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Comes Naturally

Pittsburgh retailer emphasizes pet wellness with organic foods.

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Healthy Pet Products, North Hills and South Hills, PA

OWNER: Toni Shelaske; WEBSITE: healthypetproducts.net; OPENED: 2002 (North Hills), 2011 (South Hills); AREA: 4,400 square feet (North Hills), 4,800 square feet (South Hills); EMPLOYEES: 35; TOP BRANDS: Fromm, Nature’s Variety, Primal, Stella & Chewy’s, Nutrisource, Orijen/Acana; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/HealthyPetProducts; TWITTER: @healthypetpgh; INSTAGRAM: @healthypetproducts


NATURAL FOODS AREN’T JUST for people. Toni Shelaskebelieves in natural pet food, and her business, Healthy Pet Products, serves the Pittsburgh area with natural, organic food for dogs, cats, small animals and caged birds. Products sold at Shelaske’s two locations are mainly free of wheat, corn and soy, and there’s a focus on raw foods. “All of our foods and treats have no byproducts, no chemical preservatives, no food coloring, no sugars,” Shelaske says. She sells only foods that are manufactured in the U.S. and Canada and made almost entirely with U.S. and Canadian ingredients.

“We are what we eat,” Shelaske says. “We are, all of us, up against a lot more chemicals that are in the environment, in our households. They are unavoidable. So I believe we need to feed ourselves healthy foods so that our immune systems are at the best they can possibly be.” Natural foods also help cats and dogs with allergies, she says. In addition to food, Shelaske’s stores carry leashes, collars, harnesses, cleaning products and toys.

When Shelaske got into the pet store business eight years ago, there were far fewer brands of natural pet foods. There are more now, and “a lot of larger companies are creating better foods,” Shelaske says. She prefers to carry brands that are family-owned, and that support her business with perks like promotions and in-store demonstrations. She also appreciates minimum advertised pricing policies, and companies that give “frequent flyer” benefits to independent retailers over big chains. “In other words, if one of my customers buys 12 bags in my store, they get the 13th bag free,” Shelaske says.

In 2008, Shelaske bought Healthy Pet Products from its original owners, who had started it in 2002. She moved that operation twice, in 2009 and 2014. In 2011 she opened a second store in the South Hills area, on the other side of Pittsburgh from the original North Hills location. Before she got into pet retail, she ran a pet-sitting business for eight years, and before that she worked for large retail chains.

“I majored in fashion merchandising with a minor in business,” she says. “I have an extensive visual background, and it’s something I love to do. So I designed all my stores. I’m not the type of person that just hires a graphic designer and says do my poster, make my logo, do this, do that. I’m very hands-on in all of that.” Shelaske’s decor touches include wood floors, contemporary light fixtures and walls painted in warm earth tones. There’s an uncluttered look, with cute cartoon signs that indicate store departments like Cat Land, the Boneyard and Critter Corner. Shelaske’s focus on design paid off with a 2016 Store Design Excellence award at Global Pet Expo.

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Shelaske markets her business with “a little bit of everything” — except television ads, she notes, because of the expense. She places ads on radio and in magazines, and sometimes writes informative articles. She does social media. “I attend rescue events,” she says. “I have myself or my employees out there spreading the word about who we are and what we do.”

Customers have increasing options online, but small operations like Shelaske’s will endure, she says. “The service is unmatched,” she says. “The pet business is a heartfelt, personal, emotional business, so I don’t think that online retailers will put the brick-and-mortar pet stores out of business.” Healthy Pet Products offers specialized knowledge that is tailored to its customers’ needs. “Our education base is very high, as far as helping pets with allergies, irritable bowel, ear infections, immune disorders, many things, with a comprehensive look at their diet and what’s happening in their households.”

Shelaske says she has seen natural pet foods save lives. “I’ve seen it give a much better quality of life for our pets,” she says. “I think people deserve, and have the right, to know what’s really in our pets’ food.”


