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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.

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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

Meet the Judges of the PETS+ America’s Coolest Stores Contest

Full contest results will be announced July 29.

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Jane Harrell is president of ‘cause Digital Marketing and co-owner of Working With Dog, and has spent the last 16 years working with pet businesses to find simple, scalable marketing solutions that work so they can focus on what matters most — helping pets and the people who care about them. causedigitalmarketing.com

 

Kristen Levine is regarded as one of the foremost pet marketing experts in the U.S. with more than 25 years of experience. She’s developed a Pet Credible Influencer Program for brands and is president at FWV Fetching, an integrated marketing firm that services pet-focused companies, veterinary businesses and consumer brands. She lives on a small farm with miniature donkeys Izzy and Willow and her rescue dog and cat, Chilly and Olivia. Contact her at: klevine@fwv-us.com.

Beke LUBEACH serves as general manager for DOGTV, the first channel designed to relax and entertain dogs. Prior to that, Lubeach worked on sales and marketing strategy with small- to mid-size businesses in the pet space as the principal for Dog Bone Marketing Solutions. She has worked to develop consumer sales promotions with Malone Advertising, agency of record for Kimberly Clark products, and spent 20 years in professional sports and media. Lubeach held positions with Super Bowl Host Committees XXXII and XXXIV, Anaheim Angels Baseball and Ducks Hockey, along with eight years at Cox Communications and the San Diego Padres Baseball broadcast. Her focus is in developing strategic partnerships with businesses, both in and out of the pet industry. She has a rescue dog, Payton and always in her heart, Jake, the dog that brought her into the pet space.

Leel Michelle is the founder of Bow Wow Beauty Shoppe in San Diego, CA, which took top honors in the 2018 America’s Coolest Stores Contest. Following a career in corporate retail management and corporate amusement park management, Michelle was inspired by her own pets to create brands that utilized her skills, creativity and passion to build memorable businesses. Follow her at “The Art of Pet Retailing for Groomers” and Facebook group “Pet Boutiques.”

Beth Miller is founder of Wagtown, a national nonprofit organization that helps communities become more authentically and responsibly dog-friendly. Her background of 30-plus years of brand management, advertising, merchandising, point-of-sale, and growth and retention strategies gives her a keen eye for success in the pet space. wagtown.org

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America's Coolest

 The Green K9: A Recessionary Tale That Ended in Success

Success ultimately came to The Green K9 after a rocky start.

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The Green K9, Mount Dora, FL

OWNERS: Marni and Paul Lewis; URL:thegreenk9.com ; FOUNDED: 2010; OPENED FEATURE STORE: 2012; EMPLOYEES: 13 full-time, 3 part-time ; AREA: 7,200 square feet; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/thegreenk9; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/thegreenk9


In 2008, MARNI AND Paul Lewis sold their pet resort in Davie, FL. It was the first facility of its kind in the region and was highly successful.

The couple moved north to Mount Dora, where they planned to build another pet resort on 9 acres of land they had purchased. The project was well under way when the Great Recession hit.

“After we had spent all of our money, the bank cancelled a week before closing,” Marni says of their construction loan. “It was either file for bankruptcy or make it work.”

Restart Small, Expand with Demand

Paul and Marni Lewis tackle product ordering together, but most days customers will find him on the sales floor consulting on food and her in back as a groomer. She also handles merchandising.

Two years later, they opened a 1,200-square-foot store and day care instead, in nearby Tavares, where rents were lower. The Green K9 initially focused on healthy products, bathing and play.

“There was no doggie day care in the area. People didn’t even know what that was. We had to sell it from the ground up again. We had to introduce them to organic and eco-friendly pet products,” Marni says. “We started small to see if people would come, and they did. Once we got up to 26 day care dogs, I said, ‘I can’t do it anymore here.’”

In 2012, with funding from a customer-turned-investor, the couple moved their business to its originally intended location in Mount Dora. They hired their first employees and added grooming and overnight boarding.

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The 7,200-square-foot building features retail and reception up front. Green touches run through its interior design — bamboo lines the reception desk, with an aluminum sign displaying the store logo of a dog jumping over the Earth. Displays use fixtures made from recycled materials. Light blue and tan cover the walls, where large photos of dogs hang.

