Healthy Pet Products, Pittsburgh, PA
OWNER: Toni Shelaske; URL: healthypetproducts.net; PURCHASED: 2008; LOCATIONS: 4; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/healthypetproducts; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/healthypetproducts;TIKTOK: tiktok.com/healthypetproducts; TWITTER: healthypetpgh; TOP BRANDS: Stella & Chewy’s, Primal, Answers, Bixbi, Open Farm; EMPLOYEES: 16 full-time, 25 part-time
IN 2002, TONI Shelaske was seeking a groomer for her newly adopted dog, Meg. She entered a salon in her home city of Pittsburgh, PA, and saw the owner feeding her own pup a raw chicken leg.
“Thus began my fascination with raw diets for dogs,” Shelaske recalls. “I started reading everything I could find.”
The groomer loved her thirst for knowledge and recommended Dr. Ian Billinghurst’s Give Your Dog a Bone, often cited as the book that began the raw pet food revolution.
“It inspired me to find a store that not only carried raw foods, but one owned by people who could help me grow my knowledge.”
Shelaske discovered the perfect place in Healthy Pet Products, became a loyal customer and eventually purchased it.
“On Oct. 10, 2008, the day the stock market crashed, I closed on the business,” she says.
The economy didn’t deter her, though. Shelaske was on a mission to help dogs and cats through raw feeding, which came with its own set of challenges — the biggest being the lack of customer awareness.
“They looked at me like I had three heads. Fortunately or unfortunately, many customers became more receptive due to having a sick dog and were at a point of trying anything.”
As these pets began to regain their health, the word began to spread about the Pittsburgh store and the owner’s expertise in nutrition, raw in particular.
Owner Toni Shelaske with her dogs, Bo and Desoto.
Thanks to her knowledge, support and product selection, Shelaske was able to move Healthy Pet Products in 2010 to a space double the size. In 2011, she opened a second location in nearby McMurray, and in 2019 a third in Cranberry Township.
“Raw food has definitely been a major contributor to our financial success, as well as getting customers into the store,” Shelaske says of the diets that continue to give independent pet retailers a competitive advantage over online-only stores.
The 8,800-square-foot Cranberry Township location, in particular, has a significant footprint in the category, with raw sales there making up 14% of its total food sales.
“We added a huge walk-in freezer to hold our raw products. It has a presence and is wrapped and displayed well,” she notes of the eight-door unit that holds, among others, her top-selling frozen brands, Stella & Chewy’s, Primal and Answers. “When people notice the volume and variety of products, it helps them realize a lot of people are feeding raw, even if many veterinarians are not onboard.”
Having a focus on nutrition and assisting customers with healing their pets naturally, no matter the type of food or supplement, has been key to the success of Healthy Pet Products.
“We are known and respected for this — our reputation consistently brings new customers through our doors.”
The business continues to grow. In early 2022, a fourth locaton opened in Port Charlotte, FL.
Just as for herself, Shelaske makes education a top priority for the entire Healthy Pet Products team. Members come from a variety of backgrounds, among them veterinary medicine, nutrition, boarding and animal rescue.
“We utilize each employee’s previous experience and polish it with the help of our development coordinator, Emily Claire, who provides monthly training to keep everyone up to date on the latest and greatest foods, treats, chews, supplements, and best practices in caring for pets,” she says.
Staff also take part in education programs provided by manufacturers. Webinars about new offerings and collateral featuring the whole product line help enhance knowledge.
“We truly appreciate online programs, like Raw University by Instinct. This program not only educates retailers on the brand and its products, it is also a raw food 101 course,” Shelaske explains.
She believes in giving customers the opportunity to learn straight from the manufacturers, as well. That’s why the chain holds its annual Healthy Pet Day at the three Pittsburgh-area locations.
“This is a huge event where our top representatives are invited to provide educational demonstrations. Nearly all manufacturers support us with a discount. They also provide samples and freebies in abundance,” Shelaske says. Stella & Chewy’s, Champion, Weruva, Nature’s Logic and Nutrisource were among the 2022 participants.
Local animal rescues also are on site with pets looking for their forever homes.
“We are very proud of this event, which attracts nearly 1,000 attendees,” Shelaske says. “Our customers look forward to it — and we find that passersby notice the large crowds and usually stop in, too!”
The Toni Unleashed line celebrates Pittsburgh with iconic toy designs.
Product Selection & Support
To maintain its reputation for nutritional excellence and raw expertise, Shelaske sets high standards for what Healthy Pet Products will carry.
“There are more and more brands available, all vying for shelf space in my stores. We can’t include them all, and it can be difficult to weed through,” she says.
With that in mind, manufacturers must meet five criteria:
1. Food and treats free of wheat, corn, soy, chemical preservatives, food coloring, and sugars of any kind
2. Product guarantees; Shelaske needs to know the store will get support should a customer return a product for any reason
3. Reps visits, once a year at the absolute minimum
4. Excellent ongoing communication
5. Latest educational materials to share with staff and customers
“If these conditions are not met, well then, that brand is on the proverbial chopping block,” Shelaske says.
The Royal Treatment
Pets who visit the store get an enthusiastic welcome complete with a treat, but in the spirit of its healthy mission not before staff asks about any allergies or intolerances. Regulars stand ready to show off their good manners or new tricks they’ve learned. Customers, employees and, of course, the pets delight in the tradition.
“We love creating personal relationships with customers and watching their pets grow and get healthier,” Shelaske says. “‘Helping Pets Thrive’ is more than a slogan. It’s what we are committed to every day.”
And that commitment will help Healthy Pet Products continue to grow as a business as well.
Five Cool Things About Healthy Pet Products
1. HEALTHY & HAPPY: Shelaske chose colors for her brand that reflect its mission: green, orange and yellow pulled from nature. The colors pop within the stores, complemented by light wood fixtures and playful exterior and interior signage.
2. MORE THAN JUST DOGS: While canine visitors to Healthy Pet Products outnumber other species, customers bring in cats, reptiles and even the occasional tarantula. The Cranberry Township location sees the most of the last two, as it carries a large selection of small animal, bird, reptile and fish products. It also offers grooming and self-wash for dogs.
3. NEW PODCAST: Shelaske recently launched a podcast to share her knowledge and best practices. “It’s all things pet, but with most of the focus on nutrition and raw/biologically appropriate feeding,” she says. “There are even episodes on training and about rescues, however, all the topics end up circling back to nutrition.”
4. TONI UNLEASHED: Shelaske created a toy line to honor the store’s home city. Among the products for dogs and cats are the Pittsburgh Pierogi, a food staple in the city; Pittsburgh Bridge, representing its 446 bridges; and 412 Pittsburgh, a shout-out to the area code. A collar featuring the Pittsburgh skyline also is available.
5. PETS IN NEED: When Hurricane Isaac devastated Villalobos Pit Bull Rescue in New Orleans, Healthy Pets Products requested donations from customers and matched the total, donating more than $6,000 to relief efforts. More recently, it spearheaded a campaign to help shelters in Ukraine. And each year, Shelaske and two of her managers volunteer at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, UT. “This is my favorite way of giving back,” she says. “It’s truly magical and my favorite place on the planet, so far!” The store also holds an annual fundraiser for the sanctuary.
PHOTO GALLERY (5 IMAGES)