Meet an Independent Pet Store Owner
Independent Pet Food Stores are nothing like the big box stores. TruthaboutPetFood.com recently began adding listings of Independent Pet Food Stores to provide pet owners a valuable resource to finding safe and healthy pet foods. I want pet owners to sort of ‘meet’ these people, the store owners, to show you how important these pet loving businesses can be a trusted friend in protecting your pet. Meet Christine Mallar of Green Dog Pet Supply.
Green Dog Pet Supply is located in Portland, Oregon. As the name implies, Green Dog strives to specialize in environmentally friendly pet supplies. However, it’s not just for dogs, the shop offers ‘green’ cat supplies as well. The Green Dog business description states…”We believe that living sustainably does not have to mean making drastic changes in our lives. Simply considering where things come from and where they go when we’re finished with them can be a big step towards living a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. We are also strongly committed to helping your pets live as long and healthy a life as possible through access to excellent nutrition and other forms of holistic support.”
And now for the questions…Each week you’ll ‘meet’ an Independent Pet Store owner. As you’ll see by the answers to my questions, each of these business owners are VERY knowledgeable about pet foods and can be partners in helping you care for your pet. Furthermore, you’ll see that Independent Pet Stores are nothing like the big pet stores you are probably familiar with (that’s such a good thing).
How/why did you open a pet food store? (Is there a personal story of a pet food harming one of your own pets?…Motivations of you starting this business?)
I was a zookeeper for about 12 years when I hurt my back on the job, necessitating a career change. My husband and I moved across the country to Portland OR (about 9 years ago) and I started fishing around for a job. As I had specialized in developing positive reinforcement training programs to help zoo animals reduce stress during medical procedures by teaching them to participate voluntarily, I decided to teach puppy classes. As the job market was very bad at the time, the only place I could do that was at Petsmart. It was an interesting experience, as though I didn’t enjoy being part of the big box machine, I did really enjoy exposing the public to the benefits of positive reinforcement classes in preventing and fixing behavioral problems. While I was there, I started to learn a bit more about pet food and how labels were organized, and began to get a realization that pet foods weren’t all equal as far as the quality of their ingredients (though one company might pay 3 times more for a better grade of rice, they both would only list “rice” as the ingredient, leaving the customer with no way to tell the difference.) My own cat vomited her Science Diet Kibble every morning (so I had of course tried Science Diet Sensitive Stomach and Hairball formulas, to no avail) and had poor liver values (which I didn’t associate with nutritional causes- my vet just said to keep her on lower fat foods). Once I started getting her on moderately better foods, I started to see improvements in her, which was the best teacher for me. I started to educate myself more. I was embarrassed that Petsmart’s house brand, Authority, didn’t seem to have an ingredient panel I could stand behind. I also started to begin thinking – “If I had a store I would never carry treats with these chemical preservatives and crazy colors”, and “I wish I could get Petsmart to stock better books for people to educate themselves about nutrition and behavior”, etc. My husband and I had always wanted to do something together, and pet supplies seemed to be the perfect solution. With his business background and my growing itch to provide people with excellent solutions to their product needs, we decided to jump in with both feet. We’ve been open 5 years and I can say I’m pretty proud of what we’ve created.
What do you see as the difference between your store and a Big Box Pet Store? What advantages to you provide to Pet Owners?
We really spend time with our customers, and I love how we develop so many personal relationships that persist over the years. People bring their tiny new puppies in, and I get to know those dogs and through the years see them develop and change, and help their parents with problems that come up. New customers often come in because they have a specific issue. When that customer goes to a big box and asks an employee for a good shampoo because their dog always smells bad and is itchy, that employee will bring them to the shampoo aisle (and likely send them home with something with harsh detergents and foaming agents). We talk to the customer about what they’re feeding and try to determine if their problem is nutritional. Perhaps they could go home with a great shampoo, or even with fatty acid supplements, but we’re honest with them that it probably won’t fix the problem as easily or effectively as an improvement in what they’re feeding (and they’ll likely spend less than if they have to load up on supplements and shampoos). If a customer comes in with a specific health problem, we offer to copy articles I have in my collection on holistic support for that condition, or offer to do research on it if we’re not familiar with the condition and get back to them with suggestions for things they can do to support that animal in its healing. I doubt anyone at a big box is doing research for them and calling them back in a few days with a list of resources for them to read and suggestions for holistic support. We point them towards our favorite naturopathic vets and refer them to our favorite trainers and groomers – people we have relationships with and know will provide them with the best service. We’re a small operation, so it’s very likely a customer will be able to speak to the same person each time they come in, and that person will remember them and check in on how that issue they had is being resolved. This means that if one thing they tried hasn’t done the trick, we can continue to work with them until we find a solution. I doubt you’d be able to develop a relationship with any big box employee over time – even the managers come and go very quickly.
What are some of the frustrations you have about the (mis)information your customers have been exposed to about pet food and nutrition?
There is very little that isn’t frustrating about the pet food industry as a whole – it’s lack of transparency (even refusals of companies to divulge who manufactures their foods), the fact that companies are not required to divulge the quality of their proteins, and not even allowed to brag about them if they use fabulous quality proteins. It’s frustrating when huge companies spend unbelievable amounts of money marketing their products and almost no money on ingredient quality. But the biggest frustration is that many veterinarians (like human doctors) don’t have a lot of nutritional training in vet school (no fault of theirs) and unless they take a personal interest in educating themselves about nutrition, they often rely heavily on prescription foods. Though these prescription foods do address the specific conditions they are meant for, they can sometimes contain the most heinous of ingredients like ethoxyquin. We even have vets in our area that talk people out of human grade foods and into grocery store foods instead, and then the customers come to us for help with skin and coat issues, etc….
