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Strong, Steady Growth

A California store rules at raw food.

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Ben’s Barketplace, Roseville, CA

OWNERS: Brad & Sally Romero; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2010;EMPLOYEES: 2 full-time ; AREA: 2,850 square feet; FACEBOOK: /bensbarketplace; INSTAGRAM: /bensbarketplace


A S FORMER LAW ENFORCEMENT PROFESSIONALS, Brad and Sally Romero understand the importance of partnerships. They founded Ben’s Barketplace together in 2005. To determine the best possible diets for pets, the couple work with integrative veterinarians and ask customers to answer detailed questionnaires. Such synergy has helped thousands of dogs and cats, and has grown the Roseville store into the largest independent retailer of raw pet food in California. “We sell an average of 500 pounds a day,” Brad says with pride.

Partners in Pet Nutrition

Brad worked as a K-9 officer and trainer for the California Highway Patrol. Sally also worked for the CHP before serving in the state’s Department of Justice. They point to his first K-9 partner as inspiration for their store. The yellow Labrador Retriever came to them in 1998 on a diet with much room for improvement.

“I knew there had to be higher-quality food available,” Brad recalls.

Thus sparked a passion for pet nutrition that has evolved into a focus on raw. Ben’s Barketplace has one walk-in and 20 stand-up freezers. Brands include Northwest Naturals, Stella and Chewy’s, Small Batch, Bones & Co., Vital Essentials, Instinct, Primal, Raw Bistro, Tucker’s, Bravo and My Perfect Pet.

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“Diet is the foundation for good health. We are now huge advocates of species-correct raw diets,” Brad says.

Area integrative vets regularly refer patients for nutrition consultations, which are available for free on-site and for $50 over the phone.

“It’s something we do every day. We go through the questionnaire, which covers everything from medical and diet history to activity level and grooming. We then formulate a plan,” Sally explains.

Brad adds, “Our recommendations are simple dietary solutions that cleanse the animal naturally, utilizing a proper and laser-focused nutritional protocol and supplements to achieve their optimal health.”

Their success in helping pets with cancer — including his second K-9 Nikita, a Belgian Malinois who developed hemangiosarcoma — as well as diabetes and many other conditions has led to the positive word of mouth that serves as the store’s main advertising.

“Our consultations are really our brand,” Brad says. “It’s not what we have. It’s knowing what to do with what we have. We are a nutritional consultation service surrounded by the highest quality food in North America.”

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Partners in Store Design

Ben’s Barketplace opened in Lincoln, but moved to its current location in Roseville five years later. It wasn’t until then that the couple were able to create the store of their dreams.

“In my previous career, I was a certified welder, so I designed the store and made nearly everything in it,” Brad says. “Sally was the decorator.”

His welding work can be seen in food racks throughout the 2,850-foot space as well as in the “Ben’s Bone Yard,” a standalone chew bar made from wood and steel. An exposed ceiling and concrete floors, plus painted brickwork and interior signage by artist Kristina Letson, complete the industrial aesthetic.

The owners love their design and recreated it, with help from Letson, in their recently opened second store, back in Lincoln. It also serves as the template for franchises.

Partners in Expansion

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Brad and Sally have decided that managing their two corporate stores, along with a third due in 2020, will keep them plenty busy and that all other Ben’s Barketplace locations will been owned and operated by franchisees.

“I want people who will have a vested interest in making the store the best it can be,” Sally says, explaining their decision.

Brad adds, “We’re not looking to grow too fast, though. We don’t want to be the McDonald’s of the pet food world. We want stores that will last and have strong, steady growth.”

The first franchise location, in Citrus Heights, opened in late 2018. To interest and inform potential franchises, they launched ownabens.com.

PHOTO GALLERY (8 IMAGES)

 

Five Cool Things About Ben’s Barketplace

1. FROM FAILED HUNTING DOG TO K-9 CHAMP: Born in England, Ben of Barketplace fame came to the U.S. as a hunting dog. He didn’t do so well, mouthing the ducks a bit too much. Ben went on to train as a drug detection dog. He graduated at the top of his class and partnered with Brad. The pair located more than $27 million in illegal narcotics during their time together. They also competed in K-9 trials, with Ben taking home the narcotics detection championship in 1999.

