the same building where Jayne Kaney’s store stood. Kaney’s grandparents (Jayne’s parents) had bought the building where her mother’s store operated and still own it.
“We have been organically growing in our downtown location, and the past year has seen tremendous growth in particular,” said Kaney, noting that she learned so much from her mother about display and design. “People know where we are and what great items we feature like local food products and gifts. Plus, all the new development downtown is changing the traffic pattern and new people are discovering us.”
Frederick, Kaney’s sister, said she’s “done a phenomenal job moving the business forward and staying true to what my parents would want to be done.” “But she’s doing it in a new-generation way and improving on anything they could have thought of when they were alive.”
“I’m sure every day she goes to work in a building with nothing but memories for our parents,” she added. “In one way it could be emotionally challenging, but in another way comforting.”
Kaney takes comfort in knowing that she’s doing all she can for the employees, her family and the customers who continue to support them.
“I had a wonderful childhood, a great life and great parents who were very present,” she said. “I knew I had to find a way to do this.”
Title: President and chief executive officer, Cattaneo Bros.
Residence: San Luis Obispo
Education: A 2005 Cal Poly graduate, Kaney earned her bachelor’s degree in agricultural business with an emphasis in marketing. She was a Tribune Top 20 under 40 winner in 2011.
Family: Twin boys Brody and Hudson, 2½, and two Corgis, Bella and Finny. Two sisters, Kimberly Frederick of Littleton, Colo., and Kourtney Kaney of San Luis Obispo County, and a brother, Michael Kaney of San Francisco. Of her boys, Kaney says, “They are my inspiration. I may have lost two parents, but I gained two angels on Earth.”
Hobbies: She enjoys spending time with family and friends, and being outdoors with her boys. It’s their tradition to go to Farmers Market on Saturday mornings in SLO with her aunt and uncle.
Cattaneo Bros. Inc.
The company has two businesses:
Cattaneo Bros., established in 1947 and located at 769 Caudill St. in San Luis Obispo, makes and sells beef jerky and sausage. It also sells such products as specialty nuts, dried fruit, candies and seasonings.
The Mercantile, established in 2013 at 950 Chorro St. in downtown San Luis Obispo, sells specialty food items, home décor and gifts. Kaney says the company sources all of its product ingredients from the highest quality suppliers it can find. The seasonings on its products come from its own proprietary recipes.
Leadership: Katelyn Kaney is president and chief executive officer; Kenny Castro is plant/production manager.
No. of employees: 24
Financials: The company is growing and profitable, said Kaney, who declined to disclose annual revenues and profits. The overall business, which includes both the beef jerky manufacturing and The Mercantile, has been growing 15 to 20 percent, year over year, she said.