America's Coolest

A Little Bit of Magic Helped Launch Dog River Pet Supplies

Dog River Pet Supplies, Hood River, OR

OWNER: Molly Lewis and Sean Kelly; WEBSITE: dogriverpetsupplies.com; LOCATIONS: 1;  FACEBOOK AND INSTAGRAM: dogriverpetsupplies; FOUNDED: 2018; AREA: : 3,000 square feet; TOP BRANDS: OC Raw, Wild Coast Raw, Northwest Naturals, SmallBatch, Rawr, Vital Essentials, FirstMate, K9 Natural, Feline Natural, Fromm, Open Farm, Ruffwear, Carolina Pet Co., Tall Tails, Fluff & Tuff, West Paw, Outward Hound; EMPLOYEES: 4 full time, 3 part time


I LIKE TO say it was ‘Magic’ that made this store happen,” says Molly Lewis, who owns Dog River Pet Supplies in Hood River, OR, with business and life partner Sean Kelly.

Her lifetime love of animals, art and advocacy mixed with a work history in holistic veterinary medicine and independent pet supply made opening their own store a natural choice. When doing market research on small towns in Oregon, where Lewis grew up, they found there were more dogs than children per household in Hood River County, but no pet supply stores within 25 miles. They moved to Hood River.

Molly Lewis with Nova

There they met Magic, an older dog diagnosed with cancer, at an appliance-repair shop while looking for a washer and dryer. They got to talking with Magic’s people, who owned not only the business but the building. “I offered to help them with a nutrition and supplement protocol to address Magic’s diagnosis,” Lewis recalls. “Not only did we buy a washer and dryer, but we also agreed to lease half of the building to open a pet supply store.”

Founded in September 2018, Dog River Pet Supplies opened its doors on Feb. 14, 2019, under 32 inches of snow. “We had five customers that first day — and one of them was my mom,” Lewis says.

Since then, the store has become a beloved part of the community. Focusing mostly on dogs and cats, it’s open daily, as Lewis wants the store to function like a grocery but feel like a cozy boutique. She runs daily operations while Kelly oversees the finances (plus tortures the staff with terrible dad jokes). They have seven employees, five as retail staff and one purchasing manager.

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A Lot of Community

“We have 100% changed the fabric of our community,” Lewis says of Dog River Pet Supplies.

The city of Hood River sits between the Columbia River and Mount Hood, making it a destination for outdoor lovers, and has areas that are more touristy and those more for locals. The store resides in one of the latter. Along with a nearby bakery, it helped to reinvigorate the neighborhood, becoming an anchor store for the area that now boasts two yoga studios, a wine shop and a brewery. “We do get a lot of tourists in the summertime,” Lewis says, adding that they lose snowbirds in the winter. Most of the business comes from community outreach and word of mouth. They see a lot of families with dogs and cats. Although the average customer ranges from early 30s to late 50s, they sell and deliver to a lot of seniors in local retirement communities.

Dog River Pet Supplies sponsors many local shelter events, has a shelter donation station at the checkout and partners with FirstMate to give a free bag of food to anyone who adopts locally. Lewis feels a great amount of responsibility to the animals and humans in her community. “If it snows, I spend the night at the store so that I can shovel the sidewalks and open the door in the morning,” she says.

Brand colors and textures also reflect the woodsy Oregon setting and extend from the store’s facade to its interior touches, such as the carved iPad holder at left.

A Lot of Customer Support

Lewis says that hands down, customer service is the No. 1 factor contributing to the store’s success. Much of what they do is support the humans so they can support their pets. “We care deeply for every one of our customers,” she says. “I always joke that our shop is half pet supplies and half psychotherapy practice.”

Many times, people come into the store at the point where they feel like no one can help them. Whether they need training or nutrition advice, Lewis tells them her team can provide it. She says, “Oftentimes the kind of emotional support we give to humans is even more pertinent and effective than selling a product.”

They guide new puppy parents with whole food nutrition recommendations and jump in at the end of life to provide emotional support for the human and comfort care for the pet, plus the wide range in between. A key service: Recommending nutrition and supplementation to help bring dogs and cats with different medical diagnoses back to a place of balanced health. She says customers often come in a few weeks after implementing the recommendations and say, “It’s like she’s a whole new dog!” It’s those comments that remind them that what they do matters.

