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Greetings and Handshakes 

There’s no sitting behind the counter at this New Jersey store.

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Maxwell & Molly’s Closet, Newton, NJ

OWNER: Bonnie Bitondo; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2007; AREA: 1,600 square feet; EMPLOYEES: 2 full-time,3 part-time; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/maxwellmollyscc


PET PARENT. DETECTIVE. Teacher.

Bonnie Bitondo considers herself all of these before business owner. That philosophy informs every aspect of her pet boutique and grooming salon, Maxwell & Molly’s Closet in Newton, NJ.

“If people know you have their best interests at heart, both their pet and their pocketbook,” she says, “then the register takes care of itself.”

And it has. Since opening in 2007, Bitondo has grown her store from 350 to 1,600 square feet. She even added a second location in 2010.

History, Handshakes and Help

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Maxwell the Yorkie came into Bitondo’s life in 2005, as an anniversary present from her husband, Rick. Having never before raised such a small puppy, she went in search of advice.

“The first pet store I walked into, with Maxwell in my arms, the owner was sitting behind the counter,” Bitondo recalls. “I said, ‘This is Max. I want to feed him the best food you have.’ He didn’t even look at my dog, just said that food was on Aisle 2 and that they were all the same.”

With no knowledge of pet nutrition and no help from the owner, she settled on kibble with a Yorkie on the bag.

“By the time I got home, I was livid. I didn’t appreciate being ignored. I didn’t appreciate receiving no information. And I was mad at myself for buying food based on packaging.”

Bitondo was also nearing retirement from teaching. She decided then that the next stage of her life would involve opening a store that treats pet parents the way she wished she had been treated that day.

Two years later, Bitondo used her retirement savings to buy the connected buildings that would house Maxwell & Molly’s Closet. She started in the smaller of the two — hence the store’s name, which also includes her second Yorkie — restoring the 1910 structure’s original tin ceiling, installing crystal chandeliers and adding an old-fashioned awning. Antique furnishings became fixtures. The transformation won a Newton Chamber of Commerce Beautification Award.

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Bitondo expanded into the larger 1920s building in 2010, opening the door in between, repainting the exteriors to complement each other and adding signage to connect them visually.

“Our physical appearance, inside and out, says ‘We think your pet and you are special.’”

And she and her staff do.

“There’s no sitting behind the counter at my store. We come around and greet every customer with a handshake.”

They then employ what Bitondo calls “kind questioning.”

“We say, ‘Tell us about your pets. Is there something specific you’re looking for? Or are you just browsing? It shows that we’re interested in them. If they’re browsing, we respect that, but check in every five or 10 minutes to see if they need help.”

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Product Private Eye

When pet parents do want guidance, they learn first that Bitondo has done extensive research on every product in the store.

“We don’t carry anything that I wouldn’t give to my own dogs or cats,” she says.

Her sleuthing skills developed early, thanks to growing up the daughter of a detective. “I try to use everything he taught me.”

When it comes to the edibles she carries, Bitondo scrutinizes food and treat ingredient lists and sources, and “I look at the companies themselves. How many recalls they’ve had. Where the foods are made. If the factories have had recalls. I follow the facts. It takes time and energy, but I can tell customers that I feel comfortable giving these products to my pets and to theirs.”

The community appreciates such thorough research, and for that and many other reasons, Maxwell & Molly’s Closet has been named “Best Pet Store” by New Jersey Herald readers for the past three years.

School is in Session

Bitondo doesn’t simply wait for customers to arrive and ask for advice. The former teacher draws them in with smart signage in her windows: “So you think you can’t afford premium pet food, come in for a conversation and free samples.”

Those who take Bitondo up on the offer get a math lesson. She asks how much their dog or cat weighs, then compares the feeding guidelines of less expensive, lower-protein foods to those of her more expensive, meat-first products.

“They see that the cost difference greatly narrows because they feed less. That helps their pocketbook, and it helps the digestive system of their animal as less food goes through it.”

