Paws on Chicon, Austin, TX
OWNER: Keith Zeiler; URL: pawsonchicon.com; FOUNDED: 2018; EMPLOYEES: 3 full-time, 2 part-time; AREA: 1,650 square feet; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/pawsonchicon; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/pawsonchicon
ASK JUST ABOUT any pet parent in East Austin if they’ve been to Paws on Chicon, and the answer will be an enthusiastic “Yes!” Praise will likely follow for the staff’s nutrition expertise or the easy-to-use dog wash complete with complimentary beverage. And many will say they stop in on most weekends for a doggy fro-yo fresh from the machine or never miss the store’s annual Dog & Cat Drag Show, which brings together dozens of local businesses and benefits LGBTQ charities.
“Our most powerful marketing is referrals from our customers. I haven’t spent any money on advertising. It’s all been word of mouth and social media,” owner Keith Zeiler says. “Paws on Chicon isn’t just a business for me — it’s a passion. Our customers understand this and show so much love and support.”
Bolstered by purposeful marketing efforts, that organic buzz has allowed the store to expand from 600 to 1,650 square feet and open a second location in South Austin, with plans for a third in 2023.
Zeiler and husband Tim Andrews were successful real estate agents in Seattle, WA, before moving to the Texas capital in 2013 for a change in scenery. It didn’t take long to find a holistic veterinarian for their Shiba Inus, Kylie and Kona, in a city known for healthy living. (Whole Foods Market began in Austin, after all.) The vet successfully solved Kona’s many health problems through diet and supplements, and served as inspiration.
“I knew my mission! To open a pet-related business so I could help others struggling with issues like his,” Zeiler says.
The couple purchased a retail condo in 2016 on Chicon Street, just three blocks from their home, and Zeiler opened the store in 2018. He became a Pet Food Nutrition Specialist through Dogs Naturally and learned how to properly assess products. Earth Animal, Stella & Chewy’s, Fromm, Nulo, Zignature and Primal are among his favorites.
“I wanted to have food options for every type of customer, with what I felt was the best nutrition for each price range,” Zeiler says. Based on his in-depth research and that of senior manager Lauren S., who also completed the Dogs Naturally program, staff provide information and make recommendations so that, as they tell customers, ‘You can make the best decisions for your dogs and cats because they are your pets.’ We pride ourselves on this.”
And those they help appreciate the low-pressure guidance. Many of the online reviews for Paws on Chicon — more than 400 across Yelp, Google and Facebook, for a 5-star average — mention nutrition advice. They also point out the store’s attractive aesthetic, which suits its setting.
“It’s very Austin-like, industrial rustic with neon signs and light wood tones. I chose orange because orange is very Austin, but not a darker orange because I would have gotten in trouble,” Zeiler says, referring to the University of Texas habit of being protective of its school colors. “It’s more of an orange for our Shiba Inus,” also in the store logo, “and the blue complements it well.”
Fluff & Tuff, West Paw and Chuckit! are among some of the store’s top toy brands.
Another customer experience contributing to strong word of mouth, both with pet parents and other pet retailers: the Paws on Chicon frozen-yogurt machine. Zeiler purchased a previously owned unit and spent considerable time and money to create a healthy recipe that not only pleases dogs and cats, but also works with the machine.
When other stores reach out for direction on doing the same, he declines to share his step-by-step process but does caution them about the challenges and explain that, “It’s not about making fro-yo, as you can buy it from your distributors, but about how you market it. Find something that sets you apart and focus on that.”
The fresh fro-yo has helped Paws on Chicon stand out and become a weekend destination, with more than 1,250 servings every month selling at $3.99 each, with a high profit margin. Primal provides the main ingredient, its goat milk, at 50 percent off wholesale as the fro-yo promotes sales of bottles and its other toppers.
“We tell customers, ‘You may not be able to come in every week for a doggy fro-yo, but you can put the goat’s milk on their food anytime at home.”
