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Adding Value
at Every Step

At Montana store, staff learns to spell "team" Dee-O-Gee.




Dee-O-Gee, Bozeman, MT

URL:; OWNERS: Josh and Holly Allen; OPENED: Opened in 2008, moved to featured location in 2014; AREA: 4,200 square feet; EMPLOYEES: 8 full-time, 8 part-time; FACEBOOK:

JOSH AND HOLLY ALLEN understand the importance of teamwork. After all, it has helped them more than double the size and services of Dee-O-Gee — and increase staff from one to 16 — since they opened the pet store in 2008. Working together effectively and efficiently also allowed them to further expand their Bozeman, MT, business to include a second, smaller location in 2013.

The couple points to the particular brand of teamwork they practice as a major reason for their success.

“We really believe in adding value to people, and their pets, regardless of whether they are a customer or an employee,” Josh explains. “With the mindset of adding value, the staff buys into supporting each other and helping customers the best way they can.”

Team Efforts, Team Wins

This team mentality applies to all aspects of Dee-O-Gee employment, with a bonus structure incentivizing staff members to perform on two fronts. The first involves helping to meet monthly sales goals. The second takes quarterly expenses into account. Josh — who handles store operations while Holly puts her vet tech experience and pet nutrition knowledge to work on the sales floor — provides employees with a report that shows opportunities for savings.


“For example, damaged products are an unnecessary expense for us,” he says. “The staff sees that if they rip a bag of food while stocking shelves or mistakenly make 100 copies instead of 10, it affects our bottom line.”

Josh says that the monthly and quarterly bonuses, which both full-time and part-time employees are eligible to receive, promote a sense of ownership. That, in turn, contributes to increased profits.

“Our annual growth rate over the past four to five years has been 20 to 40 percent. That percentage will naturally start to taper off, as our town is not very big,” Josh says. “However, our next phase with franchising will really boost the overall growth of the company.”

Expanding the Dee-O-Gee Team

After Josh and Holly had two Dee-O-Gee stores open and operating in the black, they began to consider further expansion. Distance, though, presents a challenge.

“Bozeman isn’t big enough for another location,” Josh explains, “and we’re so geographically spread out in Montana that the next area big enough for one is hours away.


“Holly and I have two young kids we adore and don’t want to be traveling to open and manage stores. With franchising, we can grow but not be ultimately responsible for operations of additional locations.”

The couple also sees it as an opportunity to help others gain the happiness and success they have thanks to the Dee-O-Gee formula. Their flagship store spans 4,200 square feet in a shopping center, in a spot specifically chosen for its steady foot traffic from nearby retail and restaurants. Large windows line the front, with one offering a view into the 1,000-square-foot daycare room.

“It’s literally the doggie in the window,” Josh says. “We’re right next to a coffee shop, and shoppers love to stop and watch the dogs play.”

Once inside, they find a stylish warehouse space with concrete floors, exposed ductwork, and earthy green and blue accent walls, the latter a reflection of the store’s emphasis on eco-friendly and all-natural pet products. An 8-foot-tall red fire hydrant catches the eye — of both people and pups — as does the check-in desk for full-service grooming, which looks like an oversized doghouse. The grooming area itself features two large windows.

“We feel like visibility is very important with grooming,” Josh explains. “We want our customers to see that we’re taking good care of their pet.”

Dee-O-Gee has DIY dog-washing stations, as well, and offers puppy classes in partnership with local experts Know They Dog. The trainers also work with store staff, teaching them about canine behavior and body language so they can maintain a safe and fun environment in daycare.


Josh and Holly believe they’ve hit upon the perfect combination of high-quality products and services.

“We don’t want any part of our business to dominate the others. It’s the hybrid of all three that makes it great in our opinion,” he says.


Five Cool Things About Dee-O-Gee

1. PET PORTRAITS: Dee-O-Gee regularly hosts “Paw-casso,” a two-hour painting class during which participants create a portrait of their dog while sipping on a BYOB of their choice.

