Features December 1998 Issue

The Holistic Dog Food Store

Putting pet health above profits, these stores sell only the best products.

Visit most pet stores – especially the large, warehouse-style chain stores – and ask for their “best” dog food. Chances are good that you will be directed to shelves containing big-name foods that are high-priced, well-advertised, and not radically different in content from generic, low-cost foods. Ask the saleswoman about herbal remedies, and she might lead you to an herb-infused shampoo – the store’s only herbal product. Go ahead; go out on a limb and ask about the shop’s supply of homeopathic remedies for dogs and cats. You’re almost certain to receive a blank state and a question in return: “What are you talking about?”

Recently, however, the holistic pet-care industry has been catching up to the holistic human-care world, where, if you want preservative-free foods, herbal remedies, or homeopathic products, you go to a health food store, not Safeway! Today, a growing number of animal-loving entrepreneurs are opening pet health food stores, where their clients can shop for the best (and otherwise hard to find) foods and the healthiest natural supplements and remedies.

Let’s meet some of these far-sighted entrepreneurs, and learn how they turned their passion for healthy animals into businesses dedicated to helping us help our pets.

Sandra Estrada poses with Happy Pet's resident canine - a rescue dog, of course.

The Birth of the Holistic Pet Store

Sandra Estrada was working in a completely non-animal-oriented business when a friend, a veterinary student at University of California at Davis asked her if she would like to visit him at his summer job – the orangutan unit at the San Francisco Zoo. From the time of her first visit to the orangutans, Estrada felt an extraordinary bond to the amazing animals, and deplored their dismal living conditions in the zoo. She immediately began volunteering her time to the unit, and began researching and studying everything she could get her hands on about ideal orangutan care. Eventually, Estrada founded a nonprofit group that worked to improve the living conditions of captive animals, and, with time and persistence, the group was instrumental in the effort to “inspire” (sometimes with lawsuits) zoo officials to construct new and improved primate quarters.

Estrada began the next phase of her life with a job in a friend’s pet store. At about the same time, her Rhodesian Ridgeback/Russian Wolfhound mix and constant companion of 10 years was diagnosed with diabetes. With her trademark commitment and passion, Estrada began studying everything she could get her hands on about the disease and potential treatments for it. Since diet plays such a large role in the continuing care for diabetes, she focused much of her attention on pet nutrition.

As she learned about the poor quality ingredients and unhealthy additives present in many commercial pet foods, Estrada grew increasingly disgusted with the pet food industry. She also began searching for makers of good quality foods.

She had a revelation when, in the course of her research, she came across holistic veterinarian Dr. Richard Pitcairn’s book, Natural Health For Dogs and Cats. She began feeding her dog according to the recipes in Pitcairn’s book, and experimented with some of his other holistic treatment suggestions.

With the blessings of her friend and employer, Estrada also began stocking the store with better-quality natural pet foods. The results from her own trials and the reports from the store’s clients were very positive, and Estrada began to dream of having her own store, offering nothing but the healthiest foods and supplements.

Estrada realized that vision in November 1997, when she and her husband Cesar opened Happy Pet, their own “pet health food store” in San Francisco. Now, Estrada uses her activist zeal to benefit her customers and their pets. She is dedicated to educating her customers about holistic pet care and to providing them with reasonably priced alternatives to well-known but less-healthy pet foods.

“I emphasize nutrition in my store, since it plays a primary role in the health of all living things,” says Estrada. “Before we carry any food in the store, I make it a point to know everything there is to know about that food – I find out what’s in it and what the source and quality of the ingredients are.”

Happy Pet also carries books about natural health care for animals, quality pet toys, and unique gifts for animal lovers. Estrada regularly refers customers to trainers, chiropractors, acupuncturists, and even animal communicators. She also refers clients to a holistic veterinarian – an easy task since earlier this year, when Estrada leased some spare office space in her store to Dr. Barbara Fishelson, a holistic veterinarian and homeopath. The arrangement has proved advantageous to all concerned parties. Dr. Fishelson can rest assured that her clients have easy access to her recommended foods and supplements. Estrada has a medical resource for her health and nutrition questions. And Happy Pet’s clients have two knowledgeable professionals to guide their pets to greater health.

For the Love of Bonkers

Located just outside Annapolis in Crofton, Maryland, is Crunchies Natural Pet Foods. Store owners Julia and Matt Cahill bill Crunchies as a “Health Food Store For Your Pet,” boasts that they offer the area’s finest selection of foods, vitamins, and supplements for both dogs and cats. They also offer regular seminars by holistic veterinarians and animal communicators.

Opened in 1996, Crunchies is dedicated to the memory of the Cahill’s late cat “Bonkers.” When the cat was diagnosed with cystitis and a rare immunological disease, Julia looked for natural remedies.

Although she had no formal training in pet nutrition, Julia was raised in a family that used natural health care. “I grew up in a family that never took cold medicines; we took herbs or other homeopathic remedies,” recalls Julia, crediting her grandmother and mother with teaching her the importance of taking a holistic approach to her own and her family’s health. It never crossed her mind, however, to use this approach with her pets until her cat became ill.