Dog River Pet Supplies strives for an exceptional customer experience. This includes meeting all of the customer’s needs, even if it’s outside the scope of their business. “We provide a lot of referrals to dog trainers, veterinary clinics, palliative care practitioners, holistic veterinary medical care, massage, acupuncture and dental care professionals,” Lewis says. “We always try to connect the client with the resources they need.”

A Lot of Nutrition and Natural Medicine

The store’s broad inventory of whole food diets and natural remedies reflects its mission to encourage pet parents to advocate for their pet’s health through species-appropriate nutrition and herbal supplementation. Around 28 dog food and 20 cat food brands are available, with dog top sellers being OC Raw and FirstMate, while SmallBatch, Feline Natural and FirstMate land on top for cats. Overall, about 60% of sales is food (30% raw and 30% canned and kibble), with 20% supplements, 10% apparel and accessories, and 10% toys.

Customers enjoy a robust selection of supplements from around 32 different brands, including best sellers Adored Beast Apothecary and Animal Essentials. “The supplement section is really important in our store,” Lewis says. “It’s a conversation piece, for sure.” Many customers arrive not knowing much if anything about holistic nutrition or medicine, especially for pets. However, the team has a deep knowledge base, especially Lewis, whose background includes 10 years at an indie pet supply store and three years working for a holistic veterinarian/reiki master. No wonder the holistic advice and products are the second and third areas that contribute most to the store’s success (and bottom line).

Dog River Pet Supplies takes holistic health advice one step further by including a treatment room at the store where holistic veterinarian and reiki master Keith Weingardt, DVM, CVA sees patients once a month. Dr. Weingardt educates customers on traditional Chinese veterinary medicine (TCVM) food therapy, plus recommends foods and supplements sold in the store. Lewis explains, “It gives clout to our mission in a community that is very conservative when it comes to alternate veterinary therapies.”

In the future, she hopes to host additional holistic practitioners, such as canine chiropractors and massage therapists, palliative care vets and herbalists.

Sales of cat products make up a healthy 25% to 30% of sales. Lewis says, “Some days, I’m like “Today is a cat day!”

A Lot About the Staff

The store’s most valuable asset: the staff. “They are the business,” Lewis says. “They are the front-facing beauty of what makes our store magical.”

She supports her staff’s own distinct skills and passions. “I am a big believer in letting each employee show me where they shine,” Lewis says. If someone is an amazing artist, then she has them create displays and signage. If the employee is organized and meticulous, they do inventory counts and/or receive freight.

She provides the Dog River Pet Supplies team with lots of opportunities to learn rather than a specific training program. For example, she recently registered those who were interested in Rita Hogan’s Canine Herbalism class, a self-paced course on how to source and administer herbs for health conditions in dogs and cats. Lewis also utilizes manufacturer’s training modules to help the team learn about specific products. One of her favorites is Adored Beast Apothecary for its vast training module she finds both fascinating and insightful. “I love founder Julie Anne Lee,” she says, “I could learn from her forever.”

Lewis brings in teachers, reps and brand owners as much as possible to share their knowledge and passion. “We’ve had Dr. Weingardt do a TCVM food therapy lecture for staff and customers. Billy Hoekman of Green Juju loves to come and talk to everyone about fermentation. And our SmallBatch rep, Brady Schmidt, does awesome staff training. And he brings donuts, too!”

For herself, Lewis loves to forge relationships, ask questions and read tons. “I’m quick to send off an introductory email asking someone if I can have their wise counsel,” she says, making some great friends and business allies that way. She is also part of a women’s entrepreneurship group, which has been really helpful. “It’s not pet related, but it is business related, so the support is immeasurable.”

Adored Beast, Animal Essentials and Solutions are among the supplement brands at Dog River Pet Supplies.

