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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.

 

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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.

America's Coolest

At Muttigans, an Experience No Big Box or Website Can Provide

Muttigans combats big-box and online competition by giving customers what they can’t get anywhere else.

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Muttigans, Emerald Isle, NC

OWNERS: Wendy and John Megyese; WEBSITE: muttigansplace.com; FOUNDED: 2016; OPENED FEATURED STORE: 2017; ARCHITECT: Julie Hardridge/Architexture; FULL-TIME EMPLOYEES: 1 low season, 3 high season; PART-TIME EMPLOYEES: 3 low season, 8 high season;AREA: 3,000 square feet; FACEBOOK: MuttigansEmeraldIsle; INSTAGRAM: Muttigans


EMERALD ISLE, NC, HAS 3,784 permanent residents. During the summer, population swells to more than 50,000 thanks to tourists. Such a difference presents challenges to any business there that stays open year-round. Add to that for a pet store, increasing online competition.

Wendy Megyese understood this well when she opened Muttigans in 2016 with her husband, John. “We recognized that in order to not only survive but thrive, we had to create a unique customer experience.”

They have done exactly that. Through a welcoming atmosphere and a smart mix of products, food and drink offerings, and special events, the business attracts locals and visitors alike, both pet parents and not.

Shop, Sip And Stay A While

Emerald Isle souvenirs for people and pets are popular at Muttigans, as is store Pug Josie.

The two-story shingled building that houses Muttigans greets customers with large front windows and an 80-foot wraparound porch. Inside, a country charm aesthetic spans 3,000 square feet of retail and cafe space.

Pet supplies make up 48 percent of overall sales, with 45 percent of that in food. Health Extension, Fromm, The Honest Kitchen, Diamond and Merrick are among the brands carried. Staff special-order others so that residents can shop local instead of ordering online or having to leave town for supplies.

“When you live on the island, going over the bridge is a big deal,” Megyese says, adding that she also has learned to keep small bags of Blue Buffalo in stock during high season for those visiting with their dogs.

Chews, bulk treats and gourmet cookies are popular purchases across the board.

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“Tourists especially love the cookies that say Emerald Isle or Muttigans. They’re very Instagramable. Or if they’re vacationing without their pets, they take them home as souvenirs.”

Boutique items such as those with store motto “Paws and Enjoy Life” do well, too, making up 10 percent of overall sales.

Dogs who do get to tag along, whether from near or far, can enjoy a Pup Cup — whipped cream with a choice of lamb, beef or peanut butter biscuit — in the cafe.

“We are very fortunate in that the state health department and county codes consider coffee and our other menu items low-risk. Dogs are allowed anywhere in our store.”

Humans can order for themselves baked goods prepared and individually wrapped off-site as well as smoothies, beer, wine, and hot and cold teas and coffees. The lattes have adorable names such as Mastiff Mint, Milky Bone and Berry Bloodhound.

Seating includes couches and at high-top tables made from upcycled barrels. A variety of board games are available for play, from chess and checkers to Connect Four.

“We want people to feel comfortable. The longer they stay, the more they spend,” Megyese says, adding that the cafe accounts for 42 percent of overall sales.

Customers can also enjoy the island air from one of the rocking chairs or swings on the front porch. Installed carabiners keep their pups in place.

Pets Not Required, But …

Megyese points out that many Muttigans customers do not have a dog or cat to shop for but simply “come in to enjoy the great atmosphere, their beverage of choice and to give Josie, our Pug, a coveted back scratch.”
She does try to convert the locals, though.

“We host monthly adopt-a-thons and several of our coffee-only customers have become proud pet parents as well.”

Wine tastings and painting parties are among other events that draw in a variety of people. Most benefit animal rescue, with local group Misplaced Mutts receiving more than $5,000 in proceeds last year. The fundraising directly ties in to the store and cafe’s name, and the Megyeses’ pets, the previously mentioned Josie and Presa Canario Moka.

“One of the reasons we chose [Muttigans] is that it’s a play on the golf term mulligan, which is a second chance or a do-over. Many of our dogs, including mine, are rescued. They have been given a second chance at life. They are do-over dogs, so we thought the name was very appropriate.”

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Five Cool Things About Muttigans

1. STORE SECURITY: Wendy and John Megyese are both former law enforcement professionals. Wendy’s last role was as a school resource officer, and John retired as a police detective after 37 years on the force. Needless to say, they excel in theft prevention. John also takes on human resource duties at Muttigans.