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Five Cool Things About Healthy Pet Products

1. EMPLOYEES ARE CUSTOMERS: Shelaske says 95 percent of her staffers were customers of the store at one time. “So they either had dogs or cats with issues, or at least had the vision to seek out better foods, just to have a healthier pet.”

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2. THE MERCHANDISE MOVES: “I have a monthly schedule where I change my displays,” Shelaske says. “It really drives sales.” The technique breaks up customers’ routines and makes them notice merchandise they might have missed. If she moves toys from one side of the store to the other, customers say, “Oh, you got new toys in!” “I didn’t,” Shelaske says, laughing. “I just moved them around.”

3. HEALTHY PET DAY COMES EVERY YEAR: Healthy Pet Day started as a grand opening celebration in 2009, when Shelaske moved to a new location. “I had such great feedback from the community and such support from my vendors that I decided to do it every year,” she says. Once a year, the Healthy Pet Products parking lot is the site of a fiesta featuring product samples, rescue pets, prizes, games, demonstrations and seminars. “We have a photo booth,” Shelaske says. “We have a local policeman with a K9 come and do a demonstration with his dog.”

4. IT’S ALSO A GROOMING BUSINESS: In 2015, Shelaske bought a pet grooming operation from a local business owner and rebranded it Healthy Pet Grooming. “It was a turnkey situation,” Shelaske says. “I got everything including employees.” A part-time employee at Healthy Pet Products left a corporate day job to manage the grooming business.

5. THE LEARNING NEVER STOPS: Shelaske holds regular staff meetings for training on timely topics, from gastrointestinal issues to yeast. Some topics Shelaske teaches herself, and others are taught by manufacturing representatives. “It’s part of their job,” Shelaske says of the ongoing training. “I don’t hire cashiers and clerks.”

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America's Coolest

A Houston Groomer Offers an Experience for Dogs and Owners Like No Other

Pet health — both physical and mental — comes first.

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The Pet Barber, Houston, TX

OWNERS: Paul Willis, Kristen Cover; URL:thepetbarberhouston.com; FOUNDED: 2014; OPENED FEATURE STORE: 2018; EMPLOYEES: 5 full-time, 1 part-time; AREA: 1,700 square feet; FACEBOOK: thepetbarberhouston


PAUL WILLIS BEGAN his grooming career at the age of 17. He bathed dogs in a salon, working his way up and attending The New York School of Dog Grooming.

After graduating at the top of his class, Willis moved into show grooming, and later facility design on a corporate level. That last role inspired him to take a different approach within his profession.

“I was sick to my stomach of everything being about the bottom line,” he says.

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Pet health — both physical and mental — comes first at The Pet Barber in Houston, TX. Willis and his wife, Kristen Cover, own and operate two shops in the city, with their second opening in the Montrose neighborhood in 2018 and earning a 2019 PETS+ America’s Coolest Stores Honorable Mention.

A Cage-Free Spa Day

Paul Willis enjoys building fixtures himself, including this pipe and wood shelving featuring food and treats.

Once a Pet Barber groomer assesses a dog and communicates with the client about any issues, the pup enters one of the salon’s Master Equipment PolyPro tubs its Ariel hydrotherapy tub. Water remains a constant 89 degrees in winter and 81 degrees in summer, thanks to direct-heating and digital controls.

“We bathe them in the optimal temperature,” Willis explains. “There’s no uncomfortable warming up or cooling down.”

Dogs getting hydrotherapy enjoy 22 micro-pulsating air jets.

“It gets the bath salts and shampoo into hair follicles and loosens dead skin, bad oil and mites. There’s also a UV light that kills all bacteria,” he says of the hydrotherapy tub, which was made for people, but Willis saw the potential for pets.

When it comes time to cut, groomers use scissors instead of clippers from start to finish.

