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Right Place, Right Time

From a favorite store to five locations, this Maine store spreads the hometown element across the state.

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Loyal Biscuit Co., Rockland, ME

OWNERS: Heidi & Joel Neal; URL: loyalbiscuit.com; FOUNDED: 2007 ; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2016; EMPLOYEES: 4 full-time, 15 part-time; AREA: 2,700 square feet of retail space; FACEBOOK: /loyalbiscuit; INSTAGRAM: /loyalbiscuit


IN DECEMBER 2009, Heidi Neal told her then-boyfriend Joel that if she ever were to leave banking to buy a business, it would be for Loyal Biscuit Co. The couple shopped there with their dog Fenway, and Heidi adored the store. Joel encouraged her to approach its owner.

She did on Dec. 14. Not only was Loyal Biscuit Co. in her hometown of Rockland, ME, on the market, but if it didn’t sell by year’s end, the store would close.

“We were in the right place at the right time,” Heidi says. “I had proceeds from selling my house to move in with Joel, and the owner financed the rest. We made the offer on Dec. 15, and by Jan. 19 we had bought the store.”

Since then, Heidi — with support from now-husband Joel, a Rockland Police Department detective sergeant — has grown the business, moving the flagship store into a much larger building they were able to purchase and opening four smaller locations in the state.

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Historic Charm

Dating back to 1865, the building itself makes up much of the store’s design. Red and brown brick walls meet pale wood floors. A traditional staircase leads up to a large mural of Loyal Biscuit Co.’s logo — starring Fenway and a kitty friend — as well as to offices and a mezzanine, around which pet-centric quotes display on chalkboard paint. Lime green from the original location carries through to the new, with purple, teal and orange added as accent colors. Third and fourth floors serve as storage for now.

The Neals took out a Small Business Association 504 loan, which only requires 10 percent down, to purchase the building. Owning the property not only provides location stability, but Heidi also appreciates the hometown element.

“Born and raised in Rockland, and now owning a business and building where I can look out the back window and see where I was born is pretty darn cool,” she says.

Like Family

Just as Heidi feels a sense of belonging in her hometown, she strives to create the same for staff at Loyal Biscuit Co. Employees from all five stores belong to a private Facebook group, where they get direction and praise, and can even share silly pet memes.

Company updates regularly go out via video. And each location has a budget for a monthly lunch or treats such as coffee or cupcakes.

The stores also close for a day each January so everyone can attend the team appreciation party. Heidi rents the gaming center at a centrally located resort and caters lunch.

“It’s fun. We hand out prizes. Everyone gets a gift,” she says. “We have a staff that is like family. We work, laugh, celebrate, cry and help each other when needed.”

Community Involvement

Heidi welcomes customers into the Loyal Biscuit Co. family as well. She does so by providing nutritional guidance for their pets and by only carrying products that boost health and happiness.

“There is nothing better than having someone come back to the store and tell us how much our recommendation has helped their dog or cat,” Heidi says.

Customers also find opportunities to help others in their community and state.

Each year, the store partners with a local bar in Pints for Paws, a concert and silent auction that has raised more than $30,000 for local animal shelters since its inception. Annual microchipping and monthly nail clipping events also benefit animals in need.

“Most of the events have some sort of community element to them. We raised over $7,000 last year alone from our nail-clipping clinics.”

Loyal Biscuit Co. even manufacturers and sells the Tug ME Toy, which provides work for prisoners at nearby Charleston Correctional Facility. The store — that is, Heidi’s dad — sends strips of polyester fleece to the workers, who then tightly braid them into the tug before returning them for trimming and tagging.

“Their work doesn’t require tools or scissors, just their muscle and time.”

About 2,000 toys sell each year through the stores and via wholesale. While not a major earner, it serves as an extension of the Neals’ investment in the pets and people of their hometown and beyond.

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Five Cool Things About Loyal Biscuit Co.

1. HEIDI NEAL GOES TO WASHINGTON: In 2015, she earned the Small Business Person of the Year award from the Maine Small Business Association. “It was so cool to be able to represent the state at the White House,” she says.

2. ELF ON THE SHELF: During the 2017 holidays, employee Dave Taylor wore an elf hat to work. “He looked like a real elf on the shelf,” Heidi says. Taylor now spends the season posing in different parts of the store for social media caption contests and fundraising posts.

3. STORE-BRAND TREATS: Customer-turned-employee April Thibodeau created the Fidelis Biscuit Co. treat line, which contains organic, locally sourced ingredients and comes in a refillable tin.