Products carried, such as West Paw, Aussie Naturals and BecoPets, prove healthy for the planet and pets alike. The grooming department uses and sells Nootie, EarthBath and NaturVet. Marni and Paul look for lines made in the U.S.A., but will go global for certain manufacturers.

“I like finding handmade, fair-trade products,” she says, adding that offering unique products also helps them compete. “We have to be different to stay a step ahead of the online retailers and big chains.”

All-Inclusive Rates, Personal Touches

The couple’s approach to day care and boarding also gives The Green K9 a competitive edge. While some services are considered add-ons, their rates include hourly relief during the day and group play. Yards behind the building, previously an appliance store, have puppy pools, climbing structures and grassy, sandy soil that means no muddy paws. Overnight guests who do not play well with others get the same number of outings, just one-on-one with a staff member.

Dogs get grouped by size, age and energy level, and because of the facility’s design and square footage, extra-small, small, high-energy medium, low-energy large and high-energy large get their own spaces. Extra-small pups even get to hang out in the staff kitchen.

Adding to the overall warmth are waterproof vinyl floors that look like wood and that have a softer feel than the concrete found in the retail area.

“It’s comfortable on their elbows when they lay on it,” Marni says.

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The Green K9’s spacious 35 boarding suites also feature the flooring, which makes cleanup easy as it’s nonporous. Staff disinfect each suite daily, providing a freshly washed blanket for each Kuranda bed. Glass fronts keep dogs from feeling isolated.

Train & Retain Staff

While Paul served in the U.S. Army and worked for the U.S. Postal Service prior to joining the pet industry, Marni has been a part of it most of her life. At 5 years old, she was competing as a junior handler, showing the German Shepherd Dogs her mother bred and trained. The family also owned a boarding kennel in Maryland.

Marni drew from her vast experience when putting together hiring and training practices for The Green K9. Each applicant gets a paid working interview, during which they do what they would on the job. A leader guides and supervises the candidate, and then the entire team discusses their performance.

“Staff determines who we should hire,” she says. “They ask, ‘Did they take direction well? Or did they have a poor attitude?’ They choose their co-workers, which leads to an invested, cohesive group.”

It also results in high retention of employees, which can be a challenge when hiring from the Millennial workforce. Comprehensive training and ongoing development helps as well.

“All of my leaders have been personally trained by me. People learn so much better with an experienced coach by their side.”

PHOTO GALLERY (7 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About The Green K9

1. LOYAL CUSTOMERS: Ellie the Poodle has such a good time at The Green K9 that her owner, Seth Ellis, became an investor. He covered 100 percent of buildout costs for the current location. And Charlie the Goldendoodle’s owner gifted $10,000 for product purchases.

2. ECO-FRIENDLINESS: The Green K9’s business vehicle is a wrapped Nissan Leaf. Shoppers can choose between biodegradable bags made of cornstarch or reusable ones.

3. HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Staff love to help dogs celebrate their birthdays. The $50 party package includes five or more hours of day care, a K9 Granola Factory cake, treats, party hats and bandanas for the special guest and their play pals. Staff takes photos to send home.

4. CC (CUTE CANINE) TV: Owners can watch their pups via webcams in the play areas. Marni says, “They keep them up on their computers all day. When they don’t see their dog for a while, they call us. We let them know that they’re getting their bath or are in a timeout.” Timeouts happen when a dog acts up and clearly needs to rest. “They usually laugh when they hear the reason.”

5. FOSTER DOGS: One boarding suite is dedicated to fostering. Fifteen dogs have been placed so far, including one of a customer who died of cancer. All have gone to customers, who get free day care and bathing services for the dog’s lifetime.

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America's Coolest

Former Day Care Owners’ Foray Into Boutique Nets Steadily Increasing Sales

Former day care owners’ foray into boutique nets steadily increasing sales.

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Notorious D.O.G., Clarence, NY

OWNERS: Laura LaCongo and Jessica Mbgua; URL:notorious.dog; FOUNDED: 2015; OPENED FEATURE STORE: 2016; EMPLOYEES: 2 part-time ; AREA: 3,200 square feet; FACEBOOK: NOTORIOUSpetproducts; INSTAGRAM: notorious.dog


LAURA LACONGO AND JESSICA Mbgua are all about freshness now. The business partners had owned a doggie overnight and day care, complete with grooming salon, for 17 years when they decided it was time for a new venture.