Distributors see the benefit of being associated with the fro-yo, too, filling the toppings bar with freeze-dried treat samples. Each topping adds 49 cents to the price.
Zeiler also appreciates that pet parents love to take pictures of their pups as they lick and offers them a chance to win a free year’s worth of doggy fro-yo by posting on Facebook or Instagram with #pawsonchiconfroyo. The cost of these prizes proves well worth the free marketing.
Hagrid and owner Ashley Herron turn out for the store’s drag show, hosted by Ms. Vylett Ward.
One reason the couple moved across the country was to find their community.
“We didn’t have one in Seattle,” Zeiler explains. “We do in Austin, and it makes me feel good.”
They have put down roots in myriad ways, many through Paws on Chicon. The store provides pet adoption kits to local animal shelters and regularly donates prizes for rescue fundraisers.
“As a small business owner, it’s also fundamental to support other locally owned small businesses.”
Zeiler stocks beverages from Austin Eastciders, Last Stand Brewery, Hi Sign, Richards Rainwater, Poppi and Waterloo for dog wash customers. He puts together welcome pet packages for apartment complexes with on-site dog parks, where a store banner hangs in exchange. Paws on Chicon partners with more than 50 local businesses with its annual Dog & Cat Drag Show, which in addition to being a good time raises money for Out Youth and other LGBTQ organizations.
“That’s what really makes us stand out, what we do with the community,” Zeiler says.
All of these efforts contribute to the store’s strong organic buzz, as did support it provided during the early days of the pandemic.
“We established a pet food donation program and were able to donate thousands of dollars worth of food and supplies to rescues such as Classic Canines. We also opened a food pantry for humans, where those with the means to donate could leave items in the pantry for those who needed food assistance.”
Zeiler and his team stepped up again in February of 2021, when Texas experienced extended below-freezing temperatures and a failing power grid.
“We had no electricity for seven days. I was in there with a flashlight, writing down credit card numbers so people could get food for their pets.”
Those customers showed their gratitude by nominating the store to receive $10,000 from Yelp’s “Deck the Halls” fund, created to help small businesses in Austin and San Antonio cover costs of improvements needed to prepare for future severe weather.
The social media platform named Paws on Chicon one of 10 recipients.
Zeiler says, “We’re getting generators for our stores and taking the rest of the money and giving it to our staff.”
Five Cool Things About Paws on Chicon
1. SHOW OF GRATITUDE: Paws on Chicon gets 20 or so new customers a day across both locations and its website. Those who join the store’s loyalty program receive a handwritten thank you note via USPS, with a token for a free doggy fro-yo. Zeiler says, “This will never change, no matter how many stores we open. A cornerstone of building trust and rapport with our customers is the personal relationship we establish with them, and it starts with that note, right from the beginning.
We want our customers to know how important they are to us and how important supporting local businesses is to our community.” Staff have sent more than 5,000 to date.
2. STRIKE A POSE: Customers can’t resist the selfie station in front of Paws on Chicon. Zeiler updates it every quarter and says it greatly fuels the store’s social media. “In just one day, 10 people will take a picture and share it. That’s 10 posts a day about us, with our logo.”
3. ACT IT OUT: Staff take part in daily role-playing exercises. Zeiler says, “They learn different ways to handle situations or answer questions, or if someone had a problem the day before, we role-play it to see how we could handle it better. We also role-play new products. It keeps everyone on their toes.”
4. YELP: Zeiler has formed a strong partnership with the social media platform, and it doesn’t cost him a penny. For the store’s 2021 drag show, he created a pre-event happy hour for social media influencers. When Zeiler reached out to Yelp about including Elite members, the platform agreed to bring the beer.
5. GOOD CHEER: Last Christmas, the store sold various sizes of Nulo and Zignature bags for $5 each, then donated them and the money to Austin Animal Center. It added up to more than 10,000 pounds of food and $5,000.
PHOTO GALLERY (23 IMAGES)