2. LOYAL LONGTIMERS: While some employees are from Montana State University, and therefore come and go with the semesters, many staff members are old friends to customers. Groomer Kristi Nelson was the first employee Josh and Holly hired. “We’ve known her kids since they were born. Our employees become part of our life,” Josh says.

3.DAY-CAMPER SPECIALS: To encourage daycare customers to also shop, the store offers them exclusive specials. “It could be $2 off this treat or $5 off that food. We surprise them. It has created a super-loyal customer.”

4. JERICHO THE SHOP DOG: Josh and Holly’s 12-year-old Papillion inspired them to open Dee-O-Gee. He was diagnosed with multiple health issues as a young pup, and their search for natural alternatives revealed a void in the local market.

5. Q&A: On the store’s website, shoppers will find the Ask the D-O-G Expert form, where they can submit a question about nutrition, supplements, toys, treats or grooming. They will get a reply email within 48 hours and an invitation to schedule an in-person consultation.

Pamela Mitchell is the senior editor at PETS+. She works from her home office in Houston, TX, with Spot the senior Boston Terrier as her assistant.



Things Are Looking Good in the Pet Business … but Don’t Get Too Comfortable

PETS+'s marketing guru just wants to remind you that eventually, the upswing will become a downturn. When that happens, will you be ready?

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America's Coolest

School’s in Session for Dog Food Buyers at Maxwell & Molly’s Closet

There’s no sitting behind the counter at this New Jersey store.




Maxwell & Molly’s Closet, Newton, NJ

OWNER: Bonnie Bitondo; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2007; AREA: 1,600 square feet; EMPLOYEES: 2 full-time,3 part-time; FACEBOOK:


Bonnie Bitondo considers herself all of these before business owner. That philosophy informs every aspect of her pet boutique and grooming salon, Maxwell & Molly’s Closet in Newton, NJ.

“If people know you have their best interests at heart, both their pet and their pocketbook,” she says, “then the register takes care of itself.”

And it has. Since opening in 2007, Bitondo has grown her store from 350 to 1,600 square feet. She even added a second location in 2010.

History, Handshakes and Help

Maxwell the Yorkie came into Bitondo’s life in 2005, as an anniversary present from her husband, Rick. Having never before raised such a small puppy, she went in search of advice.

“The first pet store I walked into, with Maxwell in my arms, the owner was sitting behind the counter,” Bitondo recalls. “I said, ‘This is Max. I want to feed him the best food you have.’ He didn’t even look at my dog, just said that food was on Aisle 2 and that they were all the same.”

With no knowledge of pet nutrition and no help from the owner, she settled on kibble with a Yorkie on the bag.

“By the time I got home, I was livid. I didn’t appreciate being ignored. I didn’t appreciate receiving no information. And I was mad at myself for buying food based on packaging.”

Bitondo was also nearing retirement from teaching. She decided then that the next stage of her life would involve opening a store that treats pet parents the way she wished she had been treated that day.

Two years later, Bitondo used her retirement savings to buy the connected buildings that would house Maxwell & Molly’s Closet. She started in the smaller of the two — hence the store’s name, which also includes her second Yorkie — restoring the 1910 structure’s original tin ceiling, installing crystal chandeliers and adding an old-fashioned awning. Antique furnishings became fixtures. The transformation won a Newton Chamber of Commerce Beautification Award.

Bitondo expanded into the larger 1920s building in 2010, opening the door in between, repainting the exteriors to complement each other and adding signage to connect them visually.

“Our physical appearance, inside and out, says ‘We think your pet and you are special.’”

And she and her staff do.

“There’s no sitting behind the counter at my store. We come around and greet every customer with a handshake.”

They then employ what Bitondo calls “kind questioning.”

“We say, ‘Tell us about your pets. Is there something specific you’re looking for? Or are you just browsing? It shows that we’re interested in them. If they’re browsing, we respect that, but check in every five or 10 minutes to see if they need help.”

Product Private Eye

When pet parents do want guidance, they learn first that Bitondo has done extensive research on every product in the store.

“We don’t carry anything that I wouldn’t give to my own dogs or cats,” she says.