As Cahill read up on Bonkers’ condition, she soon realized that the cat would benefit from a healthier diet. “We needed the very best food we could find to help with the pH balance of his urinary tract and to boost his immune system. We couldn’t find one locally – we went to every store possible and either they had by-products or junk fillers, or ethoxyquin. We couldn’t find anything. The food we wanted just wasn’t available.” Eventually the Cahills found one supplier who was willing to deliver an acceptable natural food to their house.

A short time later, Julia attended a lecture on pet nutrition given by Bonker’s veterinarian. As the veterinarian spoke about the benefits of natural foods, several members of the audience raised the question of the availability of these foods. Where could they could go to buy these foods? everyone wanted to know. Unwittingly, the veterinarian launched the Cahill’s business by identifying Julia Cahill as someone who had found a way to have good food delivered to their home. Due to this and subsequent referrals, the Cahills were soon inundated with orders for the foods they recommended. When they found themselves using their living and dining rooms to warehouse an extensive pet food inventory, they got the idea. Crunchies was born.

Julia and Matt Cahill started out by selling quality pet foods from their living room.

Since educating themselves about small animal nutrition, the Cahills have designed a diet which is largely comprised of raw foods for their own pets. However, Julia acknowledges that it can be difficult to consider all the nutrients and get the balance just right. Accordingly, she cautions customers to proceed slowly, believing the safest, healthiest approach is for most casually interested pet owners to feed top quality commercial foods.

Their families were skeptical but supportive when Julia and Matt revealed plans to open a pet health food store. After just two years, however, the business is in the black, and the Cahills are optimistic about the future. Like most entrepreneurs, the Cahills want to make money, but they don’t measure success solely in terms of dollars, but by the number of pets they can help.

By Julia’s account, they’ve already succeeded. She says, “So many customers have come back to the store to tell me, ‘You won’t believe what’s happened.’ We’ve helped save lives that conventional veterinarians have given up on. That is success to me.”

A One-Stop Holistic Shop

Perhaps the most unique pet food store to be found anywhere is Porgie’s Puppy Teaching and Natural Pet Supply in Riverside, California. In addition to a full array of commercial foods and pet supplies, Porgies boasts a well-stocked assortment of fresh organic meats, produce, and grains. That’s because owners Linda Goodman and Joseph Findeis are ardent advocates of a whole food approach. Goodman claims that “all dogs that eat only commercial dog foods are in some sense starving, because the foods are not nearly as nourishing as whole, real foods.”

Goodman says that she sees improvement in every single dog that switches to a whole food diet. “Fresh food diets keep them constantly improving and getting better.”

Although Porgies is a pet food store, it does not neglect the pets’ owners. Goodman says “we like to refer to ourselves as a ‘health food store for pets and their people’ because we also sell human products. There are no differences between ‘natural foods’ for people and ‘natural foods’ for dogs and cats; they encompass many of the same foods. We carry everything that your pets and you should eat: organic produce, organic meat, and organic grains.” They also stock frozen organic pet meals, consisting of organic meat, whole wheat bread, carrots and peas, for customers who want to try a whole food approach but don’t have the time or desire to prepare the food themselves.

Goodman and Findeis work closely with their customers to teach them how to properly prepare a fresh food diet for their pets. They work with holistic veterinarian, Dr. Anne Smith, who spends a day in the store every third week, and shares the couple’s philosophies regarding diet. Much of the store’s stock is present due to Dr. Smith’s recommendations.

In addition to the health food store, the couple operates an indoor dog “teaching” facility (they don’t call it “training”), offering “kindergarten,” adult, and advanced family pet classes. Goodman also offers private consultations, telepathic animal communication, and grief counseling.

Meals on Wheels for Dogs

Suburban Seattle residents are growing accustomed to the site of a bright yellow bus wandering through area neighborhoods delivering pet supplies and foods. The renovated school bus is the flagship of Smiley Dog, a home pet food and supply delivery service, which specializes in providing natural pet foods, toys and supplies to its ever-increasing clientele.

Smiley Dog is the brainchild of owner Craig Weindling, whose business began modestly as a way to get his own dog good quality toys at wholesale price. About six years ago Weindling, then a stage manager in regional theater and as always a devoted dog owner, happened upon a wholesale mail-order catalogue for quality pet toys. As he flipped through the catalog, he was amazed at how low the wholesale prices were. Toys he paid a lot of money for in stores were actually quite inexpensive – if ordered in volume by a retailer.

One of the most unusual pet businesses we've seen, Smiley Dog started out as a mobile dog toy store in the Seattle area.

But heck! Weindling had a lot of friends who had dogs; he was certain that if he placed a large order, he could easily sell the toys he and his own dog couldn’t use to his friends and neighbors! He took the plunge and placed an order. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, a business was born.