2. TEXT INSTEAD OF TALK: When customers have a question or need to place an order, they can simply send a text. The message converts via Zipwhip and appears on the store’s point-of-sale system screen, alerting employees and allowing them to instantly respond.

3. KNOW THY CUSTOMER: Brad and Sally believe that “Customers are a business’s life blood, but not everyone is your customer.” They understand that not everyone will want to spend more than they are used to for a raw or other high-quality diet. Knowing that allows them to focus their time on those who will.

4. CUSTOMER TESTIMONIALS: To promote their nutrition consultations, Brad and Sally ask pet parents to share their experiences on video for the store’s social media platforms. Viewers can learn how they helped diabetic Tyson, yeasty Rocco and overweight Odin drastically improve their health.

5. NUTRITION SCHOOL: Employees at Ben’s Barketplace take online courses to become certified pet nutritionists — the better to help itchy, fatty and otherwise unhealthy dogs and cats!

ONLINE EXTRA: Q&A for Brad Romero

One gadget

MIG welder

Favorite book

The Bible

Best advice ever given

Not everyone is your customer

Advice for a new storeowner

It’s your child. Keep it healthy through dedication, education and love.

I drive a pickup. If I could choose any car…

It would be a pickup.

What superpower would you like to have?

To save every dog in a shelter or poor living conditions.

What’s the best customer service you’ve ever experienced?

A local heating and air company. The owner gave a bid. They arrived and completed a large job in one day for half the price of competitors. And sent a qualitycontrol employee two weeks later to ensure everything was completed correctly. He found a larger error and had it fixed the next day.

Tell me about your perfect day.

A day on the beach with my dogs!

What’s the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do professionally?

Notify a family of the death of a loved one.

If your store were on fire, what’s the one thing you’d save?

My dogs

If money were no object…

I’d put another walk in freezer in my store.

Favorite job at work that doesn’t involve customers

Training customers how to handle their dog properly without poor training equipment like gentle leaders.

If I weren’t a pet business owner…

I’d be retired.

Current career goal

None

Current life goal

Longevity

Favorite store that’s not my own

The Raw Connection in Carmel Valley, CA

I am most frustrated when …

Customers believe their veterinarian is a nutritional expert.

I am happiest when…

I am with my dogs.

The thing I worry about that I know I shouldn’t

Losing my dogs

Q&A for Sally Romero

One plane ticket

Anywhere, but definitely roundtrip.

Advice for a new store owner

Know that every customer has a choice in where they shop and treat them accordingly.

Tell me about your perfect day.

Wake up without an alarm, enjoy a cup of tea at my local coffee shop, stop by my stores but not have to stay until closing, enjoy a homecooked dinner.

What’s the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do professionally?

Learn to say no to telemarketers. It’s quite easy now.

If your store were on fire, what’s the one thing you’d save?

My dogs. They are at work with me most days.

Advertising campaign I wish I’d thought of.

I’m not creative at all, so I’m quite happy to have creative people around me that can think of these things.

If money were no object, I’d do ———— to my store.

Expand it and add products and employees.

When I meet people, the first thing I notice about them is _____.

Their eyes.

If I weren’t a pet business owner, I’d be …

A volunteer at a rescue.

My hero is …

My dad. He’s my hero and my role model.

Favorite store that’s not my own

The Raw Connection in Carmel Valley, CA

I am most frustrated when …

I cannot get everything done due to time constraints.

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.

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America's Coolest

Splitting the Ps: How One Couple Shares the Load to Create a Cool Store

How Deborah and Mark Vitt use their corporate experiences to rock their micro economy.

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Mutts and Co., Dublin, OH

OWNERS: Mark and Deborah Vitt; URL:muttsandco.com ; FOUNDED: 2007; OPENED FEATURE STORE: 2007; EMPLOYEES: 6 full-time, 7 part-time ; AREA: 5,000 square feet; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/muttsandco; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/muttsandco


Mark and Deborah Vitt have hit upon the magic sauce of management by splitting duties based on their skills and interests.

DEBORAH AND MARK VITT OPENED Mutts & Co. in Dublin, OH, as an 1,800-square-foot-store, half services, half retail. Right away, they realized the footprint was off.