Her sleuthing skills developed early, thanks to growing up the daughter of a detective. “I try to use everything he taught me.”

When it comes to the edibles she carries, Bitondo scrutinizes food and treat ingredient lists and sources, and “I look at the companies themselves. How many recalls they’ve had. Where the foods are made. If the factories have had recalls. I follow the facts. It takes time and energy, but I can tell customers that I feel comfortable giving these products to my pets and to theirs.”

The community appreciates such thorough research, and for that and many other reasons, Maxwell & Molly’s Closet has been named “Best Pet Store” by New Jersey Herald readers for the past three years.

School is in Session

Bitondo doesn’t simply wait for customers to arrive and ask for advice. The former teacher draws them in with smart signage in her windows: “So you think you can’t afford premium pet food, come in for a conversation and free samples.”

Those who take Bitondo up on the offer get a math lesson. She asks how much their dog or cat weighs, then compares the feeding guidelines of less expensive, lower-protein foods to those of her more expensive, meat-first products.

“They see that the cost difference greatly narrows because they feed less. That helps their pocketbook, and it helps the digestive system of their animal as less food goes through it.”

She also hosts and promotes a variety of fun educational events. “Soup Er Bowl” in February provided information about and free samples of Primal Bone Broth, with staff serving pups while their humans enjoyed their own soup, homemade by Bitondo herself.





Five Cool Things About Maxwell and Molly’s Closet

1. HOLISTIC GROOMING: Bonnie Bitondo didn’t plan on offering grooming at her store, but when Paulina Riofrio became available three years ago, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The two share a vision for grooming that includes natural products and private appointments. Riofrio uses reiki, aromatherapy and crystal healing to keep pets calm and comfortable.

2. WEIGHT TRACKER: Maxwell & Molly’s Closet has its own veterinary scale, on which pets are weighed. Losses and gains get entered into the customer’s profile, as do any health and behavioral issues. Combined with purchase history, staff use this information to suggest rotating proteins or adding supplements.

3. MEMBERSHIP PERKS: Once customers spend $200 at the store, they become members of the Platinum Paw Club and get a 5 percent discount on all products going forward. There are 5,000 members between both locations.

4. GIVING BACK: Maxwell & Molly’s Closet provides pet food to area homeless people through Family Promise. “We realized that these individuals and families were giving up their pets or living in cars or tents so they wouldn’t have to,” Bitondo says. “We had to step in and help these people who had already lost so much.” Manufacturers help with donations, as do customers who put money in a designated “house” next to the register.

5. FREE DELIVERY: Purchases $50 and higher qualify for free delivery if within an hour of the store. Rick Bitondo drives the store van, which features the couple’s dogs running on a colorful wrap. Bonnie’s husband will even place frozen items inside a customer’s freezer upon request. The store also offers curbside pickup of orders.

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America's Coolest

This New Jersey Store Rivals Public Aquariums

Fish lovers school up 
in a New Jersey store that rivals public aquariums.



Absolutely Fish, Clifton, NJ

: D. Patrick Donston; OPENED 
FOUNDED:1999; SQUARE FEET: 4,850; EMPLOYEES: 23 full-time, 11 part-time; FACEBOOK: /absolutelyfish; INSTAGRAM: /absolutelyfish

ABSOLUTELY FISH STANDS OUT among the boxy, earth-toned buildings astride U.S. Route 46, with its ocean-themed muraled façade, it beckons commuters that something unique lies within.

Patrick Donston opened his store in 2000, and it’s become a beacon for fish geeks from New York City and North Jersey, hobbyists looking for a wide selection of aquatic livestock, aquacultured coral and name-brand aquarium gear.

Attendees at a recent coral show in New York City, for example, carved out some time to visit Absolutely Fish, with some heard to say that the store’s coral selection surpassed that of the show.

It is this broad selection of aquatic livestock coupled with an exceptionally well-trained and knowledgeable staff that puts Absolutely Fish in a league of its own, Donston believes.

