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Houston Entrepreneur’s Raw Ambition Takes Her to Top of Her Market

A specialty niche is born out of a passion for a product. 

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Tracey Rentcome knows raw food. She can talk at length about its physical and mental health benefits for pets. Her own animals eat a raw diet. This passion and expertise have helped make her store, Bones2Go, the largest supplier of raw pet food in Houston, TX.

THE IDEA Believe In, Specialize In

Rentcome grew up in the U.K., but moved to the U.S. in 1987. Feeding pets a raw-based diet was common in her home country. Here, she found formulated dry food to be the norm.

“Better feeding through science was the idea,” Rentcome says. “So I gave my dogs kibble.”

It wasn’t long before she questioned its quality, though, as her pups were not thriving on the dry products available at that time.

In 1998, Rentcome switched to homemade food with human-grade ingredients and saw health improvements, but it wasn’t until 1999, when reading Ian Billinghurst’s Give Your Dog a Bone: The Practical Commonsense Way to Feed Dogs for a Long Healthy Life, that she found the optimal diet for her pets.

“I switched to raw and never looked back.”

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When a prepared product became available in the Houston area, she began feeding it to her dogs and eventually selling it to others. Raw-food specialty store Bones2Go opened in 2003.

“I wanted to educate others about raw food and see it become mainstream.”

THE EXECUTION Start Small, Go Big

The first Bones2Go store measured 1,500 square feet and had 12 freezers. Rentcome acted as a mentor to customers. She took the time to educate and support newcomers to feeding raw, even making herself available by phone when the store was closed.

“My goal was to treat every customer how I would want to be treated. I was welcoming and empathetic,” Rentcome says. “I never wanted anyone to feel like they were asking a stupid question.”

Word began to spread about the raw diet for dogs and Bones2Go. So much so that a line to get in often formed outside the store. She added new categories of raw products, such as air-dried and dehydrated, and started looking for a larger retail space.

THE RESULTS Happy Customers, Happy Team

In 2008, Bones2Go moved to a new location with 3,000 square feet, 23 freezers and seven full-time employees. The store went from selling 2,000 pounds of raw food a month in 2002 to 20,000 pounds in 2017.

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Rentcome doesn’t view her success in terms of increased profits, though.

“I look at what I can put back into the store, and how happy we are. So being larger has allowed me to take better care of my employees and my customers.”

PHOTO GALLERY (6 IMAGES)

Do It Yourself: Find Your Own Specialty

  • Find a personal passion you can build a business around.
  • Start small when specializing, learning and growing at the same rate.
  • Walk the walk to talk the talk — Rentcome has seven dogs and four cats, and they all eat raw.
  • Provide support. Rentcome says that many relationships have come from helping customers transition to raw.
  • Don’t carry products you don’t believe in.

 

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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This Store Gladly Accepts Wooden Nickels

Bucking the idiom, this store gladly takes wooden nickels.

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WOODEN NICKELS DATE back to at least the 1930s. Local banks used them during shortages of national currency. The Chicago World’s Fair introduced wooden nickels as souvenirs. And merchants have given them as tokens redeemable for specific products or cash value for merchandise. Lindsay and John Webb do the latter at Just for Paws, their grooming salon and boutique in St. Charles, IL.

THE IDEA

Create a better “coupon.” Lindsay says, “We wanted to give our customers a value, but we didn’t want to give it as a coupon that would be underused.”

They hit upon the idea of a wooden nickel with a $5 cash value for merchandise, no minimum purchase required. It appealed to the business owners on multiple levels.

“There’s the nostalgia factor, which goes along with our vibe,” she says of the boutique and salon’s rustic design and old-fashioned approach to customer service. “We felt that tapping into that nostalgia, creating an emotional connection, would get the customer excited to use the nickel.”

Lindsay and John thought the tokens would resonate with their customer base, those in their 40s and 50s who may remember when their use was more common, but also interest millennials who have never seen them before.

