Joseph Pedott at his office in San Francisco in 2017. (Photo/@jaywatsonphoto)
Joseph Pedott at his office in San Francisco in 2017. (Photo/@jaywatsonphoto)

Joseph Pedott, Chia Pet mogul and Jewish philanthropist, dies at 91

Joseph Pedott played a small yet delightful role in the greening of America. He was the man who popularized Chia Pets, those terracotta figurines on which grew a lush carpet of sprouts.

The S.F. entrepreneur made a fortune with the Chia Pet, but he accomplished much more than that over the course of his busy life. He became a world-class salesman, a marketing whiz and a dedicated philanthropist, including to the Jewish community. Pedott died June 22 after suffering a heart attack. He was 91.

In J.’s 2011 cover story about him, Pedott explained his approach to marketing the handy-dandy gadgets and curios he sold through his company, Joseph Enterprises.

“Give people a reason for why to buy,” he said. “Nothing fancy: a tabletop, honest approach.”

Pedott donated generously to the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, which manages his self-named foundation. The bulk of his giving supported the well-being of children and college students, especially through Hillel.

He gave to the Hillel in San Francisco as the lead donor for its $7.6M campaign to renovate its building on Banbury Drive, and supported the Hillels in Northridge and especially in Davis.

He funded construction of the original Hillel house in Davis decades ago and was a major donor to its more recent wood-and-stone house, which opened in 2012. In 2016, he kicked in $500,000 toward a $2 million endowment. At the time, Hillel International consultant Herb Tobin told J. that Pedott “asked himself, ‘What’s the sense of building this magnificent building if you can’t afford to operate it?’”

Joseph Pedott in the Mexican village, where Chia Pets were made in the 1980s. (Photo/File)
Joseph Pedott in the Mexican village where Chia Pets were made in the 1980s. (Photo/File)

Pedott grew up knowing the sting of poverty. He was born in Chicago into a poor Jewish family during the Depression, and his early years were full of turmoil. He contracted rheumatic fever at age 11 and was bedridden for more than a year. At 13, he lost his mother to a cerebral hemorrhage. A few years later he ran away from home after a dispute with his father.

He received help from SGA Family Services, a Chicago agency that aids troubled youth. The agency got him on the right path, and he more than repaid his debt with more than $1 million in donations to SGA decades later.

Pedott launched his career as an account manager at a Chicago ad agency. In 1958, he moved to San Francisco to open his own agency. He did well, but in the mid-1970s, a client told him about a new product called the Chia Pet. A lightbulb went off. Pedott took a chance, bought the manufacturer and went into a new business.

The Chia Pet sold millions, powered in part by the catchy jingle, “Ch-ch-ch-chia!” The original sheep design later spawned the Chia Hippo, Chia Pig, Chia Shrek, Chia Bart Simpson and Chia SpongeBob, among many others.

His company went on to market many other “As Seen on TV” products, including the Ove Glove oven mitt, the Ignite-O fire-starting kit, the Garden Claw gardening tool and, most notably, The Clapper, which turns a lamp on and off with the clap of one’s hands.

Though he never married or had children of his own, Pedott lived happily with his longtime companion, Carol Katz, and enjoyed grandparent duties with her grandchildren. He sold his company in 2018 but stayed involved in both work and philanthropy.

“I’ve had four open-heart surgeries,” he said in 2011. “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.”

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.