The idea of delivering dog toys to people’s homes was less a “grand plan” than a whim. Weindling laughs, “It just seemed like a really cool thing to be able to walk around the neighborhood to bring toys to friends that had dogs and to let my dog play with their dog and the toys.” Eventually, Weindling bought the little yellow (former) school bus that he sometimes uses for deliveries – and acts as a mobile billboard promoting the business at dog shows!

Initially Smiley Dog offered its clients just dog toys. Weindling says that he a made a conscious decision not to sell dog food because he didn’t know enough about it, and he refused to sell products with which he was not intimately familiar. But as more and more of his customers began asking him about food delivery, Weindling enthusiastically began educating himself about pet foods. Today he is a self-taught pet food expert who can hold his own with even the most seasoned holistic veterinarians on the subject of healthy foods.

Weindling now stocks and delivers a variety of healthy, natural pet foods and is committed to making it convenient for his customers to become educated about what is good for their pets. He also works hard developing strong personal relationship with his customers. If a customer has a question about a product or about a problem they are having, all they have to do is ask. Weindling routinely refers customer to information resources, local veterinarians, trainers, and pet sitters. Most of the veterinary referrals are to holistic practitioners who share Smiley Dog’s passion for educating people about proper pet nutrition.

Smiley Dog has grown to employ Weindling full time and two other employees part-time, and Weindling plans to hire more in the near future. He sends out a regular newsletter to his clients, keeping them abreast of discounts, the “Treat of the Month,” and special events that Smiley Dog will attend. He also has a 24-hour phone answering service and an e-mail address so that clients can place orders around the clock.

Weindling believes that the convenience factor, however, is only a small part of Smiley Dog’s success. Smiley Dog’s personal approach, he says, is what keeps its customers satisfied. “They like knowing that they can trust us with questions, and that we are not going to just try to sell them stuff,” Weindling says. And, of course, Smiley Dog’s personally tested and well-researched feeding recommendations, encompassing only the best quality natural foods and supplements, keep the company’s canine clients healthy – the best advertisement a company can have.

Yankee Ingenuity

“We went natural before it was popular and have done well,” says Sandy Sanel, owner of Sandy’s Pet Nutrition Center in Concord, New Hampshire. Sanel has been in the pet food business for 15 years, having converted to a natural foods about five years ago. Like several of our profiled business owners, Sanel became interested in natural pet foods as the result of a personal experience with a sick pet.

Years ago, armed with good intentions and a love for dogs, Sanel rescued a dog that was infested with heartworms from a local animal shelter. She took the dog to a veterinarian, who only “made him sicker with a lot of drugs.” Finally, Sanel was referred to a holistic veterinarian. She was so impressed with her dog’s progress using the holistic veterinarian’s approach that she began to reexamine all her own beliefs about animal care and feeding. Sanel quickly became acquainted with holistic practitioners around the country and began reading all the literature she could find on natural foods.

Before long, Sanel was so convinced that the food she had been selling was unhealthy for pets that she took the extraordinary step of throwing out all of her inventory that contained any added chemicals. It was a daring thing to do, she says, adding that she just couldn’t continue to sell things she no longer believed in. She replaced her inventory with all natural foods completely devoid of potentially harmful chemical colors, preservatives, and other chemicals.

It has not always been easy to sell natural pet foods in the heart of Yankee country. The biggest mistake you can make, says Sanel, is to come on too strong with new customers. Instead, Sanel uses a soft sell. “We have tons of printed materials in the store, so when a new customer comes in, we can give them literature instead of making a sales pitch. We tell them to come back if they read it and want to know more,” Sanel says. You can’t “beat a customer over the head” with information, says Sanel. “Otherwise, they just think you’re only trying to sell your food.”

However, Sanel is more than happy to educate those customers who ask for more information about proper pet nutrition. She and her employees can also offer their customers information and referrals other complementary and alternative health care. Sanel and one of her employees have both completed course work and obtained diplomas in homeopathy. Sanel routinely hosts seminars and talks on such subjects as homeopathy, kinesiology, and animal communication. One recent seminar attracted 100 attendees – evidence that Sanel’s ideas are beginning to take hold.

Further evidence that things are changing in Yankee country is the arrival of a new holistic veterinarian to Concord. Sanel is excited to have a professional in town who shares her ideals and to whom she can refer customers. And, of course, she adds, it doesn’t hurt that the veterinarian refers clients to Sandy’s Pet Nutrition Center for food and supplements. It’s more than a courtesy to a like-minded professional; Sandy’s is the only natural pet food store for miles and miles, drawing customers from all over New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

Support and referrals from holistic veterinarians and other alternative practitioners have benefited each of these profiled entrepreneurs. And an in-depth and enlightened knowledge of pet foods – the most important merchandise in all pet stores – is what makes them stand out from the conventional retailing crowd. But a true love for animals, and a passionate desire to help them be as healthy as possible, provides the impetus for each of these entrepreneur’s success. As Sanel puts it, “If you are doing something you really love, the money comes.”

Dan Hoye is the proud owner of Sadie, an elderly Golden Retriever often used as a WDJ photo model. This is Dan’s first contribution to WDJ.

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