2. BUZZ ONLINE: Travel websites list Muttigans as a must-visit destination on the state’s Crystal Coast. The store and cafe also has a five-star rating on TripAdvisor and Facebook, and #muttigans and #pupcup regularly appear on Instagram. All of this helps attract tourists during high season, which accounts for 60 percent of annual business.

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3. THE BEST SEATS: Emerald Isle’s Christmas parade features more than 100 floats, and it passes in front of Muttigans. Rocking chairs and swings on the front porch provide prime viewing and seating. The store “sells” these spots during the parade and donates proceeds to the local animal shelter.

4. MORE MUTTIGANS: Pet parents on the mainland recently got their own store in Swansboro. They appreciate not having to contend with tourists in the summer. The second location also offers grooming, which the main store could not because of local regulations.

5. FAMILY BUSINESS: Daughter Danielle Rinehart and son Joshua Velazquez have joined the Muttigans team. Rinehart works as the events coordinator. Velazquez handles e-commerce, and recently launched the store and cafe’s app. It allows users to earn rewards for buying pet products and coffee, and they can use it to book grooming appointments.

ONLINE EXTRA: Q&A with Wendy Megyese

One book: Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, by Ingrid Fetell Lee

One website: Pinterest

One gadget: My cell phone, of course

One plane ticket to: Puerto Rico

Most significant mentor and why: His name was Anthony Masi. He was like a second dad to me. I learned the impact storytelling can have, especially while breaking bread.

Favorite business book: the classic Dale Carnegie How to Win Friends and Influence People

Best advice ever given: Live each day as if it were your last because one of them will be.

Best advice ever received: Out of every adversity comes a seed of equal or greater benefit. Always look for the seed.

Advice for a new store owner: Create a place you would go back to again and again if you didn’t own it. Make it an extension of who you are. It will happen anyway, so be purposeful about it.

If I’d known: How much of an impact the company you keep makes then, life would have been a whole lot easier.

I drive a Honda Accord. If I could choose any car… it would be a black Cadillac CTS with premium Bose sound system and heated and cooled leather seats. (Yes, I’ve been thinking about this for quite a while now.)

What superpower would you like to have? I’d love to be able to live and breathe underwater.

What’s the best customer service you’ve ever experienced? I vacationed in Emerald Isle four summers in a row from 2006 to 2009. I would always go to a gift shop called Elly’s. I was the typical tourist who bought post cards, seashells and Emerald Isle branded items. I did not return again until the summer of 2014. When I walked in the store, one of the employees looked at me and exclaimed “Wendy! How have you been? How did things work out for you? I haven’t seen you in so long!” Not only did she remember my name, she remembered the details of our last conversation five years earlier! In my mind, I was just another tourist. One among thousands who come through there every week, but she made me feel so incredibly special. She is a long time employee of that store, and if I could get her to work for me, I would do so in a heartbeat. But I have settled for having her as one of my very dear friends and one of the best examples of what superior customer service looks like.

My perfect day: Wake up early to the smell of freshly brewed coffee. Let the dogs out and watch them play as I sit on the dock drinking my first cup. Get dressed and pull on my leather boots because I’m taking my Harley Davidson into town to check on both stores. After making sure everything is good, I’d take a leisurely countryside ride with my husband. Get back home and after having leftovers for lunch I’d take a 20-minute nap. Then I’d grab my bathing suit and a book, and spend a few hours on the river. At dinner time, my kids and grandkids come over and we share a meal and some laughter. Then I’d end the day sitting on the couch, watching a movie with my hubby and the dogs. Perfection.

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What’s the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do professionally? Fire employees that I had grown to like personally.

If your store were on fire, what’s the one thing you’d save? Assuming all people and pets were safe, I would grab the collar that belonged to my Cane Corso Maya.

If money were no object… I’d get all new display fixtures for my store.

When I meet people, the first thing I notice about them: is their body language.

If I were a pet… I would be a cat because no one would judge me if I wanted to ignore them.

Favorite film: A Knight’s Tale

Best vacation ever: Emerald Isle, NC, summer of 2015. We spent two weeks here and decided we wanted to make this our home.

If I weren’t a pet business owner, I’d be: a writer and coach.

Current career goal: Grow Muttigans into a national chain.

Current life goal: Allow myself to enjoy time away from the business.

My hero is: my husband. He spent 37 years as a law enforcement officer and daily saw the worst side of humanity or rather inhumanity. Yet he still has an amazingly tender and giving heart.

Favorite store that’s not my own: Elly’s Gifts in Emerald Isle

I am most frustrated when: I can’t figure out how to make certain technology or gadgets work

I am happiest when: I am spending time with my family

Weekend activity: boating on the Bogue Bank Intracoastal Waterway

The thing I worry about that I know I shouldn’t: Am I living up to my potential?

