Seed money: Chia Pet marketing genius shares good fortune with Hillel, charitable causes

The old Royal manual typewriter now sits idly in a corner of Joe Pedott’s otherwise thoroughly modern office.

It’s the same machine Pedott has owned since age 16, the one on which he wrote reams of ad copy as one of the real-life “Mad Men,” typing up his first marketing ideas for a fledgling product line he took over 30 years ago.


Pedott, 79, is the guy who put that Chia Pet collection on cousin Frankie’s mantle. He’s the guy who marketed the Clapper to Aunt Ethyl.

Those products, especially the Chia Pet and Chia Head — a series of terra-cotta figurines and busts on which moistened chia seeds grow like a coat of green fur — made Pedott a rich man. They landed him in the Smithsonian (which now houses the Chia Pet and Clapper prototypes) and got him a private tête-à-pet with President Barack Obama.

But those aren’t the only wares in the catalog of Joseph Enterprises, his San Francisco–based company.

The ’Ove’ Glove oven mitt. Ignite-O firestarter kits. The Garden Claw gardening tool. All late-night channel-surfers know these products, and they have Pedott to thank. He’s the embodiment of the American dream, a poor Jewish kid from Chicago who got a few breaks early on and then worked his way to a fortune.

What keeps him in the game as he approaches his 80th birthday? “Stupidity,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve been doing it since I was 19.”

Pedott oversees a staff of 26, his California Street office filled with memorabilia from a career for the ages, including many photos: some of Pedott with the president, another of him with Joan Rivers. And one with the Chinese workers who mass-produce Chia Pets.

Those include the standard bull and ram, as well as Chia Hippo, Chia Pig, Chia Shrek, Chia Bart Simpson, Chia Garfield and Chia SpongeBob — and many more.

The Chia Obama, one of the few unsuccessful chia products, was pulled from shelves by an executive concerned about racial overtones.

There’s the Chia Obama, too, thousands of them gathering dust in the warehouse. It was one of Pedott‘s few missteps in an otherwise charmed career.

Pedott has never been one to hoard his treasure. As a Jewish community philanthropist, he funded construction of the original Hillel house at U.C. Davis decades ago, and was a major donor for the new Hillel facility now under construction there.

He also has a charitable foundation maintained by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund. And he has given more than $1 million to SGA Family Services, a Chicago organization that aids troubled youth  — the same organization that saved him more than 60 years ago.

He needed saving. When he was 11, Pedott contracted rheumatic fever, which kept him largely bedridden for years. At 13, he lost his mother to a cerebral hemorrhage.  Just after World War II, he ran away from home after a dispute with his father, and found shelter at the local YMCA.

He turned to SGA, which helped with cash and counseling. That was enough encouragement for Pedott to enroll at the University of Illinois and, at the same time, pursue his dream of being on the radio.

While in school, he and a partner got their shot doing a local radio kids show for around $15 a week. That was nothing compared with what advertising men were earning, so in the mid-1950s Pedott and partner Daryl Peters opened an ad agency.

Joe Pedott visits Mexico, where Chia Pets were made in the 1980s.

“We produced TV commercials,” Pedott recalls. “[Peters] was very bright; I was the dumb one. One day he comes in and says, ‘We’re splitting up.’ ”

After that, Pedott decided he needed seasoning, so he joined a large Chicago ad agency as an account manager, which proved a smart move. His advertising M.O. was as plain as his hard-baked Chicago accent. “Give people a reason for why to buy,” he says. “Nothing fancy: a tabletop, honest approach.”

In 1958, he relocated to San Francisco to open his own shop. One of the first potential clients he approached was Petrini’s, the venerable San Francisco grocer. Sitting down with stubborn owner Frank Petrini, Pedott flashed the chutzpah that has characterized his career.

“I said, ‘If I could give you [an ad] and prove I could make you more money, guarantee it, would you switch?’ ” Pedott recalls. “Without thinking, [Petrini] said yes.”

Pedott spent the next few days creating a full-page newspaper ad, which he took back to Petrini, who passed at first. Countered Pedott: “I said, ‘Here’s a certified check for the cost for the ad, no risk. And you gave me your word. As far as I know, you’ve never broken your word. Is this going to be a first?’ So he was stuck.”