“It takes longer, but the outcome is amazing,” Cover says. “We also offer hand stripping, which can be difficult to find.”

When their dogs are not being groomed, pet parents can choose between kenneling and cage-free daycare. Most opt for the latter as the couple has created a relaxing and fun atmosphere with soft music music and voices, and fresh air.

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Pets can lounge on couches or at a groomer’s feet, or play in a 500-square-foot room with rubber flooring that leads to a covered 10-by-35-foot turf yard.

“They’re happy here,” Willis says. “Our clients tell us that as soon as they get in the vicinity, their dogs know exactly where they are going and perk up. Then they can’t wait to get through the door.”

Cage-free daycare costs only $7.50 per appointment.

“We don’t want cost to be an issue,” Cover explains. “We have daycare, and we want their grooming experience to include it.”

It has become so popular that the couple offers it at standalone pricing, as well, for $15 half and $25 full days, plus in packages.

More Barbershop, Less Salon

The Pet Barber also stands apart from corporate competitors — and from other independent shops — with its decidedly masculine aesthetic. While Willis and Cover hired professionals to assist with structural, plumbing, electrical and HVAC changes to the run-down former laundromat, they handled all interior design.

The result: stained concrete floors in a dark bronze, a mix of white painted and tiled walls, and wood-and-pipe fixtures, the latter of which Willis built himself. Groomers wear dark denim aprons with leather patches featuring the shop’s stylishly simple logo.

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Old-School and Modern Marketing

The couple isn’t afraid to stray from expected marketing methods either. Cover manages efforts, embracing email and Facebook to engage with current and/or potential clients, but she also uses door-to-door marketing as an effective form of advertising.

“We create door hangers in a very nice paper, almost a linen texture, that looks expensive and reflects our brand,” she describes, adding that while they outsource some drops, the most effective campaigns have Willis doing the hanging himself.

“I get to engage with people,” he says, on everything from services to products, all of which contribute to good pet health. Willis adds that in 2020, they plan to repeat the practice in the neighborhood’s many upscale high-rise residential buildings.

Cover says, “If we drop 500 door hangers and get 10 calls, it pays for itself and then some.”

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Five Cool Things About Pet Barber

1. BUCKLE UP: Heavy Houston traffic poses a challenge to clients, so The Pet Barber offers pickup and drop-off service in its GMC Acadia SLT. It ranges from $25 to $40 depending on distance, and each dog rides safely in a caged-off bucket seat with a safety harness.

2. QUALITY FIRST: The shop sells a limited number of products — and only those Willis and Cover use themselves and recommend. “If they work well for our pets, I want to sell them,” he says. They mark them up modestly. “I’d rather sell a product and make 25 percent, one that I believe in that actually does good, than sell something just to make a 150 percent profit.” Among their most popular are Show Season’s Soothe Shampoo and SOOS Dead Sea grooming products, and Orjen and Fromm food and treats.

3. bathtime: Willis took a test bath in the hydrotherapy tub himself. “That way, I can speak to the client from personal experience about what it does and how it feels,” he says.

4. MUD BATH: Madra Mor Spa Mud treatments — Fortifying, Shed Safely, Soothing, Mobility — are also available during grooming appointments, complete with a 15-minute hot towel wrap. Lucky pups!

5. FAMILY BUSINESS: Willis and Cover’s kids, 5-year-old Teddy and 9-year-old Jack, can often be found at the shop. They love to greet customers and, of course, play with the dogs. They also appear in Facebook Live videos. “This really connects our family to our client family,” Cover says.

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America's Coolest

A Rhode Island Herbal Specialist Turns A Century-Old Farmhouse Into A Holistic Destination

This pet store uses a holistic approach to pet care and management.