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America's Coolest

Pink, Pastel and Dainty on the Surface, Furry Friends Has a Business Model to Aspire To

This store transformed from being a delivery service into a 1,837-square-foot retail space and something else on weekends!

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Furry Friends Inc., Colorado Springs, CO

OWNERS: Debbie & Terry Brookham; URL: furryfriendsinc.com ; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2014; ARCHITECT: Julie Hardridge/Architexture; EMPLOYEES: 1 full-time, 4 part-time; AREA: 1,837 square footage; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/furryfriendsinccolorado; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/furry_friends_inc


PASTEL BLUES AND GREENS welcome customers to Furry Friends Inc. in Colorado Springs, CO. A crystal chandelier hangs in the entry. Adorable bakery items sit atop a small pink table, tempting people and pups alike. Tule, ribbon and floral accents abound.

“Whenever someone comes in, we hear the usual gasp and ‘This is the cutest pet store I have ever seen,’” co-owner Debbie Brookham says.

Behind the dainty decor, though, exists a strong business model, one that began in 2002 as a delivery service for private-label dog food Pet’s Healthy Choice. It has since evolved to include the 1,837-square-foot retail space, plus a tech-savvy staff and delivery van that transforms into a treat and ice cream truck on the weekends.

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Private-Label Success

Brookham — who owns and operates Furry Friends Inc. with her husband, Terry — worked with a pet nutritionist and U.S. manufacturer to formulate and produce the private-label food. It has never contained ingredients from China, which proved highly beneficial during the pet food recalls involving that country in 2007.

“One of our customers told a TV station about us, that we had our own line of dog food and it wasn’t affected,” she says. “A news team came out and rode in our delivery van, and every other station in the area picked it up after.”

The service added 222 new customers in just five days, a nearly 30 percent increase. To keep up with demand, the couple added a 600-square-foot retail area to its warehouse.

“And then when Chewy came along, we knew there was a niche that we wanted to fill: our own line of food delivered, but also sold in a cute boutique setting.”

In 2014, the business moved its retail operations to a busy shopping center. Delivery continues to grow, surpassing 1,800 customers and standing out from other services thanks to the white bakery bag of treats included with every food purchase, free of charge. Pet’s Healthy Choice makes up 60 percent of food sales at 22,000 pounds a month.

“Private-label food has been so successful for us.”

Employees Equipped with Ipads

Now a certified pet nutritionist herself, working toward clinical designation, Brookham teaches her team about the various foods and supplements Furry Friends Inc. offers. She also trains them in how to use an iPad as a sales tool.

During a nutrition consultation, an employee can pull up the store’s website and access ingredients and other information about any food on the floor.

“It’s so much easier to read online than to flip over a bag to look at the label,” Brookham explains, adding that DogFoodAdvisor.com also gets frequent use for its reviews and serving size calculator.

“With customers using their own mobile devices, we decided to dive right in with them. It also allows us to show off our really cool website, that offers free home delivery.”

Salespeople use the iPads for other types of content and products, as well, such as videos of pups playing with Planet Dog toys, for example.

Double-Duty Van

Furry Friends Inc. offers delivery Monday through Thursday. In 2017, the couple realized that their Dodge Sprinter van could serve as an ice cream and treat truck at events Friday through Sunday. They built a shelf for the side opening and added a red-and-white striped awning. An updatable whiteboard lists the offerings, with the likes of The Bear & The Rat frozen treats and Nana’s Pupcakes as regular items.

“It’s an easy way to get out into the community to help our business, instead of setting up a booth,” Brookham says. “People can buy something for their dogs, and we give them a $5 gift card. It brings shoppers to the store who have never been before.”

The transformed van sets up at various festivals and farmers markets from late May through September, which lessens the summer sales slump.

“Our sales would always dip in June and July, when people are off on vacation. This makes the register ring during those months.”

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The same TV stations that asked for interviews in 2007 were eager to spotlight the new truck and continue to do so. Add to that Facebook event posts and live videos letting followers know where it will be, and a line often forms at the window.

Event organizers and even apartment complex managers now reach out to Brookham to book a stop.

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Five Cool Things About Furry Friends Inc.

1. THREE GENERATIONS: The business has evolved from mom and pop to nanny and pappy. Debbie and Terry co-manage, and they hope to one day pass the business to their children, marketing exec Tracy and U.S. Navy Commander JB, who are always ready to offer insight. Grandson Spencer, now 20, impresses customers with his nutritional knowledge when he stops in. Grandson Jacob, 16, often rides along on delivery days.

