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New Kentucky Home

They made their dog boutique an extension of the customers' homes.

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Southern Barker, Lexington, KY

OWNERS: Leslie Stewart, Sarah Stewart; URL:southernbarker.com; OPENED FEATURED STORE: 2017; EMPLOYEES: 4 part-time; AREA: 1,002 square feet; FACEBOOK: southernbarker; INSTAGRAM: southernbarker


LESLIE AND SARAH Stewart embody the spirit of Southern hospitality. The mother-daughter pair are warm and welcoming, helpful and kind. It comes as no surprise that their dog boutique in Lexington, KY, shares these characteristics.

“We want our customers to feel like Southern Barker is an extension of their home,” Leslie says. “We always try to make them feel comfortable, cared for and respected.”

The duo does exactly that with a combination of stylishly rustic decor, inclusive product offerings, and by celebrating the bond between people and their pets — all with a Southern spin, of course.

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Designing Women

When Leslie and Sarah decided to realize their dream of opening a pet store in 2017, they found an unfinished space in a shopping center. It didn’t even have a floor, just gravel. They hired Cathy Burgess Interiors to design and oversee buildout.

Daughter Sarah and mother Leslie Stewart opened Southern Barker based on a business plan Sarah forged in college.

“She helped make the vision in our heads come to life, and really helped us figure out the Southern Barker brand,” Sarah says, with Leslie adding, “We gave her tons of pictures from Pinterest.”

They also shared human stores in Lexington with their desired aesthetic: artist Rebecca Puig’s Sugarboo and actress Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James.

“Sugarboo is eclectic and rustic. Draper James has a very Southern feel to it. Both both have a touch of elegance,” Leslie explains.

Using the above influences, and pulling from Leslie’s own retail merchandising experience and home decor blogging, the three chose for Southern Barker warm flooring that mimics hardwood, a creamy paint palette and plaid wallpaper. Dark metal chandeliers cast a soft glow.

“And we use furniture instead of store fixtures,” Leslie says. “I found myself literally taking pieces from my home.” Her husband had to ask at one point, “Where’s the foyer table?’”

Displays use straw baskets, iron hooks, wooden ladders and crates, with the “Barker Bar” centerpiece offering bulk treats in old-fashioned glass candy jars.

Big Pups & Dog Dads Welcome

The Stewart family Portuguese Water Dog, Lily, served as inspiration for initial product selection — and continues to guide Leslie and Sarah.

“She was our first female puppy and our first larger dog. We wanted to spoil Lily but could not find what met our style as well as fit her large frame,” Leslie says.

Sarah adds, “We don’t deal with vendors that don’t have big sizes available in their clothes. That way, people with larger dogs won’t be disappointed when they come in and see something they like.”

Among their favorite brands are The Worthy Dog and Hotel Doggy, and stocking them has made Southern Barker the go-to store for stylish big dogs.

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“We actually sell more larger coats than ones in smaller sizes,” Sarah says.

And while dog moms certainly make up a significant percentage of their customers, Leslie and Sarah make sure to have something for dog dads, too.

“We have just as much for the dog dad who fishes and hunts as we do for the dog mom who wants rhinestones,” Leslie says.

Camo-print collars and leashes from Finnegan’s Standard Goods, stuffed ducks and pheasants from Fluff & Tuff, plus collapsable bowls and other gear, are good sellers.

Of course, Southern-themed products are scattered throughout the boutique and regularly make up displays, such as one for the Kentucky Derby. It featured horseshoe bandanas and bow ties from Chloe & Max, a stuffed horse from Fluff & Tuff, plus Kentucky-themed T-shirts, glassware and decorative pillows for humans.

At left, all canine visitors are encouraged to pose for a pic in the dog house. At right, Southern Barker Sweet Tea squeaky toys add to the branding.

The Southern Barker Experience

Every canine customer gets a warm welcome, complete with complimentary treats and an invitation to pose in the Southern Barker dog house, after which their photo goes up on the Wall of Southern Barkers. They can enroll in the birthday club to receive a free bone and special discount, which can be used in the party section or anywhere else in the store. A “Barker of the Month” contest encourages engagement on Facebook.

“We want to make shopping with us an experience,” Leslie says. “Not for them to come in and get their dog food and say see you later. We want people to think of us as more than a pet store.”

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Helping them meet that goal are a variety of celebratory events. Breed meetups, yappy hours and a Kentucky Derby Hat Contest, just to name a few, draw pet parents and their pups, while painting parties give the humans an opportunity to socialize solo with like-minded individuals.

The Stewarts also share in the sad times with their customers.

“I got a phone call from a lady asking me about a pawprint keepsake item,” Sarah recalls. “She broke down crying on the phone, telling me about having to put her dog down. I told her, ‘I really just want to give you a hug right now.’

An hour later she walks in the door and says, ‘I came for my hug.’”

PHOTO GALLERY (16 IMAGES)

Five Cool Things About Southern Barker

1. SCHOOL PROJECT: Sarah was a senior in college, studying marketing, when she and her mother decided to open Southern Barker. A business plan Sarah developed in school served as starting point for the store.

2. YAPPY HOUR: From 4 to 6 p.m. weekdays, customers get 30 percent off Barker Bar treats. Leslie says, “The margin on bulk treats is pretty good, so we’re not losing money. The discount gets them in the store.”

3. PRIVATE LABEL: Southern Barker has created its own treat and toy lines. Among the offerings are Barker Baked Goods Treats and Sweet Tea Squeaky Toys. The store also has begun making T-shirts, including one that says “Woof Y’all.”

4. EXPANSION: In 2019, a Louisville pet store with two locations went on the market. The Stewarts did an acquisition sale, took over the leases and rebranded the businesses. The new stores had and still have much more of a focus on food. That combined with Leslie and Sarah learning more about nutrition to help their own pets has resulted in the Lexington store now carrying 10 brands of food, including the full Answers line. Leslie says, “We’re really excited to help build the raw community in Lexington.”

5. THE FAMILY THAT WORKS TOGETHER: Leslie and Sarah split their time between the three stores, and dad John, son/brother John and his wife Alex also pitch in as needed. Grandson Elliot is literally growing up in the family business, as he spends weekday mornings with Leslie and Sarah.

 

Pamela Mitchell is the Editor-in-Chief of PETS+. She works from her home office in Houston, TX, with Ty the Boston Terrier as her assistant.

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