How much of your job is nutritional education and counseling? Do you offer seminars or other continuing education opportunities through your store?
Oh goodness – so much of what we do in a day is nutritional counseling! It’s a fun and interesting process to introduce people to the concepts of food rotation, human grade ingredients, and introducing whole foods into the diet and watch their pets thrive. The most fun things for me are having people telling me they have changed their own diets to include less processed foods and are reading their own labels, or the customers who bring their friends and neighbors in and we overhear them telling them some of the things we’ve taught them. I do also lead formal nutrition lectures a few times a year, and plan on incorporating a short lecture for a local training facility that we work closely with for their new puppy classes.
Do you have some success stories to share about how good nutrition has helped customers to eliminate health problems?
My own cat is a great example of late in life nutritional intervention. She did so much better on human grade foods than she had in her past on poorer quality foods, and her liver values had definitely improved, but weren’t perfect. At 16 or so she had been diagnosed with early stage kidney disease, and she was developing a lump on her arm. She switched to raw food when she was 18, and soon had a coat like a seal and seemed younger and in better health than when she was 6 or 7 years old. About a year later I had her blood work done, and she had normal kidney values, normal liver values, and the lump had disappeared. She’s 21 now, and still looks great for her age. Edgar is customer’s elderly pug who came in with marked neurological problems, he moved awkwardly – most notably his mouth didn’t work well, and his tongue was always lolling out the side of his mouth. It was hard for him to chew and swallow, his coat was dull and he had a lot of little fatty tumors. After he switched to raw food his tongue went back into his mouth where it belonged and his movement improved almost 100%. His little fatty tumors all disappeared, and his coat is glossy and healthy. He now tears in here with the energy of a puppy! Though most of the really dramatic stories that stick in our minds are often associated with a switch to whole foods, the kinds of changes we see in overall health and vigor when people switch from poor kibbles to good ones are common and always very satisfying.
How did you choose your foods, or what defines foods that you will agree to carry, and what makes you decide against a certain food? Would you be willing to eliminate a certain popular food if something changed about it that you didn’t like? What sort of thing would that be that would make you do this? How would you handle it with your customers?
In the early days we worked closely with an animal nutritionist who really helped us to learn a great deal more about pet food and was especially helpful in educating us on the importance of who manufactures a food. Who manufactures a food is still a major consideration when we’re selecting a food, and we won’t stock products from certain manufacturers, or stock a product that won’t divulge where their food is made. We won’t carry things with by-products, chemical preservatives, nitrates, etc and we insist on human grade for our treats and foods. We did have exactly the situation you asked about – and it was probably our most popular kibble at the time. It used to be a favorite of ours, as the ingredients read so nicely (only rice as the carb, chelated minerals, probiotics, added digestive enzymes, etc) and so many dogs did so well on it, even when switching from a grocery store food. The price was good, but they did it by not spending a lot on advertising, etc. Then we got word last year that not only were they changing their tried and true formula, incorporating a variety of new carbohydrates that were problematic for some dogs, but they were switching to a manufacturer that had had several recalls in the previous few years (Diamond). We spoke at length with the owners of the food to try to come to terms with the changes, but nothing they said really reassured us that Diamond had improved their safety standards in measurable ways, – none of the company’s staff would be on site to monitor their operations, Diamond would be sourcing their ingredients (and we have since learned from Truth about Pet Food that ethoxyquin is used in all of their fish meal), etc. The pet food company’s opinion was that since Diamond had problems in the past that this meant that they would be hyper-vigilant in the future (they said it was like when an airline crashes that it’s the one you want to fly with as they don’t want it to happen again). We pulled the product off of our shelves entirely, which was a huge hairy deal for months and months, as at the time we didn’t have a good way of reaching our customers outside of our newsletter. People were often having to switch brands when they were out of food entirely, instead of being able to blend old and new together because they didn’t know their food would be gone when they came in to get it. It was an interesting and gratifying experience though, as people were overwhelmingly supportive of the fact that were were being so vigilant about quality and safety. We were extremely careful to take a lot of time explaining the situation without necessarily bad-talking the brand, and we’re glad to this day that we did that, as Diamond just had another recall in Sept/Oct of Premium Edge cat food, which is another brand they manufacture.
Have any of your foods been affected by a recall? If so, how did you handle it?
Luckily we have never carried a food or treat that has been recalled, but the experience above showed us that we should have a better way of reaching individual customers, and have since been putting customers’ info in our database attached to their buying history.
How do you go about choosing and training your employees?
This is a challenge, as you really want your employees to represent you and what you would say if you were there. If I sold shoes it would be far easier to find someone to fit the bill, but so much of what we do is detective work, asking just the right questions to try and determine what the specific solution to their problems might be – is it a product, or a training tip, or a referral to a specialist, or all of the above. We try hard to find employees that have experience with both nutrition and training, but that’s a tall order. New employees have a lot of reading to do though, no matter what, and they don’t work alone for many months.
How do you stay educated about food and news in the industry, and what are some of the challenges to this?
We read everything we can get our hands on – The Whole Dog Journal is very useful in this regard, as are websites like the Truth about Pet Food.
Visit our website at www.GreenDogPetSupply.com to learn more about us.
You’ll meet more Independent Pet Food Store Owners each week; please support these businesses.
Wishing you and your pet(s) the best,
What’s in Your Pet’s Food?
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