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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.”

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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.

Best of the Best

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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Best of the Best

Tiny Bubbles: This Spa Brings In $1,000 a Month Extra with Micro Bubble Treatments

Provide relief, reduce costs and boost sales.

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BUBBLE BATHS PAMPER and relax. Microbubble baths do, too, but they also deep clean and help to treat a variety of skin problems in pets.

Danielle Wilson of Bath & Biscuits in Granville, OH, has been providing this type of hydrotherapy for more than three years.

THE IDEA

Provide relief, reduce costs and boost sales

Wilson learned of microbubble bathing systems at a pet industry trade show. Originating in Japan, they use bubbles greater than 2 and less than 25 micrometers to penetrate hair follicles and skin pores. These teeny tiny bubbles attract and bond with dirt as well as with bacteria, yeast and allergens, and lift them to the water’s surface. Oxygen from burst microbubbles also boosts skin metabolism and promotes healing.

“I really liked the idea,” she says. “I was a vet tech for many years and had seen never-ending battles with skin problems.”

Using microbubbles during a groom also reduces the amount of water, shampoo and conditioner needed. All this, combined with her ability to offer 15-minute treatments as an add-on, convinced Wilson to buy a system.

THE EXECUTION

Pick, promote & treat

Wilson researched manufacturers from around the world before choosing NatureBless in Singapore. Her first microbubble bathing system cost just $350, but a year later she upgraded to a $1,100 model. Its bubble-generating unit sits on the floor, connected to two nozzled hoses: One draws in water from a filled grooming tub, and the other returns microbubbly water to the tub. The second hose can also be used to apply bubbles to body areas not submerged.

“The microbubbles make the water this milky color, from the churning action. I tell customers that they’re scrubbing bubbles,” Wilson explains, adding that while effective, they are gentle on skin.

In addition to promoting the treatment for skin problems, she also recommends it for senior dogs.

“The bursting bubbles create heat, which helps with sore muscles and arthritis.”

And for those who encounter a skunk: “It has been tremendous for de-skunking dogs. It gets down in hair shafts and pores, helping us get rid of the smell so much quicker.”

THE RESULTS

Healthier dogs & higher revenue

Wilson points to late Sweetpea the Bulldog as one of her microbubble bathing successes. After years of struggling with skin allergies, the pup came in for a treatment and saw immediate relief.

“Sweetpea was such a happier dog, not having to stop every 2 feet to scratch,” she says. “It was devastating to lose her, but really cool to know that for the last year and a half of her life, she wasn’t miserable and itching.”

Wilson charges $10 to $15, depending on size of dog, for a microbubble bath. (She has yet to try it on cats.) Treatments bring in $1,000 in extra revenue a month, plus provide savings on utilities and bathing supplies.

Do It Yourself: Start Your Own Bubble Treatments

  • Choose the right microbubble bathing system for your business. They can range greatly in cost, to upwards of $10,000.
  • Start by offering the treatment for free. Wilson benefited from positive word of mouth when she did.
  • Promote regular and seasonal benefits, from skin problems to allergies to skunkings.
  • Sell local veterinarians benefits on the treatment. Wilson has one in particular who regularly sends her clients.
  • Promote on social media with cute videos. See instagram.com/bathnbiscuits for Sweetpea bubbling in a tub.

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Early Adopters: Kids’ Education Programs Drive Parents to Buy

Started with that one lucky python.

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ROBERT H. SMITH ACHIEVED cool dad status in 1996, when he brought an 11-foot Burmese python to his son’s school for show-and-tell. They were a hit! Several parents even asked Smith for his contact info, with the hope of hiring him for birthday parties and other events.

“I was just one of the dads at the time,” he says, “but I thought, ‘Maybe I have something here.’”

Smith did, and he has since put on 1,000-plus educational programs, first as an enthusiast and breeder, then from 2008 as owner of Jungle Bob’s Reptile World.

THE IDEATurn kids on to reptiles — and into customers. With his presentations, Smith has always aimed to clear up any misconceptions young attendees have and ease their fears.

“There is a need for people to better understand these animals,” he says of the not-slimy-at-all snakes, lizards and turtles he keeps as pets and sells at his store.

Smith now splits program duties with staff, and in recent years he has seen the importance of not just bringing showstoppers like the python and his now-famous Cuban rock iguana, Castro.

“We also introduce them to reptiles they can actually own. Like a bearded dragon, which doesn’t get too big and is naturally calm, or a corn snake, which makes a fantastic pet.”

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THE EXECUTIONCustomize and plan. Requests go to Jungle Bob Education Director Susi Resner, who helps to customize a presentation for the setting and audience. She then confirms that necessary licenses, permits and insurance are valid to transport and show the animals.

“Liability insurance covers us if someone gets injured,” Smith explains. “In all of these years, we’ve never needed it. We have had a few defecations gone wrong, though.”

Resner also outlines where to park and check in once at the location, important information when visiting schools in particular. Presenters have guidelines they follow, as well, to balance education and entertainment with safety.

THE REWARDSAdditional income, free advertising. Smith and staff put on around 100 programs a year, with rates varying from $300 for 45 minutes at a local birthday party to $1,000 for an entire day that also delves into geography and natural history.

After 20-plus years, word of mouth has long ago replaced the need to advertise Jungle Bob presentations. And the presentations themselves serve as free advertising for the store. Many an attendee has visited after with their parents in tow.

“We did a birthday party last month,” Smith says, “and then one of the families came in for a $500 bearded dragon setup.”

Do It Yourself: Develop 
Your Own 
Education Programs

  • OBTAIN any necessary licenses, permits and insurance.
  • CREATE a plan for presenters. Outline every step to ensure all goes smoothly.
  • DECIDE which animals will present best. Don’t sell reptiles, birds, hamsters or the like? Perhaps your store dog or cat could star in a presentation about pet care.
  • TAKE OUT ads in local newspapers and magazines, especially any for kids and families. Tout on social media.
  • HAND OUT cards with your store information and an incentive to shop, and have stickers on hand — kids love stickers.

 

PHOTO GALLERY (7 IMAGES)

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