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Fetch RI , RICHMOND, RI

OWNER: Johnna Devereaux; URL:fetchri.com; FOUNDED: 2014; OPENED FEATURED STORE: 2017; EMPLOYEES: 4 part-time; AREA: 1,500-square-foot retail, 850-square-foot The Fetch Room; FACEBOOK: FetchRI; INSTAGRAM: FetchRI


FETCH RI OCCUPIES a Colonial-style house built in 1908. Much about the property appealed to Johnna Devereaux when she was looking to grow her pet business in 2016.

The land spans a half acre in Richmond, RI, and groundbreaking herbalist Heinz Grotzke founded Meadowbrook Herb Farm and formulated all-natural remedies there for decades. Devereaux has been studying the healing properties of herbs since she was 15, with one of her mentors being Susan Clements, who once taught at the farm.

She loved the house.

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“It was so charming. With the wide-plank wood floors and different rooms, it had this aura of quaintness.”

Devereaux did have one reservation, though.

“The doorways were 15 inches wide. I didn’t see how a Great Dane and human would fit through them together.”

After the landlord agreed to make that change, there was just one last requirement before she would sign the lease: Diego and Lola, her rescued American Stafford Terriers, had to approve.

“The second they arrived, they were chill,” Devereaux recalls, which was unusual for them in a new place. “That’s the soul of the house and the property — holistic and supporting of the mind, body and spirit. It’s been cleansed by all of the herbs.

Fetch RI reopened there in February 2017.

A Holistic Approach to Petcare

Johnna Devereaux and her American Staffordshire Terriers, Diego and Lola.

A clinical pet nutritionist, Devereaux performs in-depth assessments of dogs and cats, regularly consulting with their veterinarians, and makes diet recommendations. She carries only the highest-quality food and treats, among them Small Batch and Bones & Co., all made in the USA and meeting her exacting ingredient standards: no artificial ingredients, chemical preservatives, wheat, corn, soy, propylene glycol or plastic.

Animal Essentials serves as the backbone of Fetch RI’s supplements section, but Devereaux’s own products take up a significant amount of shelf space. Salves and teas help restore balance to the body, contain ingredients from her own gardens and are made in her at-home apothecary.

“I’m sensitive to where herbs come from, whether or not there are heavy metals in the soil, so I grow my own. I make salves for wound care and paw protection, and hot spot remedies. I also formulate teas because I’m a huge advocate of adding water to a dog’s food, and it’s another way to deliver herbs.

“If we’ve interfered somehow and interrupted an animal’s system, I provide tools to help the body heal itself.”

She also offers products and services that help to rebalance the mind and spirit. Toys and puzzle games will engage a bored pup, as will a session in The Fetch Room.

Devereaux converted the detached garage into an 850-square-foot private play space in 2018. Lola served as inspiration.

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“She was friendly, had met more than 100 dogs, but then got bit on the nose at the store. It was traumatizing for her, and now Lola is dog-reactive. As someone who had a dog I suddenly couldn’t take anywhere off-leash other than our backyard, I understood and wanted to help others in the same predicament.”

The Fetch Room features a rubberized floor and has agility and nosework equipment at the ready. Customers can rent it by the half hour for $25 or the hour for $45. In addition to giving reactive pups a place to let loose, it attracts those without fenced yards and people who don’t like dog parks. The climate control also makes it a popular destination during hot, cold and/or wet weather.

Like-minded trainers also use the space to hold classes throughout the week.

“I want Fetch RI to be a truly holistic destination. Good health is not just about nutrition, but also positive physical and mental stimulation.”

A Holistic Approach to Management

Joining pet parents and their pups in the training classes are Devereaux and her staff. She wants them to not only understand what services Fetch RI has available, but also to enrich their relationships with their own dogs. She provides a variety of such perks.

“I’m blessed to have a phenomenal team of employees. I want them to want to keep working for me. I buy them lunch or dinner at least twice a month. We have bonding experiences. I recently took them to Six Flags, and we rode roller coasters and played games and ate whatever we wanted. To keep a good team, you have to supplement their wages in ways that are meaningful to them.”