“We were cramped in there with just enough room for a few products, some cookies and a few treats,” says Mark. “It was like going to the dentist’s office, where you can buy a couple of toothbrushes.”

They didn’t want to be like the dentist’s office, so they took over the space next door, expanded to nearly 5,000 square feet and doubled the grooming area. Many remodels later, they’ve got a ratio that works. “There are only so many dogs you can groom or bathe in a day,” Mark says, “but every dog has to eat.”

The Science of Shopping

The Vitts brought complementary marketing and retail skills to their first pet store, and as a team they’ve learned how to draw in traffic, stock the right products and staff a good team — all by splitting up the Ps. Deborah fields purchasing, product assortment, procurement and pricing, and Mark handles personnel, new store placement and promotion.

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Deborah’s executive training and keen insight about what makes people buy is what sets this store apart. “She’s parlayed that into owning a business that takes advantage of her retail knowledge and keen sense of merchandising,” Mark says. The store’s floor plan keeps customers crossing paths with bones, treats and toys on the trek for the items they came in for. It’s not a forced journey, but a thoughtful layout.

“We’re trying to make it so people see the full breadth of the products that are available,” he says. “It gives us an opportunity to talk about them, cross-sell and up-sell. ”

A Design to Match the Mission

Head to tail, this store has an old barn feel. Antique barn wood covers the walls and cash wraps, and wooden bins hold the bulk items. Chalkboard headers, held in handmade wooden frames, identify each product section. Out front, original artwork promotes the day’s sales.

“It’s become something of a badge of honor to be one of our elite chalkboard graphic artists,” Mark says. All these human touches give the store a natural appearance, which aligns with natural products and a homemade line of specialty items by

The Pet Foundry: candles and clothing that support the area’s foster and adoption community.

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This store is known as the go-to place for natural pet nutrition, and they take their product selection seriously. Mutts & Co. recently stepped away from a few larger pet food brands that went into big-box stores, mostly through mergers and acquisitions.

“We knew the quality of the product was going to degrade so we went out and found alternatives, knowing that we’ll have to convince customers to trust this lesser-known brand,” he says. “When you can start to find it in Kroger or Target or other big-box stores — not even pet retail stores — that’s not special anymore.”

Standout Staff

The Vitts ask a lot of commitment from their staff, a mix of full- and part-time workers. They train almost exclusively in-store, and in addition to manufacturer training, they do bimonthly training sessions to focus on particular products, general industry trends, categories, and best practices when talking about nutrition.

That’s why they focus on getting the right people, getting them the right training and offering the right products to address all of these potential concerns.

“People come to us because they know we’re there for their pets’ well-being and not just the sale,” Mark says. “We have to give folks a reason to come to us and that’s why we focus on health and wellness for the pets, and that starts with having good products and good people.”

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Ultimately, you’re talking to a pet parent whose dog or cat is part of their family and you’re making a health recommendation for the wellbeing of one of their family members, he says. “We take that very seriously.”

Their staff members are prepared to point customers in the right direction on whatever health concerns come in. “That can be the toughest but most rewarding part, customers who come back and say, ‘My dog had a terrible condition and your recommendations have really helped turn it around.’ But that takes a lot of time and training.”

PHOTO GALLERY (12 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Mutts and Co.

1. Adopt Don’t Shop: Mutts & Co. just sponsored its fourth adoption event called Fetch A Friend, where hundreds of animals are befriended at the Columbus Fairgrounds Expo Center in a one-day adoption extravaganza. Deborah Vitt coordinates the event through a local advocacy group.

2. Efficient Grooming: Baths and trims are modeled after hair salons for people, with a centralized booker who keeps the door rotating. Dogs are in and out quickly, no kennels necessary. “We felt it would be a better approach to reduce the stress if we keep them there for the minimum amount of time,” Mark Vitt says.

3. It’s Always Social Hour: Instead of hiring a trainer in-house, they bring in professional trainers for in-store pet training, and invite cats and dogs to come into the store to hang out.

