From Hippie to Catnip King--the Long, Strange Trip of Leon Seidman
In the early days, catnip wasn’t just a job for Leon Seidman; it was an adventure.
He’d get up at dawn in search of the potent weed along railroad tracks, swatting at bees and wading through poison ivy with hedge clippers attached to a motorcycle battery on his belt.
“We’d go cut the stuff and put it in trucks and bring it back in and explain to the police every day it wasn’t dope,” Seidman said. “That was an adventure all by itself.
“I’d have to stop and think ‘Am I in a movie? Is this real?’ ”
Twenty years later, Seidman’s hair is shorter and he no longer harvests the wild herb. But baggies of Cosmic Catnip still bear the psychedelic logo that appealed to hip pet owners in the early 1970s, when Seidman launched Cosmic Pet Products Inc. to supplement his graduate school stipend.
He quit the University of Maryland without earning a master’s degree in history and instead became, by his own reckoning, the world’s largest supplier of catnip, the minty herb that drives cats wild.
Cosmic Pet packages 130,000 to 140,000 pounds of catnip annually for sale in the United States, Canada and Europe. No other company claims to produce more, according to the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, a Washington-based trade group. Seidman said his largest competitor is Hartz Mountain Corp.
He supplies Cosmic Catnip to pet shops throughout the United States and Canada. Cosmic also provides catnip under other labels to eight companies, including Four Paws, a New York-based firm whose president owns a majority stake in Cosmic Pet.
Seidman, 52, and his wife, Pamela, are president and vice president of the $3-million company, which they run from a Hagerstown warehouse. Twelve people work at the plant filling containers with catnip grown by five area farmers. Seven other employees sew catnip-spiked toys at home.
Why establish his headquarters in this faded railroad hub in western Maryland?
Because, Seidman said, the area grows the finest catnip in the world.
That’s a longer, stranger story.
Seidman was a longhaired, bearded graduate student from Baltimore in 1971 with few possessions other than his cat, W.B., when a friend suggested one day that he treat W.B. to some catnip.
Seidman was unfamiliar with the herb, which European settlers grew for a tea to treat colic, fever and indigestion, and which has an intoxicating effect on felines. The plant’s leaves and white-spotted lavender flowers contain a chemical, nepetalactone, which triggers excitement and euphoria in cats.
Seidman said he tried two commercial brands, which did not impress W.B. A few weeks later, some organic-minded friends set him straight.
“They laughed and said, ‘Leon, you can’t buy good catnip at a pet shop. You get it in the pharmaceutical department of the drugstore.’
“I went to the pharmacy, bought the jar of catnip and sprinkled it on the floor,” he said. “The cat went crazy. He was the most ecstatic animal I had ever seen.”
That summer, Seidman visited a back-to-nature farmer friend near Shepherdstown, W.Va., and found all the catnip he could use.
“We drive down by a farm lane and he points to the fence row, and there’s this stuff growing 5 feet tall as far as you can see,” Seidman said.
So he filled his Volkswagen Beetle with wild catnip, dried it and traded some to a pet store in Georgetown for fish food. Word spread among cat owners and, in the spirit of the times, Seidman shared his stash.
“I had strangers knocking on my door: ‘Are you the guy with the great catnip?’ So after a year of giving this stuff away--bong--that’s how the business starts.”
He harvested wild catnip in fields and along railroad tracks for two summers and sold it to pet shops while continuing his studies.
In 1975, faced with either studying full-time for exams or expanding his fledgling business, Seidman chose the latter. He rented a farm near Hagerstown to grow his own and contracted with farmers to produce more. Sales zoomed from around $25,000 in 1974 to $100,000 in 1975.
By 1977, sales reached $180,000 and Seidman was paying people to harvest the weed. One of those workers was Pam, who stayed on to become Seidman’s partner in business and life.
Seidman, his beard now graying, said his wife has a cool head for business that balances his softer nature. She agrees.
“He’s always out to help someone,” Pam Seidman said. “I’m more streetwise, you might say.”
The business reached a plateau in 1987 with sales of about $250,000 and distribution from Baltimore to New York. Frustrated by the company’s flat performance, the Seidmans sold controlling interest in 1988 to Allen Simon, president of Four Paws Ltd., a large pet products company in Hauppauge, N.Y.
The investment enabled Cosmic Pet to expand into cat toys and other pet products. Rapid growth followed. Sales rose 12% last year and should rise 20% this year, Leon Seidman said.
He still dresses in jeans and T-shirts, but now Leon drives a BMW and Pam has a Mercedes--"the rewards of being in business,” he said.