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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 Editor-in-Chief of PETS+. She works from her home office in Houston, TX, with Ty the Boston Terrier as her assistant.

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