4. WAY TO GO, CHAMP!: Fenway took home World Championship Boatyard Dog honors in 2011.

5. HIGH STANDARDS: Heidi didn’t just jump on the CBD bandwagon. “I wanted to make sure the company we chose had a good reputation and offered training and support. If I don’t understand it, I can’t expect our staff to either and to relay correct information to the customer.” The store now carries Super Snouts CBD products.

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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PETS+ Live with Candace D'Agnolo

Learn More About America's Coolest Store Winner, Bar K

Catch the replay of this PETS+ Live! Lunch & Learn webinar hosted by Candace D’Agnolo of Pet Boss Nation. This episode featured Candace on location at Bar K in Kansas City, MO. Find out how owners Leib Dodell and David Hensley implemented their idea for a dog park/restaurant/bar that owners enjoy as much as their pets do — and learn why the business took top honors in the 2019 PETS+ America’s Coolest Stores contest.

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America's Coolest

Partnering and Pop-Ups: A Downtown Store Extends Its Customer Base Through Creative Outreach

Owners Ben and Lisa Prakobkit balance their slick store with warm smiles and genuine sit-down friendliness.

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The Modern Paws, Tampa, FL

OPENED FEATURED STORE: Dec. 26, 2018; FOUNDED: 2014, ran an e-commerce store from home; 2015, expanded to sublease 200 square feet of a neighborhood grocery store; 2018, opened brick-and-mortar storefront; EMPLOYEES: 1 full-time, 2 part-time ; AREA: 1,628 square feet ; FACEBOOK: themodern4paws; INSTAGRAM: themodernpaws


Midwesterners Lisa and Ben Prakobkit brought their heartland ethos to Florida’s Gulf Coast.

TO UNDERSTAND WHY TWO Midwesterners thrive at The Modern Dog in Tampa, FL, you’ve first got to get a feel for the Channel District, where you’ll catch an occasional celebrity sighting in the midst of wild dolphin cruises, maritime oddities and the Amalie Arena. It’s a small community inside a busy district of young renters, out-of-towners and business professionals.

Tucked in the highrises of Florida’s Gulf Coast, The Modern Paws is a warm and friendly surprise, with bright lights and soft pastel accents. Owners Ben and Lisa Prakobkit balance their slick store with warm smiles and genuine sit-down friendliness.

“People come visit us very often,” Ben says. Customers come through every other day to pick up a quick treat or say hi. “It gives us a chance to ask, ‘How is his foot doing?’ and ‘How long did the treat last?’ I think it makes a big difference. When you can have a great conversation, just hearing about their day, it shows more of a family and friend community versus just a store.”

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To beat the big-box stores and online competition, they offer free weekday delivery and get out into the community every chance they get. “In this day and age, it’s about who you work with,” says Ben, who is originally from Chicago. “It’s not work, it’s connections. The community, at the end of the day, will support.”

The Modern Paws grew from an e-commerce site that delivered pet food throughout the Tampa Bay area to a grocery-store partnership.

“The owner of the grocery knew what we were doing with the e-commerce side of things and said, ‘What if I sublease some square footage to you from our store and you could sell your product out of the store?’” he says. “And we were like ‘Yeah, that’s wonderful.’”

The day after Christmas 2018 they opened their first storefront — 1,628 square feet — and it’s become a popular pet store and grooming spot for Tampa Bay’s young and mostly childless crowd.

Friends and Neighbors

The couple is from “up North,” and Lisa’s Michigan friendliness is warm even in Hillsborough County, a neighborly area often voted one of the best places to live in the bay. “Even here people are like, ‘Wow, you’re so nice,’” she says. “We’re Midwest people, and we are definitely different, even though we’ve been down here eight years now.”

Their dedication to community outreach has helped them develop good relationships in the neighborhood, where they both live and work. Even though it’s a young crowd that loves to shop online, they get repeat customers because people want to support a local business.

Their store is in a downtown location, so they take their show on the road, working with rescues and showing up at apartment complex popups and dog park grand openings to share food and treat samples, chat with friends and let people know The

Modern Paws is out there, offering free delivery to anyone in the county.

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“That’s how we let them know we’re located here, and that we do grooming, have self-dog wash and do delivery,” he says. “It’s just getting to talk to the residents.”

In December, a miniature of The Modern Paws opens in a PODS moving container at a holiday festival.

POD People

Every year in December, around the anniversary of their store opening, the Prakobkits pack up a best-selling selection and set up a tiny pop-up at Tampa Bay’s popular Winter Village festival.

As the temperature hangs around 70 degrees, the city gives this palm tree paradise a snowfall feel with an outdoor ice skating rink, holiday concerts and Christmas-themed movies. Handpicked by festival planners to represent boutique shopping in downtown Tampa, The Modern Paws is one of the select vendors to get an 8-by-8-foot moving container to build out as a satellite store. From Day One of the festival, they drew a line around the block.