Schools of Fish

When people first walk in Absolutely Fish, what jumps out are the “rows and rows of aquariums filled with different fish” and another 2,500 gallons devoted to corals and coral frags (short for fragments; these reproduce asexually, reducing the need to break wild reefs apart).

“Holy mackerel — pardon my pun — but there’s a lot of fish,” Donston quips.

Absolutely Fish has several themed aquariums and one of the more interesting setups is the CARES (Conservation, Awareness, Recognition, Encouragement and Support) Preservation Program tank. It is a freshwater planted tank that mimics a tropical tributary habitat and is stocked with CARES fish (endangered fish listed at

“We were the first CARES store in the United States,” Donston says. “You get the feel right away of what we are about.”


Getting Schooled

Donston, who describes himself as a teacher at heart, literally wrote the manual — several times over, in fact — on how to develop diamonds in the rough into “professional aquarists.”

“My training protocol has been something that has been developed and worked through over the past 18 years,” he says. “My people are not schooled to be fish slingers. Even if you are a teenager and in high school and working for me part time, I’m schooling you to be a professional aquarist.”

Stores err, Donston explains, by getting hung up hiring only the most experienced people.

“We look for passionate people who love animals. That’s all I care about,” he says. “I’ve got to see the flicker in your eye, the gleam, the smile on your face, and if I can sense that through the interview, I’m going to hire that person.”

Passion is innate; the rest can be taught, and teach it Donston does.

New employees are expected to work through their training manuals methodically; they receive on-the-job training from more seasoned employees.

They often round out the workday by joining Donston for classroom sessions, which include everything from water quality to planted aquaria, compatibility of species, servicing aquariums, talking to clients, customer service and more.

In the end, it all leads to exemplary customer service and high customer satisfaction.

Absolutely Fish provides a platform to “educate and provide services for successful aquatic animal care and captivity” and to “inspire and connect” people “to oceans and freshwater waterways, with an emphasis on conservation.”


“That’s what I think is truly unique about our service that sets us apart from box stores or from other places,” Donston says.

Environmental Stewards

Donston and his team champion a major aquatic conservation project annually.

The 2015 Nielsen Global Survey of Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability found environmental consciousness to be important for about three out of four millennials and more than half of boomers when considering a business to shop at.

“Every year, we try and get behind something and put our money where our mouth is,” Donston says.

That might include $15,000 raised to track hammerhead sharks in the Caribbean, or $20,000 for a reef ball in the Turks and Caicos.

“People like to support us because they say, ‘You might be a little more, but I know you are trying to do things for the environment.’”

Other projects include $15,000 to the Great Bay Terrapin Project to build fences along the Jersey Shore to keep endangered terrapins (a brackish water turtle) from getting run over.

For its work, Absolutely Fish was granted a special permit to display an endangered terrapin in one of its tanks for educational purposes only.

“We are the only store in New Jersey that actually has a Great Bay terrapin,” Donston says.

Three steps in the door and even the most jaded aquarist will be hooked on Absolutely Fish.



Five Cool Things About Absolutely Fish

1. EARLY INSPIRATION: As a child of the 1970s, Donston got his early inspiration from television naturalists Jacques Cousteau and Marlin Perkins, hosts of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

2. PAINTING THE TOWN: The eye-catching mural of an Indo-Pacific reef adorning the front exterior of Absolutely Fish was designed and painted by Johnny Vega, an artist and longtime Absolutely Fish customer.

3. LOCAL LIVESTOCK: Absolutely Fish captive produces more than 60 species of hard and soft corals, four species of clownfish, 25 species of freshwater fish and live foods at its 5,000-square-foot aquaculture facility in nearby Paterson. “We believe in harvesting locally, reducing emissions with less shipping of wild-collected fauna,” Donston says.

4. INCENTIVIZED LEARNING: All the younger staff own home fish tanks, which they are encouraged to have so they can learn about keeping fish. An employee incentive program called “Rico rupels,” named after the manager who started it, allows employees to earn faux currency that can be used for in-store purchases, used tanks and equipment, and lunch or gift cards.