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Five Cool Things About Fetch RI

1. ALL ARE WELCOME: The store’s 1,500-square-foot multiroom layout allows customers with reactive dogs to steer clear of others. During slow periods, Devereaux will even post an employee at the door so that a reactive dog can have the place to himself. “We want the experience to be the same for all of our customers. We want them to understand how much we care about their pets.”

2. LET’S PART-Y: The Part-y Bar measures 12 feet and offers just about any body part safe for dogs to devour. (Get the name now?) There are also supplies for celebrations, from birthday bandanas and hats to cake mixes and bakery items.

3. A FORAGING SHE GOES: Devereaux recently took a foraging course so she could learn how to find herbs and other ingredients not growable in her gardens. Among them: seaweed for salves. “I go out in the ocean and forage at low tide. It makes me so happy.”

4. SAY CHEESE: More than 1,000 Polaroids of canine and feline visitors hang on the store’s Wall of Fame.

5. TEST DRIVE: Devereaux says, “We go beyond selling customers what they came in for — and help them make the right choice for their pet. For instance, when a customer comes in looking for a harness, we encourage them to bring their dog in so we can fit the harness on the dog — because if it doesn’t fit right, it won’t work right. We encourage the owner/dog pair to try a few varying harnesses so they can see which works best. We allow the duo to ‘test drive’ the harnesses on the grounds of Fetch RI for a real-life scenario with cars driving by and distractions.”

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America's Coolest

A Mother-Daughter Duo Brings Southern Hospitality, Design Flair and an Eye For Unique Products to a Pet Boutique

They made their dog boutique an extension of the customers’ homes.

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Southern Barker, Lexington, KY

OWNERS: Leslie Stewart, Sarah Stewart; URL:southernbarker.com; OPENED FEATURED STORE: 2017; EMPLOYEES: 4 part-time; AREA: 1,002 square feet; FACEBOOK: southernbarker; INSTAGRAM: southernbarker


LESLIE AND SARAH Stewart embody the spirit of Southern hospitality. The mother-daughter pair are warm and welcoming, helpful and kind. It comes as no surprise that their dog boutique in Lexington, KY, shares these characteristics.

“We want our customers to feel like Southern Barker is an extension of their home,” Leslie says. “We always try to make them feel comfortable, cared for and respected.”

The duo does exactly that with a combination of stylishly rustic decor, inclusive product offerings, and by celebrating the bond between people and their pets — all with a Southern spin, of course.

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Designing Women

When Leslie and Sarah decided to realize their dream of opening a pet store in 2017, they found an unfinished space in a shopping center. It didn’t even have a floor, just gravel. They hired Cathy Burgess Interiors to design and oversee buildout.

Daughter Sarah and mother Leslie Stewart opened Southern Barker based on a business plan Sarah forged in college.

“She helped make the vision in our heads come to life, and really helped us figure out the Southern Barker brand,” Sarah says, with Leslie adding, “We gave her tons of pictures from Pinterest.”

They also shared human stores in Lexington with their desired aesthetic: artist Rebecca Puig’s Sugarboo and actress Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James.

“Sugarboo is eclectic and rustic. Draper James has a very Southern feel to it. Both both have a touch of elegance,” Leslie explains.

Using the above influences, and pulling from Leslie’s own retail merchandising experience and home decor blogging, the three chose for Southern Barker warm flooring that mimics hardwood, a creamy paint palette and plaid wallpaper. Dark metal chandeliers cast a soft glow.

“And we use furniture instead of store fixtures,” Leslie says. “I found myself literally taking pieces from my home.” Her husband had to ask at one point, “Where’s the foyer table?’”

Displays use straw baskets, iron hooks, wooden ladders and crates, with the “Barker Bar” centerpiece offering bulk treats in old-fashioned glass candy jars.

Big Pups & Dog Dads Welcome

The Stewart family Portuguese Water Dog, Lily, served as inspiration for initial product selection — and continues to guide Leslie and Sarah.

