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Michael & Mark’s Story

Find out how Pet Food Express got started.

PFE Owners - Mark Witriol and Michael Levy with their pets

Michael and Mark have been business partners for nearly 20 years(that's 140 in dog years!), running Pet Food Express. You'd think by now they would have agreed on the story of how they met and formed their business—but as it has been many years, they still need to remind each other about some of the details.

It all started back when Michael was a boy of 7 and wasn’t allowed to get a dog, so he began bringing home stray cats.  At 16, he finally got his first dog, a German Shepherd, and trained him to respond to many commands off-leash. Years later, while attending City College of San Francisco in 1976, Michael decided to start a dog training business in order to supplement student loans (During this time, Mark was having his Bar Mitzvah). By the 1980s, Michael's little business (called Pro-Train) had become the largest professional dog training company in Northern California. He also opened his first “brick and mortar” store in 1980, in West Portal for dog training and pet supplies.

In 1986 (the same year “Top Gun” hit movie theaters), Michael changed the name of his store to Pet Food Express, and the company incorporated the following year expanding its paw-print in the Bay Area. By the time co-owners Michael and Mark finally met in 1992, Pet Food Express had expanded to three locations.

Getting Michael and Mark to discuss how they actually met resulted in this conversation:

Mark: My girlfriend brought home a dog. I didn’t want a dog. The dog’s name was Maxine and she fed the dog Nutro MAX. Good, I can remember the name of the food because of the dog. Maxine and MAX. The problem was the only place we could get the food was from the vet.

Michael: Or so he thought.

Mark: Or so I thought. The vet was in Marin, and he wasn’t open on the weekends or the evenings and I worked in Berkeley. I would have to drive there on my lunch hour to get the food, but often he was out or didn’t have the right size bag. But my girlfriend would not take any excuses. If I didn’t bring the right food, I was in trouble.

When my girlfriend wasn’t at home, I fed the dog spaghetti. Why? I liked spaghetti; I was eating spaghetti, so the dog got spaghetti. When I got a second dog—a white poodle—I added red tomato sauce, because when the dog was eating, it looked like he had just eaten a deer.

One day, Michael opened his third store, in Berkeley, right next to my electronics business.

Michael: I thought we met at the Cow Palace dog show?

Mark: We did, but I stopped in your store first but you didn’t know who I was. Michael tried to get me to switch foods, but I wasn’t listening.

Michael: But 99 percent of our customers would.

Mark: My girlfriend dragged me to the dog show at the Cow Palace to look for a poodle, so I didn’t really have anything to do. Michael and I started talking. I got the book of coupons he was handing out. Then we realized we had businesses right next to each other.

In the electronics business, I had to fight just to make $5 on a fax machine. Michael started telling me how good the pet food business was—and that dogs don’t write bad checks.

Michael: We saw it as a great opportunity. Mark had a lot of retail experience, which I lacked at that time.

And that was the beginning –almost 20 years ago. In 1993, Michael and Mark opened another store, this time in San Leandro with their first self-service pet wash. In 1996, Pet Food Express expanded to 10 stores; in 1999 to 15; in 2006 to 28 and currently the company has 62 California locations—with more coming soon!

“We are becoming a larger and larger business, and we view ourselves as a well-run operation,” Michael said. “But we cannot forget where we came from and how important it is to act like an independent and to have a personal touch on everything we do.”

(Just in case you're concerned or curious, Mark no longer feeds his dogs spaghetti.)

Mark: I actually do still feed the dogs spaghetti. By the way, although I did not want the dog initially, I came to love the dog—even though she ate 38 pairs of my girlfriend’s shoes, three couches, sheet rock and bricks.  When my girlfriend left (over the dog), I took Maxine and the poodle, Nick, even though it was my girlfriend’s dog.

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