She also hosts and promotes a variety of fun educational events. “Soup Er Bowl” in February provided information about and free samples of Primal Bone Broth, with staff serving pups while their humans enjoyed their own soup, homemade by Bitondo herself.

 

PHOTO GALLERY (10 IMAGES)

 

Five Cool Things About Maxwell and Molly’s Closet

1. HOLISTIC GROOMING: Bonnie Bitondo didn’t plan on offering grooming at her store, but when Paulina Riofrio became available three years ago, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The two share a vision for grooming that includes natural products and private appointments. Riofrio uses reiki, aromatherapy and crystal healing to keep pets calm and comfortable.

2. WEIGHT TRACKER: Maxwell & Molly’s Closet has its own veterinary scale, on which pets are weighed. Losses and gains get entered into the customer’s profile, as do any health and behavioral issues. Combined with purchase history, staff use this information to suggest rotating proteins or adding supplements.

3. MEMBERSHIP PERKS: Once customers spend $200 at the store, they become members of the Platinum Paw Club and get a 5 percent discount on all products going forward. There are 5,000 members between both locations.

4. GIVING BACK: Maxwell & Molly’s Closet provides pet food to area homeless people through Family Promise. “We realized that these individuals and families were giving up their pets or living in cars or tents so they wouldn’t have to,” Bitondo says. “We had to step in and help these people who had already lost so much.” Manufacturers help with donations, as do customers who put money in a designated “house” next to the register.

5. FREE DELIVERY: Purchases $50 and higher qualify for free delivery if within an hour of the store. Rick Bitondo drives the store van, which features the couple’s dogs running on a colorful wrap. Bonnie’s husband will even place frozen items inside a customer’s freezer upon request. The store also offers curbside pickup of orders.

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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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.”

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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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America's Coolest

A Salon So Upscale, It Attracts People Without Dogs

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3RD Place: BARKER’S LANE | Davie, Fl

Strike a Pose

 

A salon so upscale, it attracts people without dogs.

OWNER: Juliana Reese | WEBSITE: barkerslane.com | OPENED FEATURED LOCATION : 2007 | AREA: 1,173 square feet | EMPLOYEES: 2 | FACEBOOK: barkerslane | INSTAGRAM: barkerslane


IT’S THE ULTIMATE before and after story. In 2006, Julianna Reese was reconsidering her career path as a special education teacher. She looked to her rescue dog, Zeta, for guidance and inspiration.

“I thought, ‘I would love to be with her all day, every day. That would be so cool,’“ Reese recalls.

She began searching for pet businesses for sale in South Florida and found a grooming salon in Davie.

“I went and looked at it. The location was bad. It was dirty, just gross. Also, I knew nothing about grooming or running a salon.”

She saw the potential, though, within those walls and herself.

“Everything in my gut told me to go for it.”

Reese bought the business in 2007 and has since transformed it into the glamorous and profitable pet spa Barker’s Lane.

Pups awaiting pickup can relax in a private suite at Barker’s Lane. They also are available for overnight boarding for existing grooming clients.

Changes, Slowly Then Quickly

After taking over, Reese immersed herself in all aspects of the salon.

“The first two years, I had a perpetual headache from all of the learning,” she says.

Reese trained with her staff and enrolled in online courses. As her knowledge and confidence grew, she began making changes.

“Grooming was matter of fact when I got here. Dogs got a bath, blow-dry, haircut, their nails clipped, anal glands expressed and ears cleaned.” The former owner “used chicken coops as cages.”

Now clients can choose from an extensive menu of services for their pets. Blueberry facials and hand-drying come standard with every level of groom. Among the many add-ons are exfoliating mud baths, pawdicures, and hair coloring and feathering. She also offers hot towel treatments for senior dogs.

“We take the towel and put it over areas where they have arthritis.”

Classical music and aromatherapy fill the air at Barker’s Lane, helping to lessen any stress pets might feel. Zephyrhills spring water fills the bowls. Depending on their size and temperament, dogs can relax in a kennel or private suite while they await their appointment or pickup. Some even chill on one of the vintage settees that contribute to the salon’s glamorous decor.