“She was our first female puppy and our first larger dog. We wanted to spoil Lily but could not find what met our style as well as fit her large frame,” Leslie says.

Sarah adds, “We don’t deal with vendors that don’t have big sizes available in their clothes. That way, people with larger dogs won’t be disappointed when they come in and see something they like.”

Among their favorite brands are The Worthy Dog and Hotel Doggy, and stocking them has made Southern Barker the go-to store for stylish big dogs.

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“We actually sell more larger coats than ones in smaller sizes,” Sarah says.

And while dog moms certainly make up a significant percentage of their customers, Leslie and Sarah make sure to have something for dog dads, too.

“We have just as much for the dog dad who fishes and hunts as we do for the dog mom who wants rhinestones,” Leslie says.

Camo-print collars and leashes from Finnegan’s Standard Goods, stuffed ducks and pheasants from Fluff & Tuff, plus collapsable bowls and other gear, are good sellers.

Of course, Southern-themed products are scattered throughout the boutique and regularly make up displays, such as one for the Kentucky Derby. It featured horseshoe bandanas and bow ties from Chloe & Max, a stuffed horse from Fluff & Tuff, plus Kentucky-themed T-shirts, glassware and decorative pillows for humans.

At left, all canine visitors are encouraged to pose for a pic in the dog house. At right, Southern Barker Sweet Tea squeaky toys add to the branding.

The Southern Barker Experience

Every canine customer gets a warm welcome, complete with complimentary treats and an invitation to pose in the Southern Barker dog house, after which their photo goes up on the Wall of Southern Barkers. They can enroll in the birthday club to receive a free bone and special discount, which can be used in the party section or anywhere else in the store. A “Barker of the Month” contest encourages engagement on Facebook.

“We want to make shopping with us an experience,” Leslie says. “Not for them to come in and get their dog food and say see you later. We want people to think of us as more than a pet store.”

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Helping them meet that goal are a variety of celebratory events. Breed meetups, yappy hours and a Kentucky Derby Hat Contest, just to name a few, draw pet parents and their pups, while painting parties give the humans an opportunity to socialize solo with like-minded individuals.

The Stewarts also share in the sad times with their customers.

“I got a phone call from a lady asking me about a pawprint keepsake item,” Sarah recalls. “She broke down crying on the phone, telling me about having to put her dog down. I told her, ‘I really just want to give you a hug right now.’

An hour later she walks in the door and says, ‘I came for my hug.’”

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Five Cool Things About Southern Barker

1. SCHOOL PROJECT: Sarah was a senior in college, studying marketing, when she and her mother decided to open Southern Barker. A business plan Sarah developed in school served as starting point for the store.

2. YAPPY HOUR: From 4 to 6 p.m. weekdays, customers get 30 percent off Barker Bar treats. Leslie says, “The margin on bulk treats is pretty good, so we’re not losing money. The discount gets them in the store.”

3. PRIVATE LABEL: Southern Barker has created its own treat and toy lines. Among the offerings are Barker Baked Goods Treats and Sweet Tea Squeaky Toys. The store also has begun making T-shirts, including one that says “Woof Y’all.”

4. EXPANSION: In 2019, a Louisville pet store with two locations went on the market. The Stewarts did an acquisition sale, took over the leases and rebranded the businesses. The new stores had and still have much more of a focus on food. That combined with Leslie and Sarah learning more about nutrition to help their own pets has resulted in the Lexington store now carrying 10 brands of food, including the full Answers line. Leslie says, “We’re really excited to help build the raw community in Lexington.”

5. THE FAMILY THAT WORKS TOGETHER: Leslie and Sarah split their time between the three stores, and dad John, son/brother John and his wife Alex also pitch in as needed. Grandson Elliot is literally growing up in the family business, as he spends weekday mornings with Leslie and Sarah.

 

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