2. BILLION-DOLLAR ADVICE: In 2010, Shark Tank invited the Brookhams to pitch Furry Friends Inc. for franchising. Their interviews with producers and hosts didn’t air, but Debbie Brookham says “Getting advice from billionaires took us in new directions.” Two years later, they opened the current store, complete with grooming and DIY bathing.

3. HELPING PUPPY MILL SURVIVORS: Since 2007, Furry Friends Inc. has been the official pet food partner for National Mill Dog Rescue in nearby Peyton, CO. To donate food, supporters can buy food at a 15 percent dicount from the the store’s website.

4. NO-BAKE BAKERY: “Even though we’re not a bakery, we appear as one! We’re known for our beautiful cakes and cookies displayed like a quaint bakery. We’ve gotten the word out via Facebook that we are the place to come for your dog’s birthday,” she says. “Bakery makes up about 18 percent of our business now.”

5. DOGGIE SPA DAY: Furry Friends Inc. takes a spa approach to its grooming. Dogs get one-on-one time with Crystal Parrott, and among the many menu offerings is a Posh Package that comes with teeth brushing, pawdicure, mud mask, facial and head massage.

ONLINE EXTRA: Q & A

One book:

EMyth

One plane ticket:

Italy

Most significant mentor and why:

Bob Negan from Whizbang Retailers. He has his own past experiences with retail and now mentors thousands of retailers in all different industries. This is a great crossover because we often need to get out of our own box. If something is working at a candle shop, maybe the process could work in a pet store. It reminds me to think differently and more forwardthinking.

Favorite business book:

EMyth

Favorite book:

Natural Health Bible for Dogs and Cats by Shawn Messonnier, DVM

Best advice ever given:

My Daddon’t sweat the small stuff….and it’s all small stuff.

Advice for a new store owner:

Hire what you don’t know. Do what you enjoy and don’t be afraid to give up responsibilities. You will be much happier and your store will flourish.

If I’d known  …

To hire more employees then, life would have been a whole lot easier.

What superpower would you like to have?

Flying in a wink

What’s the best customer service you’ve ever experienced?

I bought a Cadillac in 1995, and they still keep in touch (even though I sold it many years ago). The receptionist greets you at service, they wash your car even if you don’t get anything done. That is exceptional. I think it all stems from being a “giver” and knowing it will be returned. When it was time to purchase another vehicle, I stopped at their lot first (and bought a used Buick) however, knowing their service, I knew I would not be disappointed.

Tell me about your perfect day.

My husband and I went to Italy. Best day ever, riding a gondola, eating in a corner restaurant and renewing our wedding vows of 40 years. We both cried.

What’s the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do professionally?

I think sharing the sadness in our profession, over the loss of a pet is truly the hardest thing. We cry with our clients and feel their grief with them.

When I meet people, the first thing I notice about them is …

Their sincerity.

Favorite film:

Gone with the Wind. Who can resist Clark Gable telling Scarlett “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Don’t we all have days like that?

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Best vacation ever

Wind Surf Mediterranean Cruise to Italy, Croatia and Germany. Largest sail ship in the world. Loved it!

Favorite job at work that doesn’t involve customers:

Marketing. It’s fun to go create and watch it become a success

Current career goal

Working on becoming a Clinical Pet Nutritionist. I’m looking forward to helping people and their pets on a deeper level.

Current life goal

Some day passing the business on to our family and living in a warmer beach climate. Not retired, cause I don’t think that would be any fun:)

Favorite store that’s not my own

I really like Happy Dog Barkery. They provide us some of our bakery items. They are on a Main Street with a park for their events right across the street. How cool is that? Their place must smell delicious!

I am most frustrated when …

Vendors drop in unannounced. Running a business doesn’t require one to be at the store all the time. The reps just drop in unannounced, taking up my employees’ time because they missed me. Having been a medical rep, I understand the sales process and you need to get to the person that makes the decisions. So, why not set up an appointment with the person you ultimately need to influence?

I am happiest when …

I have helped solve a clients problem for their pet whether it be food, a supplement or a toy.

Weekend activity

Camping and enjoying the outdoors

The thing I worry about that I know I shouldn’t:

You know, I try not to worry. I would rather think things out and figure out a solution. I hate wasting my energies on worrying which resolves nothing. Either you can do something about the situation or you can’t. And, usually if you think about the solution you can do something! Remove the worry and resolve the issue.

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America's Coolest

Loyal Biscuit Co. Grows to 5 Stores, Maintains Hometown Charm

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.

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