The ad ran in the San Francisco Chronicle and, according to Pedott, within 48 hours Petrini’s tripled its business. He got the account, and shortly thereafter landed his first national brand, Parker pens. Pedott was up and running as a high-flying San Francisco ad man.

Through the early 1970s, Pedott did marketing and advertising for others. That changed when he took on a product called Scribe.Ett, a kind of pen used to mark valuables with an ID number. It didn’t sell well, but in the process of marketing it, he met the head of sales of the Thrifty drugstore chain at a trade convention. He asked him what was his best-selling item.

Turned out it was “a stupid thing called Chia Pet.”

Pedott smelled a winner, and contacted the distributor to inquire about taking on the advertising. The product was a money loser, even though it sold well.

Pedott bid for the company and closed the deal. He was now the proud owner of the Chia Pet, which was then made by hand in a Mexican village. Pedott visited the village, straightened out the finances (as well as a few crooked middle managers) and turned the product into a moneymaker.

A big moneymaker. The Chia Pet took off, selling millions of units over the years.

Pedott’s next acquisition, a device that allowed consumers to turn appliances on and off by clapping, took time to develop. He’d acquired the technology, but the early version kept blowing out television sets.

After the product was perfected, Pedott threw a dinner party for close friends so they could brainstorm a name for it. He threw out a suggestion: the Clapper.

Pedott recalls, “They said, ‘That’s a venereal disease.’ I said, ‘What if you didn’t have a dirty mind?’ ”

The Clapper was a hit, thanks in part to a memorable commercial and jingle (“Clap on, clap off … the Clapper!”). Pedott continued to take on new products, including his latest, which hits the shelves later this year.

It’s a high-potency, omega-3, fatty acid soft gel, similar to fish oil and flax supplements. Only better, says Pedott. Made from chia seeds, he calls the product “chchchChia.”

Most of his Chia Pets have sold well, but after  President Barack Obama was elected, he took a gamble creating the Chia Obama. Following a successful trial run at the Walgreens drugstore chain, he ordered 400,000 units and an expensive marketing campaign to go along with it.

On the first weekend, a Walgreens executive decided the product — which, when used as directed, would give the presidential bust a green chia afro — had potential racial overtones. The product was pulled, and despite efforts to sell the product elsewhere, most of the Chia Obamas remain unsold.

Meeting the president in Indianapolis in 2010 and personally handing him a Chia Obama took a lot of the sting out of it.

“I’m still stuck with it,” Pedott says, “but I have no regrets. Next year I’ll come out with Freedom of Choice [chia products]: Obama and whoever is running against him. I’ve got lots of Obamas and life goes on.”

Pedott’s prosperity has allowed him to give back. Most of his donations go to helping young people, such as those served by Chicago’s SGA Family Services.

Locally, he has long held a passion for Hillel at Davis and Sacramento, which serves U.C. Davis, Cal State Sacramento and several nearby colleges.

His involvement started decades ago, when Pedott had been in business only a short time and wasn’t making much money. A friend in Sacramento solicited a $25 donation to help launch the Hillel house, but that seemed a bit steep at the time, so Pedott deferred, saying instead he would donate his next commission check.

That turned out to be his first huge payday: $25,000.

“I tossed and turned,” he recalls. “I finally said to myself, ‘The only one you have to live with for the rest of your life is you. You never lied. Are you going to start now, over money?’ So I wrote the check.”

The Hillel building was dedicated in 1967. The main room was named for Pedott’s mother, as attested to by the plaque on the wall. That plaque will go up on the wall of the new Hillel house, currently under construction. Pedott kicked in almost $1 million of the $5.3 million total cost.

Though a lifelong bachelor, Pedott has a “significant other,” Carol Katz, with whom he happily shares grandparenting duties. Working full time and in good health, Pedott does keep one eye on the calendar, which never fails to remind him of the passage of time.

“I’ve had four open-heart surgeries,” he says. “I shouldn’t be here. It’s payback time. My goal is to help as many kids as I can. I just like to help.”

Chia Pet@ and the Chia Pet image is a registered trademark (or application is pending) worldwide by Joseph Enterprises, Inc.

photo   |
   cathleen maclearie, Chia Pet innovator Joseph Pedott and the Chia Bunny

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.