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Drummond: Oakland-based Pet Food Express on a roll

January 10, 2015

Contra Costa Times

As a child Michael Levy would rescue kittens. His mother had his father take them back to the pound. He once kept a pigeon overnight. When he came home from school, the window was open and the bird was gone. "Grandma said it must have flown away," Levy said. At 9, he got his first job walking a neighbor's dog for 25 cents a pop.

Today, Levy is founder and CEO of Pet Food Express, a hugely successful, boutique pet supply retailer headquartered in Oakland. The native New Yorker has come a long way since he dropped out of college in 1976 -- for the second time. Then, to the chagrin of his mother, a dentist who hoped he might enter the medical profession, Levy left City College in San Francisco to go into business as a full-time dog trainer.

"I think things worked out well," Levy said.

No arguments there.

Levy heads a 700-plus employee operation -- with a 55th store scheduled to open in Beverly Hills in two weeks -- and a 56th in Sonoma in March. The company headquarters is in deep East Oakland.

Last week, Mayor Libby Schaaf praised Pet Food Express for its role in helping to revitalize the challenged neighborhood near its Oakland headquarters and for the company's charitable works.

In 2014, Pet Food Express donated $2.5 million to pet rescue, shelter organizations and schools. The company has helped raise $600,000 to equip police K-9s with bulletproof vests and other safety equipment.

On Wednesday, Schaaf visited Pet Food Express' headquarters. She was joined by four police K-9 teams, the heads of Oakland Animal Services and the East Bay SPCA, along with Councilman Larry Reid. Schaaf credited Pet Food Express with creating hundreds of jobs in Oakland and said the company "reflects the best of what Oakland is today and what it can be tomorrow."

On Sunday, Levy will receive the National Retail Federation's inaugural Giver Award at a ceremony in New York City. He is one of six retail leaders being honored for making a positive change in their communities.

The Police & Working K-9 Foundation nominated Levy for Pet Food Express' participation in the nonprofit's Cover Your K-9 fundraiser which raises money to equip police K-9 teams. According to Louise Tully, president of the Police & Working K-9

Foundation, six police dogs are killed in the line of duty every year. Her organization has provided 250 high-tech bulletproof K-9 vests to law enforcement agencies around California as well as emergency trauma kits to treat wounded animals. The $1,300 vests are given to police free of charge. The nonprofit also raises funds to help cover the medical costs for retired police K-9s. Pet Food Express collected donations from customers at the counter and donated some of the proceeds from pet bath tokens.

Pet Food Express relocated to Oakland from San Leandro in 2010 -- lured by the potential for expansion at the new 147,500 square-foot facility, proximity to public transportation and the airport. The city was also offering attractive tax and other incentives for new businesses in the redevelopment zone.

Landing Pet Food Express' headquarters was a big deal for the city, which has faced challenges attracting new businesses due in large part to negative perceptions about crime. Levy says the only downside so far has been illegal dumping which city officials have pledged to clamp down on.

People often ask the Pet Food Express CEO why he doesn't take his successful business model outside of California. One woman even suggested he open a store near the Alps. The Marin resident and his business partner Mark Witriol, who lives in Oakland, want to preserve the intimate culture of the company that has made Pet Food Express so successful. In other words, bigger is not always better. "One thing that really works for us is being able to be in touch with all of our customers and stores and not trying to run everything from some distant location," Levy said.

At first all the stores were based in Northern California. Pet Food Express recently expanded its geographic footprint into Southern California.

It's not going to be so easy anymore for Levy and Witriol to be able to visit every location and still manage to be back home in time for dinner. "The one thing my dad says is why do you keep opening new stores?" Levy said. "I tell him I enjoy it."

Some of us pet owners might enjoy shopping in them a little too much.

By Tammerlin Drummond

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