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Where Success
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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 The Green K9: A Recessionary Tale That Ended in Success

Success ultimately came to The Green K9 after a rocky start.

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The Green K9, Mount Dora, FL

OWNERS: Marni and Paul Lewis; URL:thegreenk9.com ; FOUNDED: 2010; OPENED FEATURE STORE: 2012; EMPLOYEES: 13 full-time, 3 part-time ; AREA: 7,200 square feet; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/thegreenk9; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/thegreenk9


In 2008, MARNI AND Paul Lewis sold their pet resort in Davie, FL. It was the first facility of its kind in the region and was highly successful.

The couple moved north to Mount Dora, where they planned to build another pet resort on 9 acres of land they had purchased. The project was well under way when the Great Recession hit.

“After we had spent all of our money, the bank cancelled a week before closing,” Marni says of their construction loan. “It was either file for bankruptcy or make it work.”

Restart Small, Expand with Demand

Paul and Marni Lewis tackle product ordering together, but most days customers will find him on the sales floor consulting on food and her in back as a groomer. She also handles merchandising.

Two years later, they opened a 1,200-square-foot store and day care instead, in nearby Tavares, where rents were lower. The Green K9 initially focused on healthy products, bathing and play.

“There was no doggie day care in the area. People didn’t even know what that was. We had to sell it from the ground up again. We had to introduce them to organic and eco-friendly pet products,” Marni says. “We started small to see if people would come, and they did. Once we got up to 26 day care dogs, I said, ‘I can’t do it anymore here.’”

In 2012, with funding from a customer-turned-investor, the couple moved their business to its originally intended location in Mount Dora. They hired their first employees and added grooming and overnight boarding.

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The 7,200-square-foot building features retail and reception up front. Green touches run through its interior design — bamboo lines the reception desk, with an aluminum sign displaying the store logo of a dog jumping over the Earth. Displays use fixtures made from recycled materials. Light blue and tan cover the walls, where large photos of dogs hang.

Products carried, such as West Paw, Aussie Naturals and BecoPets, prove healthy for the planet and pets alike. The grooming department uses and sells Nootie, EarthBath and NaturVet. Marni and Paul look for lines made in the U.S.A., but will go global for certain manufacturers.

“I like finding handmade, fair-trade products,” she says, adding that offering unique products also helps them compete. “We have to be different to stay a step ahead of the online retailers and big chains.”

All-Inclusive Rates, Personal Touches

The couple’s approach to day care and boarding also gives The Green K9 a competitive edge. While some services are considered add-ons, their rates include hourly relief during the day and group play. Yards behind the building, previously an appliance store, have puppy pools, climbing structures and grassy, sandy soil that means no muddy paws. Overnight guests who do not play well with others get the same number of outings, just one-on-one with a staff member.

Dogs get grouped by size, age and energy level, and because of the facility’s design and square footage, extra-small, small, high-energy medium, low-energy large and high-energy large get their own spaces. Extra-small pups even get to hang out in the staff kitchen.

Adding to the overall warmth are waterproof vinyl floors that look like wood and that have a softer feel than the concrete found in the retail area.

“It’s comfortable on their elbows when they lay on it,” Marni says.

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The Green K9’s spacious 35 boarding suites also feature the flooring, which makes cleanup easy as it’s nonporous. Staff disinfect each suite daily, providing a freshly washed blanket for each Kuranda bed. Glass fronts keep dogs from feeling isolated.

Train & Retain Staff

While Paul served in the U.S. Army and worked for the U.S. Postal Service prior to joining the pet industry, Marni has been a part of it most of her life. At 5 years old, she was competing as a junior handler, showing the German Shepherd Dogs her mother bred and trained. The family also owned a boarding kennel in Maryland.

Marni drew from her vast experience when putting together hiring and training practices for The Green K9. Each applicant gets a paid working interview, during which they do what they would on the job. A leader guides and supervises the candidate, and then the entire team discusses their performance.

“Staff determines who we should hire,” she says. “They ask, ‘Did they take direction well? Or did they have a poor attitude?’ They choose their co-workers, which leads to an invested, cohesive group.”

It also results in high retention of employees, which can be a challenge when hiring from the Millennial workforce. Comprehensive training and ongoing development helps as well.

“All of my leaders have been personally trained by me. People learn so much better with an experienced coach by their side.”

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Five Cool Things About The Green K9

1. LOYAL CUSTOMERS: Ellie the Poodle has such a good time at The Green K9 that her owner, Seth Ellis, became an investor. He covered 100 percent of buildout costs for the current location. And Charlie the Goldendoodle’s owner gifted $10,000 for product purchases.

2. ECO-FRIENDLINESS: The Green K9’s business vehicle is a wrapped Nissan Leaf. Shoppers can choose between biodegradable bags made of cornstarch or reusable ones.

3. HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Staff love to help dogs celebrate their birthdays. The $50 party package includes five or more hours of day care, a K9 Granola Factory cake, treats, party hats and bandanas for the special guest and their play pals. Staff takes photos to send home.