“The moving company that supplies these moving containers ended up doing an article about us and the success we’ve had using the PODS. Out of majority of the PODS pop-ups, we’re probably one of the busiest,” Prakobkit said. The tiny space can fit about two dozen shelves and a few standing displays, but not much else. It’s 1/25 the size of their brick-and-mortar store. “It’s 64 square feet. We’ve mastered the small space.”

Owning the Phone Tech

People who live in the area are younger professionals who more often have pets instead of kids. “They’re tech-savvy. They shop online,” Ben says. “We’re that type of customer, too, and when we price things out we keep that in mind.”

They counter the one-click ease of Amazon with their own perks, like same-day delivery Monday through Friday. “It’s hard to beat. However we do actually beat it — we have a lot of our customers take advantage of that,” he says. They also offer frequent-buyer programs, rotating discounts and buy-one-get-one sales.

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“Our big thing is nutrition. When we’re able to help pet owners get their dogs healthy or keep them healthy, it’s a rewarding feeling,” he says. “When people say, ‘The new food really took care of all the skin allergies’ and things like that, it’s definitely a good feeling.”

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Five Cool Things About The Modern Paws

1. Stories as a Secret Weapon: A silly skit or a quick talk on nutrition in an Instagram Story brings in a ripple of business. “We try to spice it up and do a few different things,” Lisa Prakobkit says. “We don’t want to bombard them with dog pictures.”

2. Four-Legged Foot Traffic: Located in the bottom of a residential building, The Modern Paws draws in almost every dog in the building. “We have dogs that will literally pull their owners to the store,” Ben Prakobkit says.

3. Phone-Friendly Tech: In a nod to clientele who rarely put their phones aside, customers can instantly book grooming appointments with a swipe up on the store’s Instagram Stories. Because their customers prefer to text, they’ve developed communication streams through text rather than calls.

4. A Tiny Staff: The small but mighty staff includes just two part-timers outside the groomer and two owners. Everybody has a specialty, like training or creating great social media content, and the size gives shoppers consistency in staff. “Customers get accustomed to seeing familiar faces when they walk in,” Ben says. “You can refer back to something you talked about in a previous visit, and it makes them feel like, ‘Wow, they remember me.’”

5. Huge Online: The store’s website is clean, fast and easy to navigate. Customers also check out products online before shopping in-store, or opt for same-day delivery in the area. For those farther away, The Modern Paws offers free nationwide shipping.

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America's Coolest

Splitting the Ps: How One Couple Shares the Load to Create a Cool Store

How Deborah and Mark Vitt use their corporate experiences to rock their micro economy.

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Mutts and Co., Dublin, OH

OWNERS: Mark and Deborah Vitt; URL:muttsandco.com ; FOUNDED: 2007; OPENED FEATURE STORE: 2007; EMPLOYEES: 6 full-time, 7 part-time ; AREA: 5,000 square feet; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/muttsandco; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/muttsandco


Mark and Deborah Vitt have hit upon the magic sauce of management by splitting duties based on their skills and interests.

DEBORAH AND MARK VITT OPENED Mutts & Co. in Dublin, OH, as an 1,800-square-foot-store, half services, half retail. Right away, they realized the footprint was off.

“We were cramped in there with just enough room for a few products, some cookies and a few treats,” says Mark. “It was like going to the dentist’s office, where you can buy a couple of toothbrushes.”

They didn’t want to be like the dentist’s office, so they took over the space next door, expanded to nearly 5,000 square feet and doubled the grooming area. Many remodels later, they’ve got a ratio that works. “There are only so many dogs you can groom or bathe in a day,” Mark says, “but every dog has to eat.”

The Science of Shopping

The Vitts brought complementary marketing and retail skills to their first pet store, and as a team they’ve learned how to draw in traffic, stock the right products and staff a good team — all by splitting up the Ps. Deborah fields purchasing, product assortment, procurement and pricing, and Mark handles personnel, new store placement and promotion.

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Deborah’s executive training and keen insight about what makes people buy is what sets this store apart. “She’s parlayed that into owning a business that takes advantage of her retail knowledge and keen sense of merchandising,” Mark says. The store’s floor plan keeps customers crossing paths with bones, treats and toys on the trek for the items they came in for. It’s not a forced journey, but a thoughtful layout.

“We’re trying to make it so people see the full breadth of the products that are available,” he says. “It gives us an opportunity to talk about them, cross-sell and up-sell. ”

A Design to Match the Mission

Head to tail, this store has an old barn feel. Antique barn wood covers the walls and cash wraps, and wooden bins hold the bulk items. Chalkboard headers, held in handmade wooden frames, identify each product section. Out front, original artwork promotes the day’s sales.