In the Future

Lewis says there is a lot yet to do with Dog River Pet Supplies, such as fine-tuning the structure of what has always been a very organic business by creating new product-training modules, as well as operation and procedure manuals. “I want staff to know where to look to get answers to their questions,” she says, “be it about how to reboot the iPads or about how to use medicinal mushrooms to treat cancer. I want the answers to be outside of my brain.”

Lewis also plans on ramping up help for the community’s shelter animals by joining the board of directors at the local humane society. “The most important thing about the business,” she says, “is our belief that we must all advocate for the emotional, psychological and physical wellbeing of animals because they can’t advocate for themselves.”

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Five Cool Things About Dog River Pet Supplies

1. SHOP CATS: Best feline friends and former ferals Squid and newcomer Nori live at the store. “It is their home, and we are their family,” Lewis says. “Squid was already popular because he is an absolute lover of everyone, but Nori has definitely upped Squiddy’s popularity!”

2. WALL OF FAME: The staff takes photos of customer dogs and prints them via Social Print Studio. They hang the photos on a clothesline for a curated yet elegant look. Lewis says it’s hugely popular with people coming in and asking for their pet’s photos to be taken and added to the wall.

3. UNIQUE & LOCAL: The store encompasses two conjoined buildings, one built in 1904 and the other in 1906. Removed layers of linoleum and subfloor revealed original fir floors common to the Pacific Northwest in the early 1900s. Every store fixture is either made by a local artisan, by the staff or procured from a second-hand store. As a nod toward the agricultural history of the Hood River Valley, many come from old fruit crates called lugs. Lewis describes the resulting interior as warm, welcoming and gorgeous, but also a constant work in progress.

4. PERSONAL POSTS: “Instagram is such a huge piece of how we grow our business,” Lewis says. She posts customer pet pics, shares stories about their health journeys, and health and product tips. They can be emotional. “I very specifically say goodbye to pets who have died and honor them in an Instagram post and welcome the new pups in a personal sense with each customer, because we have a personal relationship with everybody.”

5. IN-HOUSE DOG TRAINING: Due to the few options available to dog trainers in the area, the store has a training area they can use. “Currently we have Kind Animal Services utilizing our training area,” Lewis says. Founder and operator Kelsie Scroggins uses it weekly. “She is an amazing positive reinforcement trainer. We are lucky to have her.”

PHOTO GALLERY (20 IMAGES)

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JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Molly’s big heart shows throughout her words. Love the boutique-y atmosphere and that they resurrected 120-plus-year-old buildings. Just the labor to expose the old fir wood plank floor is admirable. Great pine paneling and charming wall fixtures made of old wooden fruit crates. — Lyn M. Falk, Retailworks, Inc.
  • I love the branding and how much they have accomplished in a relatively short period of time. Remodeling a building that old is award worthy itself, and the story does feel magical. I like most the “Wall of Fame” concept and creating a destination in the store. — Pete Scott, American Pet Products Association
  • What a cool building, and the history! All of the custom wooden fixtures inside work so well and make for such unique merchandising. The space is lovely and reminds me of a gallery. Great story about Magic! I really wish I could visit this store. — Missy Limbeck, Pet Palette Distribution
  • I love so many things about this store. The magic that brought you to your space, the layout of the store, the fixtures, the wall of photos. It flows beautifully. — Nancy Guinn, Dog Krazy
  • It takes someone special to be able to recognize the greatness and talents in others. This is a sign of a true leader. Also, the marketing materials are top-notch. Giving away a free sticker to a loyal customer is making a comeback. The IG feed is bright and cheerful. I love how she also features her human customers as well. That’s not something that you see too often. The “Wall of Fame” sitting area: I love that they created a space that is so calming that it can instantly relax someone when they walk through the door. I can almost feel the sigh of relief just from looking at the pictures. I love the treatment room for holistic veterinary medical practitioners. It bridges that awkward gap between the natural pet community and the veterinary world. — Katherine Carbonaro, Astro Loyalty

Melissa L. Kauffman

Melissa L. Kauffman is the former editor of Dogster and Catster and has covered the pet world in print and online for 30 years — everything from products, retailers, trade and consumer shows to cats, dogs, birds, fish and rabbits. She lives in Charlotte, NC, with her husband, three dogs and two parrots.

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