4. CC (CUTE CANINE) TV: Owners can watch their pups via webcams in the play areas. Marni says, “They keep them up on their computers all day. When they don’t see their dog for a while, they call us. We let them know that they’re getting their bath or are in a timeout.” Timeouts happen when a dog acts up and clearly needs to rest. “They usually laugh when they hear the reason.”

5. FOSTER DOGS: One boarding suite is dedicated to fostering. Fifteen dogs have been placed so far, including one of a customer who died of cancer. All have gone to customers, who get free day care and bathing services for the dog’s lifetime.

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Former Day Care Owners’ Foray Into Boutique Nets Steadily Increasing Sales

Former day care owners’ foray into boutique nets steadily increasing sales.

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Notorious D.O.G., Clarence, NY

OWNERS: Laura LaCongo and Jessica Mbgua; URL:notorious.dog; FOUNDED: 2015; OPENED FEATURE STORE: 2016; EMPLOYEES: 2 part-time ; AREA: 3,200 square feet; FACEBOOK: NOTORIOUSpetproducts; INSTAGRAM: notorious.dog


LAURA LACONGO AND JESSICA Mbgua are all about freshness now. The business partners had owned a doggie overnight and day care, complete with grooming salon, for 17 years when they decided it was time for a new venture.

“We had another niche and vision in mind,” LaCongo says, “so we sold the business and opened Notorious D.O.G. in 2016.”

The Clarence, NY, store offers high-quality products for pets and their people. Thanks to an emphasis on fresh, from marketing and merchandising to food and toys, sales have increased 30-plus percent year over year.

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New Branding & Marketing

LaCongo and Mbgua wanted their new store’s name to represent their commitment to pets and grab people’s attention. The play on one of rapper Christopher Wallace’s stage names, The Notorious B.I.G., does both.

“Biggie was strong and powerful,” LaCongo explains, adding that the memorable name and its logo featuring a spiked collar makes a fresh appeal to the pet parent customer base.

“We don’t limit ourselves to the usual range of 20- to 65-year-old females. They still make up the majority of our buyers, but men also come in and enjoy shopping. They really love our logo. Its branding power expands our sales into another area.”

The owners also update the store’s exterior monthly — four 4-by-5-foot posters introduce new products — to draw in passersby. Monthly mailers convey the information and coupons to members of The Notorious V.I.P. rewards program.

Fresh Displays & Products

The store’s design veers toward modern, with gray hardwood floors and metal fixtures with clean lines. Walls are white with products and displays providing the pops of color.

“I’m constantly changing the appearance, making it a fun and exciting shopping experience,” LaCongo says.

Many of the fixtures have wheels to move easily based on strength of sales or lack thereof. A recent setup used venison as its uniting theme and featured a metal deer’s head with food and treats from Ziwi, Primal, Stella & Chewy’s, Orijen and others. Camo collars and harnesses, plus stuffed woodland creatures from the likes of Fluff & Tuff completed the look. The store’s back office stays crammed with props year-round.

“I add the wow factor, what will make a customer pick up a bag of food or a toy.”

LaCongo says Fluff & Tuff and West Paw are the only toy companies always carried in the store. For other toy inventory, she looks to new products.

“Regulars are never going to see the same old toy in the same old section.”

All products must meet certain criteria: “When we buy, we research who, where and why, what problem a product solves. Every product has to have a reason for it. We like companies like Wondercide. Their products have a purpose and make a difference.”

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Frozen & Fresh as the Future

Notorious D.O.G. currently has four freezers, with plans to add several more in the near future. Primal, Northwest Naturals, Answers and Stella & Chewy’s are the frozen brands carried, in addition to freeze-dried offerings.

“Frozen is the one protection brick-and-mortar stores have against online, the one product we have that customers can’t get anywhere else,” LaCongo says.

Fresh products from local companies Fetch Gourmet Dog Treats and Nuggets Healthy Eats also are found in this area. Food makes up 50 percent of overall sales, with fresh and frozen bringing in 15 percent of that.

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Five Cool Things About Notorious D.O.G.

1. EXPERT ADVICE: Laura LaCongo and Jessica Mbgua retain their certification as veterinary technicians. It helps them advise on issues ranging from diet to skincare.

2. INSTA-FUNNY: Notorious D.O.G.’s Instagram account shows off happy canine customers and new and featured products with a sense of humor. Staffers climb into crates to show their roominess. Visiting pups crunch down on identifiable body parts. Special effects on videos add to the fun.

3. BEFORE AND AFTER: The store looks nothing like the insurance agency it once was, thankfully. A renovation’s result: a striking exterior with cool lighted Notorious D.O.G. sign and a sleek modern interior.

4. BETTER BIZ CARDS: The business cards LaCongo, Mbgua and their employees carry are not only friendly but offer savings. The front says “Nice to meet you,” and the back has a coupon redeemable for $5 off anything in the store.

5. ROCK-STAR STATUS: Members of the rewards program earn $10 for every $250 spent, and get a $5 store coupon for their pet’s birthday and access to special sales. The top 25 customers also become Notorious D.O.G. Rock Stars, which rewards them with a $25 gift card, plus a $5 gift card for a friend.

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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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