5. TO A “T”: Absolutely Fish began its Midnight Madness sale in 2000; the event grew in popularity to where the line wrapped around the building and the wait to get in topped two hours. In 2013, the name was abbreviated to MM sale, as it outgrew its midnight slot and became a daytime event on Saturday and Sunday. Each MM sale is immortalized with a T-shirt; coincidentally, the MM sale for 2018 is MMXVII — the Roman numerals for 2018 — which appear on this year’s shirt.



ONLINE EXTRA: Q&A with Patrick Donston

Most significant mentor and why:
Rick Preuss of Preuss Pets (Lansing, MI). He truly operates a Pet Shop the way we should all be doing it; with integrity, passion, compassion for the animals, and respect for his team and all who works with him. He is a true level 5 leader.

Favorite Business Book:
It’s Not What You Sell; It’s What You Stand For by Roy Spence Jr.

Favorite Book:
The Dragon Behind The Glass by Emily Voigt

Advice for a new store owner:
Don’t do it to get rich, do it to become enriched.

What’s the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do professionally?
Part ways with a manager of eight years.

Favorite Film:

Best vacation ever:
Bay of Fundi, Big Sur California Drive, and Ireland — Connemara

Favorite job at work that doesn’t involve customers:
Conducting classes on fish keeping to my new employees

If I weren’t a pet business owner, I’d be:
A spiritual adviser

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America's Coolest

Yes, They Can: A Washington, DC, Store Bucks the Conventional and Leads the Way in Sustainability

A Washington, DC, store bucks the conventional and leads the way in sustainability.




The Big Bad Woof,Washington, DC

URL:; OWNERS: Julie Paez and Pennye Jones-Napier; YEAR FOUNDED: 2005; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2017; AREA: 3,900 square feet; EMPLOYEES: 6 full-time, 5 part-time; FACEBOOK:; INSTAGRAM:

IT ISN’T EASY being green. Julie Paez and Pennye Jones-Napier heard this countless times while preparing to open their pet-supply store in Washington, DC. It was 2005, and the eco-friendly business model — to source responsibly and to operate sustainably — was not yet common in the industry.

“‘You can’t run a store like that. You’ll never make any money,’” Paez recalls hearing at trade shows. “Being very stubborn people, we said, ‘Yes, we can.’”

They did and continue to do so, with The Big Bad Woof helping to set the standard for green pet businesses in this country.

Reduce, Reuse & Recycle

Named in honor of their four wolf hybrids, the store opened in the city’s Old Takoma neighborhood. It thrived during 2007’s pet food recalls for melamine contamination.

“People came in, hysterical, asking what could they feed their dogs that wouldn’t kill them,” Paez says. “I’m very proud of the fact that we carefully select our foods and none were recalled.”


The Big Bad Woof expanded to a second location, in Hyattsville, MD, four years later. Complete with green design by award-winning Travis Price Architects, it became the first U.S. benefit corporation. Businesses with this legal structure pledge to balance profit with positive impact on the environment and society. The store also obtained B Corp certification from auditing body B Lab.

In late 2016, Paez and Jones-Napier decided to trade serious parking problems at their second location and limited square footage at their first for a more easily accessible and larger space in Old Takoma. They worked with the landlord to gut the 1920s building and to install eco-friendly features such as the 100 solar panels that provide its power and two energy-efficient Big Ass Fans.

The current store opened in early 2017. It spans 3,900 square feet, with 3,000 dedicated to retail and the rest for owner, e-commerce and shipping offices. Many elements from the Hyattsville design — industrial chic meets Mother Nature — carried over.

Red paint covers back walls as well as exposed ductwork and other metal, providing pops of color against white walls and unfinished concrete floors. Fixtures feature reclaimed wood and recycled materials, and the checkout desk has as its top an 11-foot piece of wood felled, split and finished locally. The 25-foot-apothecary made the trip as well.

“We’re known for having a lot of supplements, herbals and homeopathic products, and can advise on how to use them safely,” Jones-Napier says. She leads their sales along with team member Darthanyia Leonard, who gained her experience with natural products working at Whole Foods Market. They regularly work with and get referrals from local integrative veterinarians.