“Every time I saved a little money, I would put it into the business. I would paint a wall or add a piece of furniture. Eventually I was able to make it completely my own.”

That happened with a remodel in 2016. The result: a setting that could easily be mistaken for an upscale home, one worthy of a feature in an interior design magazine.

“This is my place,” Reese explains. “I come here every day, and I want to be surrounded by beauty.” She adds, “The pet industry has changed. People see their dogs as children now and like to take them to places where they are comfortable and surrounded by pretty things.”

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Contributing to the aesthetic are features not commonly seen in a pet business. In the bathing area, marble tile surrounds two sleek white tubs, with an elegant chandelier hanging in between. Leopard-print wallpaper covers the grooming room walls, and gilded vanities provide storage. Porcelain tile floors that resemble wooden planks run throughout the salon. Orchid plants and small decor items complete the look.

In the lobby, faux boxwood frames a large bookcase that holds dog books, figurines and home accessories. Business licenses and other information display as if they are treasured mementos. A teal vintage settee sits in front, atop a patterned area rug.

The fireplace with a menu of services framed above anchors another wall, with an adjacent gallery wall looking straight out of Pinterest. Fresh flowers add additional pops of color, as do the rich pink shelves that hold a small selection of grooming products and treats.

Building the Brand

The interior design serves an additional purpose for Reese.

“Every wall is set up for pet photos that can be used for advertising and social media, and also sent as personal photos to clients,” she says.

A closer look at the mirror above the lobby’s pink settee reveals #strikeapose and the Barker Lane Facebook and Instagram handles.

“People are obsessed. We even have some who come in without a dog to take pictures.”

Reese also holds special client events such as wine tastings and tours, plus casting auditions for their dogs with a local talent agency.

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“It really makes for a fun, interactive and trust-invoking relationship. The ability to make both pet and pet parent comfortable opens up so many doors to solid friendships, referrals, true loyalty and overall good vibes.”

She looks back on the past 12 years, the previous two in particular, with pride.

“The remodel was the best thing I have ever done. Our business has skyrocketed. We currently have an estimated 320 percentage growth for 2019.

“I never stopped believing in this journey of mine. My journey became a passion, it became an experience of personal growth, and a true commitment.”

And an amazing pet business.

Judges’ Comments

Beth Miller: The exterior aligns with their merchandising style and gives a sneak peek to passersby.

Jane Harrell: Their use of classy, feminine decor, combined with a glam/Hollywood aesthetic makes them instantly recognizable and alluring without having to stick their logo on everything.

Beke Lubeach: I love the consistency of high-end design with high-end services.

Leel Michelle: I love the clean and glamorous look of this store! There are so many individual, creative, unique and beautiful touches!

Kristen Levine: Spectacular design inside and out. Branding is fantastic and their passion for dogs shows in the environment they’ve created to care for them.

 

PHOTO GALLERY (5 IMAGES)
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5 Cool Things About Barker’s Lane

1 STOREFRONT APPEAL. The location — inside a shopping center, not visible from the road — leaves a lot to be desired. Reese more than makes up for it with window decals. Brown “curtains” with pink trim frame the salon logo and view into her lobby. Furniture for people and pets, plus a cocktail cart, move into the breezeway for special events.

2 SUPER WOMAN. Two years ago, Reese decided to be the sole groomer at Barker’s Lane. Her staff consists of two assistants who bathe, dry and otherwise handle dogs, but she does the 10 to 15 cuts scheduled per day.

3 TEXT ME. Reese moved from a landline to a salon cell phone. Clients message her appointment requests, photos of desired cuts and cute notes about their pets. “It works so much better. I can keep it as a log and go back at the end of the day to fill in my book, and it creates a family-type atmosphere.”

4 WAIT, WHAT? On the menu of services is a “Doggy Brazilian.” You guessed it, the private parts get trimmed.

5 VERY IMPORTANT PUPS. Only grooming clients can board overnight in one of the glamorous private suites at Barker’s Lane. “This allows us to keep it fun and exclusive to our clients,” Reese says. “It’s more of a V.I.P. feel.”

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