4. Cats and Dogs Exclusively: Two years ago, they eliminated fish, small animal and birds because the market just wasn’t there. “There’s just a smaller pool of customers, and it was harder for us to stay on top of those trends when it was such a small portion of our business,” Mark says. “We felt like it was almost doing a disservice by letting small animals just kind of exist, so we cut it out.”

5. Generous Delivery Options: Customers can order curbside pickup or home delivery. “Online sales are going to be the most critical part of business going forward, because it is becoming just a staple in the pet shoppers’ mentality,” Mark says. “We knew we had to have it, so we created that channel for customers to shop with us in that convenient way.”

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America's Coolest

America’s Coolest Pet Stores 2019 Winners Announced!

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We’re reporting live from PETS+ HQ to bring you results from the 2019 America’s Coolest Stores Contest. It was a tight race this year, with some of the most impressive campaigns we’ve seen yet. We wish every business could win!

To narrow the field to first, second and third place, plus nine honorable mentions, a team of editorial staff and independent pet industry judges evaluated the entries, which included mini-essays on a variety of topics, photography and media.

The top three winners impressed judges with their ability to transform a traditional pet business model into something truly special in their communities.

Let’s get to it!

3rd place
Barker’s Lane

 

1st place
BAR K

 

2nd place
WAG Central

 

First place — Bar K in Kansas City, MO. Dogs and humans alike love going to this activity-packed dog park and restaurant that spans 2 acres on the Missouri River’s south bank.

Second place — Wag Central in Stratford, CT. This doggie day care and boarding facility also invites pet parents to join in on the fun, with an indoor dog park, training classes and cafe.

Third place — Barker’s Lane in Davie, FL. Not only do dogs get the spa experience at this upscale grooming salon, every square foot of space serves as a stylish backdrop for Insta-worthy pet portraits.

We hope their stories — as well as the nine Honorable Mentions appearing in upcoming issues — will inspire you to break with tradition yourself. What better way to compete with big-box stores and the internet than to offer what they can’t in new and exciting ways. Bonus: If you do, we just might be reporting about you on these pages next year!

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America's Coolest

A Salon So Upscale, It Attracts People Without Dogs

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3RD Place: BARKER’S LANE | Davie, Fl

Strike a Pose

 

A salon so upscale, it attracts people without dogs.

OWNER: Juliana Reese | WEBSITE: barkerslane.com | OPENED FEATURED LOCATION : 2007 | AREA: 1,173 square feet | EMPLOYEES: 2 | FACEBOOK: barkerslane | INSTAGRAM: barkerslane


IT’S THE ULTIMATE before and after story. In 2006, Julianna Reese was reconsidering her career path as a special education teacher. She looked to her rescue dog, Zeta, for guidance and inspiration.

“I thought, ‘I would love to be with her all day, every day. That would be so cool,’“ Reese recalls.

She began searching for pet businesses for sale in South Florida and found a grooming salon in Davie.

“I went and looked at it. The location was bad. It was dirty, just gross. Also, I knew nothing about grooming or running a salon.”

She saw the potential, though, within those walls and herself.

“Everything in my gut told me to go for it.”

Reese bought the business in 2007 and has since transformed it into the glamorous and profitable pet spa Barker’s Lane.

Pups awaiting pickup can relax in a private suite at Barker’s Lane. They also are available for overnight boarding for existing grooming clients.

Changes, Slowly Then Quickly

After taking over, Reese immersed herself in all aspects of the salon.

“The first two years, I had a perpetual headache from all of the learning,” she says.

Reese trained with her staff and enrolled in online courses. As her knowledge and confidence grew, she began making changes.

“Grooming was matter of fact when I got here. Dogs got a bath, blow-dry, haircut, their nails clipped, anal glands expressed and ears cleaned.” The former owner “used chicken coops as cages.”

Now clients can choose from an extensive menu of services for their pets. Blueberry facials and hand-drying come standard with every level of groom. Among the many add-ons are exfoliating mud baths, pawdicures, and hair coloring and feathering. She also offers hot towel treatments for senior dogs.

“We take the towel and put it over areas where they have arthritis.”

Classical music and aromatherapy fill the air at Barker’s Lane, helping to lessen any stress pets might feel. Zephyrhills spring water fills the bowls. Depending on their size and temperament, dogs can relax in a kennel or private suite while they await their appointment or pickup. Some even chill on one of the vintage settees that contribute to the salon’s glamorous decor.