Practice Modern Sustainability

Not only do Paez and Jones-Napier keep the environment in mind when sourcing, looking for local, regional and/or eco-friendly products to order, they also embrace the expanded definition of sustainability that includes having a positive social impact. The Big Bad Woof in Old Takoma has benefit corporation status, with Green America certification and auditing.

Honest Pet Products is among the many lines that help the store meet such standards. The Green Bay, WI, company employs disabled people to make its dog and cat toys. It also outsources through Snow Leopard Trust, which provides Mongolian communities with sustainable income opportunities in an effort to reduce poaching.

“We’re always looking for these kinds of businesses to support, ones that will resonate with our customers as well,” Jones-Napier says, referring to the neighborhood’s progressive leanings.

Paez adds, “There’s always been this very strong emphasis on making our community a better place,” pointing to the store being a Hungry Harvest pickup location as an example of a local environmental and social sustainability effort. The program takes produce about to go into the waste stream — for being off-size, off-color, not pretty, overproduced or overpurchased — and offers it as donations to those in need or at a reduced cost.

The owners appreciate that their customers got from day one what many in the pet industry did not.



Five Cool Things About  The Big Bad Woof

1. SOME (MANY) LIKE IT RAW: The store has 13 front-door freezers and a walk-in for its raw offerings. Pet food makes up 55 percent of sales, with raw accounting for 30 percent of that. “I’m just astounded at how much raw food we go through,” Paez says. “We turn it over so quickly. Customers only buy their raw from us because it’s always fresh.”

2. NO MORE CLAMSHELLS: The owners regularly give feedback to manufacturers about packaging and shipping that serves no purpose and harms the environment. “It’s a waste. It’s not biodegradable. It adds cost to shipping,” Jones-Napier says. “We tell them, ‘Don’t ship in a clamshell.’”

3. WOOF PANTRIES: Through Think Local First D.C., customers can pick up their online orders at one of eight other area businesses. Options include a pet grooming salon, veterinarian’s office, and even a brewery or hardware store. The free service helps to support local businesses while increasing customer convenience. Jones-Napier loves the program so much, she serves on its board.

4. VET VISITS: In addition to manufacturer reps, the owners invite integrative veterinarians to speak at their staff meetings. These DVMs share what issues commonly affect their patients — from digestive problems to fleas and ticks — and advise when natural treatments are an option.

5. WOOF PACK: While the original four-pack of wolf hybrids have all passed, Paez and Jones-Napier have a full house of pets. Mixed-breed Zora, pit bull YaYa-Zen and Siberian Husky Atticus share space with kitties Samson and Figaro. Atticus has been a store pet since he was 12 weeks old.


ONLINE EXTRA: Q&A with Pennye Jones-Napier

One book
Bearing Witness by Bernie Glassman

One website

One gadget

One plane ticket

Favorite business book
Radical Candor by Kim Scott

Favorite book
Six of One by Rita Mae Brown

Best advice ever given
If you believe food is medicine, then we can help heal this issue.

Advice for a new store owner
Hire good people and make it worthwhile for them to stay.

If I’d known more about finances…
Then, life would have been a whole lot easier.

I drive a Prius. If I could choose any car…
It would be 1950-1960 manual pick-up truck.

What’s the best customer service you’ve ever experienced?
Disney Resorts – the mission shines through every cast member from the accommodations to the parks.

Tell me about your perfect day.
Start with a workout or swim first thing, then head to the barns to saddle up and head off for a long ride.

What’s the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do professionally?
Close a store that was underperforming.


If your store were on fire, what’s the one thing you’d save?
Our customers and staff if they were in danger.

Favorite film
Being There

Best vacation ever

Favorite job at work that doesn’t involve customers
Selecting new foods and inventory

If I weren’t a pet business owner…
I’d be a anti-poaching officer.

Current life goal:
To have time to travel and see friends and family more often.

I am happiest when…
I am working in the emergency shelters.

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