And they counted on eco-conscious shoppers of all ages to appreciate their reusability, which also provides savings to Just for Paws.

THE EXECUTION

Order online, mail to customers. The owners used NationalPen.com to print their logo on the front and “Same as Cash $5 Coin” on back. They ordered 500 wooden nickels in January at 20 cents each and began sending them to first-time grooming clients with a handwritten note. Lindsay also keeps a few on her.

“For when I’m out and about and meet a potential client,” she explains, adding that the token’s weight and shape makes much more of an impact than a business card with coupon.

Just for Paws has given out 125 wooden nickels in the grooming salon, and another 25 through various promotions. The cash value approach allows them to be used for anything, from pushing sales of a particular food to meeting a sales quota.

“Super-simple, creative and effective,” Lindsay says of the tokens, which employees track redemption of through 123Pet Software.

THE RESULTS

40 percent redemption rate. John reports that 60 wooden nickels were redeemed in the first three months.

“We don’t track them by specific promotion, but we can see when they are being used per transaction. So far, every sale has exceeded the $5 token amount. We have not had anyone use the $5 token without spending additional money in our boutique,” he says. “The sales in our boutique continue to climb month after month.”

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Support Group Helps Those Who Have Lost a Pet, Builds Goodwill Among Customers

Pet owner wanted to empathize with others when she grieved the loss of her own pet.

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ON THE THIRD THURSDAY night of each month, customers gather at The Natural Pet Enrichment Center to find and offer support for the loss of a beloved dog or cat. Upwards of 20 people attend the Pet Bereavement Meeting, hosted by owner Christine McCoy and facilitator Margaret Coats.

THE IDEA

Help and connect customers. When McCoy lost her heart dog to cancer in 2015, the grief was overwhelming. “When Bing passed, I was devastated.”

She knew not everyone could provide the support needed. “It’s hard for some people to understand. When you lose a human family member, they get that you have to go through the grieving process. But pets are family members, too. To many of us, they are children.”

McCoy turned to longtime customer Coats, a bereavement facilitator who works for a grief center and who previously facilitated a pet loss group at an animal hospital. Their talks led to the idea of hosting a free monthly meeting at the store for those in the same situation.

THE EXECUTION

Appoint a facilitator and promote wide. Coats stresses the importance of a facilitator, whether a professional like her or a layperson. “Without structure and someone to guide discussion, pet parents tend to rehash and not move through the pain to heal.”

Each meeting takes place at 7 p.m., closing time, in the store’s education area. Coats gives new participants a folder of educational materials and invites them to share their stories. Regulars can as well and do, especially around the anniversary of their pet’s passing.

She then introduces a topic for discussion, such as the individuality of grief. “Many people have expectations of what grief should look like and how they should cope, but that’s not how it works. Everyone has their own way of grieving, and it’s important not to compare. I tell them to move at their own pace and let the relationship with their pet define how they grieve.”

The meeting ends at 8:30 p.m., but McCoy says she often finds Coats talking outside with someone having a particularly tough time. Participants include not only customers but also newcomers who saw the event listing on Facebook or picked up a flyer at the nearby animal hospital.

THE RESULTS

Value the positive word of mouth. The Natural Pet Enrichment Center carries a variety of memorial products. McCoy doesn’t promote them during the meetings, nor does she track their sales on those nights. “I see this as another service we offer our customers. We want them to know we support them all the way through, from puppyhood to passing. That spreads a lot of goodwill and contributes to our strong word of mouth.”

Do It Yourself: 5 Steps to a Pet Bereavement Group

  • CONSIDER HIRING A PRO. Reach out to area grief centers to find a facilitator trained in pet bereavement. Coats charges $75 per meeting.
  • REACH OUT TO OTHER PET BUSINESSES. Ask vet practices and pet sitters to help promote the meetings. Make it worth their while through referrals or other means.
  • CREATE A COMFORTABLE SPACE. If you don’t have the square footage, consider hosting the meetings off-site.
  • MEMORIALIZE YOUR PETS. Include in the meeting area photos of store pets who have passed. Invite participants to bring pics of their own.
  • CONTINUE THE DISCUSSION ON FACEBOOK. In addition to posting the meetings on your store’s page, create a group where participants can support each other throughout the month.

