But Levy’s business thrived and soon he turned his first location into a pet supplies store. Mark Witriol joined him as a partner in 1992 and the two are still the sole shareholders. Now Pet Food Express has expanded to 56 7,000-square-foot stores across California with five more opening in 2016. Levy and Witriol had the option to franchise and expand stores beyond California, where they could have had more than 1,000 stores in their docket today, but they prefer to own everything. Even expanding to southern California was a big challenge for Pet Food Express and Levy explains it was a carefully timed, calculated move.
“We’re just very hands-on and we want to expand at a rate where we can keep the culture,” Levy says. “The real reason for our success is our culture and our employees. As beautiful as our stores are, it’s about our employees and the customer experience within the store. You can talk about culture, but you have to experience it.”
To build the employee culture, Pet Food Express has extremely intensive employee training programs. Employees work in the stores for three months before their new-hire training to learn what they don’t know and truly experience the store. Then, they go to Pet Food Express University in Oakland, California to undergo a solid week of rigorous, immersive training.
“Our employees do an amazingly good job with customer service,” Levy adds. “Our training and customer service is way beyond just customer service. It’s about the experience and support you get in the store. When customers come in, we don’t say, ‘Can we help you?’ We’re there to smile, greet people, know their pets names and let them know we’re there if they need our help.”
Pet Food Express stores are even set up so that they breed interaction. The stores are kept to a smaller size than a big-box pet store and, with the exception of perimeter racking, gondolas and other fixtures are kept to a five-foot height maximum so no customer gets lost among the aisles.
“We want to be able to look across the store and see everybody and they see us,” Levy says. “We don’t want customers going down canyons of aisles and not seeing another person. We’re all about the interaction.”
The Right Product
Pet Food Express doesn’t carry pet food that a customer would typically find at a grocery store. It has a large mix of natural, organic, raw, freeze-dried, home-prepared and grain-free foods for all kinds of dogs and cats. The store has about 5,000 SKUs and food consists of about one-third of that.
Additionally, the pet industry has grown by leaps and bounds. When Levy started as a dog trainer, he explains there were only about 100,00 SKUs in the pet industry, but now there are millions. When most retailers were suffering from the downturn in the economy in 2008, the pet market remained strong. Thanks to this, Pet Food Express has grown consistently since 1980.
For customers taking care of multiple pet households and those just looking for a great deal, Pet Food Express offers instantaneous rewards for its customers. It allows them to buy three products and get the fourth free in a number of pet supply categories. If you have a large dog or a pack of smaller ones that requires a lot of food, it amounts to significant savings. But Levy emphasizes that it’s not about the lowest price, it’ about getting the right product to a customer’s pet.
Thanks to spending his childhood rescuing stray cats and walking dogs, Levy has had a passion for pet rescues for most of his life. This translates heavily to his business: 90 percent of funds that most companies would dedicate to marketing efforts, Pet Food Express uses for pet rescue efforts and pet-related charity events. The company donates more than $2.5 million to pet rescues across California every year and has fed every animal in the San Francisco and Marin County animal shelters for the last four years.
“We’re looking to put our dollars where it’s going to save pets and put them into forever homes,” Levy says. “Anyone can do sponsorships, but we create them.”
Pet Food Express hosts an annual Bay Area Pet Fair, which is the largest adoption event in California. At the fair, the company showcases animals from at least 70 different shelters, and at the October fair this year over 1,100 pets found new homes, with more than 20,000 people in attendance. Pet Food Express also runs the San Francisco Bay Area pet adoption website, which has had more than 60,000 pets adopted since its inception.
Through its My Mutt program, for customers who have donated $250 or more to their local animal rescue shelter, the company will send photographers out to photograph their dog, cat, guinea pig or any critter they own, blow up the photo to poster size and display it in the local Pet Food Express. It costs the company about $400 per photo, including the photographer’s time, photo process and hanging in store, but the company doesn’t take any money from it. Everything goes to the shelters.
“We live to control our own destiny and do what we think is right,” Levy explains. “A traditional board of directors would probably never approve the My Mutt program. Give away money and get nothing back from it? Why? Because it seems right. We can do things the way we feel is best for animals, employees and customers. It comes back. We do well by doing good for pets.”
In his lifetime, Levy has owned more than 30 dogs, fulfilling his childhood wish through his store operations, rescue efforts and giving his newest dog, a rescued French bulldog named Winston, a forever home.