“It’s become something of a badge of honor to be one of our elite chalkboard graphic artists,” Mark says. All these human touches give the store a natural appearance, which aligns with natural products and a homemade line of specialty items by

The Pet Foundry: candles and clothing that support the area’s foster and adoption community.

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This store is known as the go-to place for natural pet nutrition, and they take their product selection seriously. Mutts & Co. recently stepped away from a few larger pet food brands that went into big-box stores, mostly through mergers and acquisitions.

“We knew the quality of the product was going to degrade so we went out and found alternatives, knowing that we’ll have to convince customers to trust this lesser-known brand,” he says. “When you can start to find it in Kroger or Target or other big-box stores — not even pet retail stores — that’s not special anymore.”

Standout Staff

The Vitts ask a lot of commitment from their staff, a mix of full- and part-time workers. They train almost exclusively in-store, and in addition to manufacturer training, they do bimonthly training sessions to focus on particular products, general industry trends, categories, and best practices when talking about nutrition.

That’s why they focus on getting the right people, getting them the right training and offering the right products to address all of these potential concerns.

“People come to us because they know we’re there for their pets’ well-being and not just the sale,” Mark says. “We have to give folks a reason to come to us and that’s why we focus on health and wellness for the pets, and that starts with having good products and good people.”

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Ultimately, you’re talking to a pet parent whose dog or cat is part of their family and you’re making a health recommendation for the wellbeing of one of their family members, he says. “We take that very seriously.”

Their staff members are prepared to point customers in the right direction on whatever health concerns come in. “That can be the toughest but most rewarding part, customers who come back and say, ‘My dog had a terrible condition and your recommendations have really helped turn it around.’ But that takes a lot of time and training.”

PHOTO GALLERY (12 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Mutts and Co.

1. Adopt Don’t Shop: Mutts & Co. just sponsored its fourth adoption event called Fetch A Friend, where hundreds of animals are befriended at the Columbus Fairgrounds Expo Center in a one-day adoption extravaganza. Deborah Vitt coordinates the event through a local advocacy group.

2. Efficient Grooming: Baths and trims are modeled after hair salons for people, with a centralized booker who keeps the door rotating. Dogs are in and out quickly, no kennels necessary. “We felt it would be a better approach to reduce the stress if we keep them there for the minimum amount of time,” Mark Vitt says.

3. It’s Always Social Hour: Instead of hiring a trainer in-house, they bring in professional trainers for in-store pet training, and invite cats and dogs to come into the store to hang out.

4. Cats and Dogs Exclusively: Two years ago, they eliminated fish, small animal and birds because the market just wasn’t there. “There’s just a smaller pool of customers, and it was harder for us to stay on top of those trends when it was such a small portion of our business,” Mark says. “We felt like it was almost doing a disservice by letting small animals just kind of exist, so we cut it out.”

5. Generous Delivery Options: Customers can order curbside pickup or home delivery. “Online sales are going to be the most critical part of business going forward, because it is becoming just a staple in the pet shoppers’ mentality,” Mark says. “We knew we had to have it, so we created that channel for customers to shop with us in that convenient way.”

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America's Coolest

America’s Coolest Pet Stores 2019 Winners Announced!

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We’re reporting live from PETS+ HQ to bring you results from the 2019 America’s Coolest Stores Contest. It was a tight race this year, with some of the most impressive campaigns we’ve seen yet. We wish every business could win!

To narrow the field to first, second and third place, plus nine honorable mentions, a team of editorial staff and independent pet industry judges evaluated the entries, which included mini-essays on a variety of topics, photography and media.

The top three winners impressed judges with their ability to transform a traditional pet business model into something truly special in their communities.

Let’s get to it!

3rd place
Barker’s Lane

 

1st place
BAR K

 

2nd place
WAG Central

 

First place — Bar K in Kansas City, MO. Dogs and humans alike love going to this activity-packed dog park and restaurant that spans 2 acres on the Missouri River’s south bank.

Second place — Wag Central in Stratford, CT. This doggie day care and boarding facility also invites pet parents to join in on the fun, with an indoor dog park, training classes and cafe.

Third place — Barker’s Lane in Davie, FL. Not only do dogs get the spa experience at this upscale grooming salon, every square foot of space serves as a stylish backdrop for Insta-worthy pet portraits.

We hope their stories — as well as the nine Honorable Mentions appearing in upcoming issues — will inspire you to break with tradition yourself. What better way to compete with big-box stores and the internet than to offer what they can’t in new and exciting ways. Bonus: If you do, we just might be reporting about you on these pages next year!

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