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Create Connections: A Dog Festival Attracts Crowds of Thousands

Make use of a dog fest to get to know your local pet store and service providers.

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PATTIE BODEN HELD the first DogFest in 2013. The owner of Animal Connection in Charlottesville, VA, set up shop along with 12 rescue groups, veterinarians and trainers at a local dog park. More than 500 attendees played games with their pups and got to know their local pet store and service providers. By 2018, 45 vendors and more than 3,500 pet parents took part in the fun.

(Left) Pattie Boden

THE IDEA

Help Pet Parents Find Resources in Charlottesville

Boden says, “The community grew so quickly. We needed an event to introduce our business to new people moving in and to those who had been here for years but hadn’t gotten to know us.”

She sees DogFest as an extension of her customer service.

“I’ve always wanted my store to be the place where people could find out about dog trainers or holistic vets or animal communicators or other resources. That’s why I called it Animal Connection in the first place.”

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THE EXECUTION

Make a List, Then Mix It Up

In 2013, Boden began the planning process by inviting businesses and groups that complemented her store. In 2018, she even asked two friendly competitors to participate.

“We’re all a part of the holistic pet community,”she says. “We all compete with big-box and online stores. It’s good for us to join forces, to encourage people to shop local.”

Once vendors are set, Boden creates the festival layout. She starts with a Welcome Center at the entrance, where attendees can pick up a map and register for the popular costume contest. Next-door sit four Animal Connection booths, complete with an 18-foot sample bar that offers food, treats and more. Last year, reps from The Honest Kitchen, Primal, Whitebridge Pet Brands and Pet Food Experts also were on hand to answer questions.

She then alternates business and rescue group booths, creating a varied flow and helping to keep the adoptable dogs as calm as possible. Vendors pay a fee to help cover expenses, even the rescues at a reduced rate to ensure they show. Further incentive: A videographer interviews groups and produces a 60-second spot they can use for promotional purposes.

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Humans can dine at food trucks on-site and swing by Three Notch’d Brewery, located adjacent to the park, for a Big Dawg Blonde Ale brewed especially for the fest. In 2018, she also added a live band.

These pups and their tiki bar won top prize in the DogFest costume contest: a $500 gift card for Animal Connection.

THE RESULTS

Boost Awareness, Raise Funds

Boden says DogFest brings Animal Connection increased attention and sales.

“A lot of people who attended didn’t know about our store or were new to the area. Or they knew us as a store, but didn’t know about our services,” she says. “I don’t have exact numbers, but I have noticed far more new customers coming into our store.”

The fundraising aspect also helps Charlottesville’s pet community as a whole. Rescue groups held individual raffles at their booths, and for every pint of Big Dawg Ale served, the brewery donates $1 to Charlottesville Albemarle SPCA — it raised $2,000 in 2018.

Do It Yourself: 5 Steps to a Dog Fest

  • START SMALL. Throw a mini-fest in your parking lot or a nearby dog park as a test run to gauge interest. Have a rain plan!
  • PARTNER WITH MANUFACTURERS. Dozens of product companies provide samples for DogFest, and some plan to have their own booths in 2019.
  • PAY FOR SOCIAL MEDIA. Boden hires an agency to boost visibility for the fest and increase attendance.
  • HAVE MORE THAN ENOUGH HELP. Not only are Animal Connection employees scheduled to work, but friends and family get in on the fun. Outfit everyone in store shirts.
  • DRIVE POTENTIAL CUSTOMERS TO YOUR WEBSITE. Boden hires an event photo booth company. Attendees must go to animalconnectionva.com to see and download their pics.

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