“Every time I saved a little money, I would put it into the business. I would paint a wall or add a piece of furniture. Eventually I was able to make it completely my own.”

That happened with a remodel in 2016. The result: a setting that could easily be mistaken for an upscale home, one worthy of a feature in an interior design magazine.

“This is my place,” Reese explains. “I come here every day, and I want to be surrounded by beauty.” She adds, “The pet industry has changed. People see their dogs as children now and like to take them to places where they are comfortable and surrounded by pretty things.”

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Contributing to the aesthetic are features not commonly seen in a pet business. In the bathing area, marble tile surrounds two sleek white tubs, with an elegant chandelier hanging in between. Leopard-print wallpaper covers the grooming room walls, and gilded vanities provide storage. Porcelain tile floors that resemble wooden planks run throughout the salon. Orchid plants and small decor items complete the look.

In the lobby, faux boxwood frames a large bookcase that holds dog books, figurines and home accessories. Business licenses and other information display as if they are treasured mementos. A teal vintage settee sits in front, atop a patterned area rug.

The fireplace with a menu of services framed above anchors another wall, with an adjacent gallery wall looking straight out of Pinterest. Fresh flowers add additional pops of color, as do the rich pink shelves that hold a small selection of grooming products and treats.

Building the Brand

The interior design serves an additional purpose for Reese.

“Every wall is set up for pet photos that can be used for advertising and social media, and also sent as personal photos to clients,” she says.

A closer look at the mirror above the lobby’s pink settee reveals #strikeapose and the Barker Lane Facebook and Instagram handles.

“People are obsessed. We even have some who come in without a dog to take pictures.”

Reese also holds special client events such as wine tastings and tours, plus casting auditions for their dogs with a local talent agency.

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“It really makes for a fun, interactive and trust-invoking relationship. The ability to make both pet and pet parent comfortable opens up so many doors to solid friendships, referrals, true loyalty and overall good vibes.”

She looks back on the past 12 years, the previous two in particular, with pride.

“The remodel was the best thing I have ever done. Our business has skyrocketed. We currently have an estimated 320 percentage growth for 2019.

“I never stopped believing in this journey of mine. My journey became a passion, it became an experience of personal growth, and a true commitment.”

And an amazing pet business.

Judges’ Comments

Beth Miller: The exterior aligns with their merchandising style and gives a sneak peek to passersby.

Jane Harrell: Their use of classy, feminine decor, combined with a glam/Hollywood aesthetic makes them instantly recognizable and alluring without having to stick their logo on everything.

Beke Lubeach: I love the consistency of high-end design with high-end services.

Leel Michelle: I love the clean and glamorous look of this store! There are so many individual, creative, unique and beautiful touches!

Kristen Levine: Spectacular design inside and out. Branding is fantastic and their passion for dogs shows in the environment they’ve created to care for them.

 

PHOTO GALLERY (5 IMAGES)
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5 Cool Things About Barker’s Lane

1 STOREFRONT APPEAL. The location — inside a shopping center, not visible from the road — leaves a lot to be desired. Reese more than makes up for it with window decals. Brown “curtains” with pink trim frame the salon logo and view into her lobby. Furniture for people and pets, plus a cocktail cart, move into the breezeway for special events.

2 SUPER WOMAN. Two years ago, Reese decided to be the sole groomer at Barker’s Lane. Her staff consists of two assistants who bathe, dry and otherwise handle dogs, but she does the 10 to 15 cuts scheduled per day.

3 TEXT ME. Reese moved from a landline to a salon cell phone. Clients message her appointment requests, photos of desired cuts and cute notes about their pets. “It works so much better. I can keep it as a log and go back at the end of the day to fill in my book, and it creates a family-type atmosphere.”

4 WAIT, WHAT? On the menu of services is a “Doggy Brazilian.” You guessed it, the private parts get trimmed.

5 VERY IMPORTANT PUPS. Only grooming clients can board overnight in one of the glamorous private suites at Barker’s Lane. “This allows us to keep it fun and exclusive to our clients,” Reese says. “It’s more of a V.I.P. feel.”

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