“We had another niche and vision in mind,” LaCongo says, “so we sold the business and opened Notorious D.O.G. in 2016.”

The Clarence, NY, store offers high-quality products for pets and their people. Thanks to an emphasis on fresh, from marketing and merchandising to food and toys, sales have increased 30-plus percent year over year.

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New Branding & Marketing

LaCongo and Mbgua wanted their new store’s name to represent their commitment to pets and grab people’s attention. The play on one of rapper Christopher Wallace’s stage names, The Notorious B.I.G., does both.

“Biggie was strong and powerful,” LaCongo explains, adding that the memorable name and its logo featuring a spiked collar makes a fresh appeal to the pet parent customer base.

“We don’t limit ourselves to the usual range of 20- to 65-year-old females. They still make up the majority of our buyers, but men also come in and enjoy shopping. They really love our logo. Its branding power expands our sales into another area.”

The owners also update the store’s exterior monthly — four 4-by-5-foot posters introduce new products — to draw in passersby. Monthly mailers convey the information and coupons to members of The Notorious V.I.P. rewards program.

Fresh Displays & Products

The store’s design veers toward modern, with gray hardwood floors and metal fixtures with clean lines. Walls are white with products and displays providing the pops of color.

“I’m constantly changing the appearance, making it a fun and exciting shopping experience,” LaCongo says.

Many of the fixtures have wheels to move easily based on strength of sales or lack thereof. A recent setup used venison as its uniting theme and featured a metal deer’s head with food and treats from Ziwi, Primal, Stella & Chewy’s, Orijen and others. Camo collars and harnesses, plus stuffed woodland creatures from the likes of Fluff & Tuff completed the look. The store’s back office stays crammed with props year-round.

“I add the wow factor, what will make a customer pick up a bag of food or a toy.”

LaCongo says Fluff & Tuff and West Paw are the only toy companies always carried in the store. For other toy inventory, she looks to new products.

“Regulars are never going to see the same old toy in the same old section.”

All products must meet certain criteria: “When we buy, we research who, where and why, what problem a product solves. Every product has to have a reason for it. We like companies like Wondercide. Their products have a purpose and make a difference.”

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Frozen & Fresh as the Future

Notorious D.O.G. currently has four freezers, with plans to add several more in the near future. Primal, Northwest Naturals, Answers and Stella & Chewy’s are the frozen brands carried, in addition to freeze-dried offerings.

“Frozen is the one protection brick-and-mortar stores have against online, the one product we have that customers can’t get anywhere else,” LaCongo says.

Fresh products from local companies Fetch Gourmet Dog Treats and Nuggets Healthy Eats also are found in this area. Food makes up 50 percent of overall sales, with fresh and frozen bringing in 15 percent of that.

PHOTO GALLERY (9 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Notorious D.O.G.

1. EXPERT ADVICE: Laura LaCongo and Jessica Mbgua retain their certification as veterinary technicians. It helps them advise on issues ranging from diet to skincare.

2. INSTA-FUNNY: Notorious D.O.G.’s Instagram account shows off happy canine customers and new and featured products with a sense of humor. Staffers climb into crates to show their roominess. Visiting pups crunch down on identifiable body parts. Special effects on videos add to the fun.

3. BEFORE AND AFTER: The store looks nothing like the insurance agency it once was, thankfully. A renovation’s result: a striking exterior with cool lighted Notorious D.O.G. sign and a sleek modern interior.

4. BETTER BIZ CARDS: The business cards LaCongo, Mbgua and their employees carry are not only friendly but offer savings. The front says “Nice to meet you,” and the back has a coupon redeemable for $5 off anything in the store.

5. ROCK-STAR STATUS: Members of the rewards program earn $10 for every $250 spent, and get a $5 store coupon for their pet’s birthday and access to special sales. The top 25 customers also become Notorious D.O.G. Rock Stars, which rewards them with a $25 gift card, plus a $5 gift card for a friend.

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