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Pet Food Express Fosters ‘Unique Culture’

August 19, 2016

The Mercury News

OAKLAND -- Its name connotes speediness and a sort of corporate air, but Pet Food Express is far from either of those things.

It's not that you can't get in and out of the pet supply store efficiently, but for those who have endless questions about the right food for their new puppy, or which toys are perfect for their cats, friendly employees -- all grads of an in-house Pet Food Express university -- are only too happy to listen and share their knowledge and ideas.

It doesn't hurt that pets have pretty much become members of the family, with sales in food, toys and other accoutrements for Fluffy and Fido going through the roof. But good customer service and the educational nature of the company are qualities that founder and CEO Michael Levy -- an animal lover who had a job walking dogs as a kid in Manhattan -- has worked hard to instill. In addition to the weeklong training course for all new hires, store managers get extra training on new products, procedures and other information about every month.

It is an expensive strategy, Levy said, but it is also what has helped the company build a loyal following of pet parents and a healthy (and still growing) crop of stores across Northern and Southern California.

"I had a client who was getting a new puppy go into Pet Food Express yesterday and told me that an 'employee spent an hour with her, going over the food,' " said Denise Collins, owner of in-home dog training company I Talk Dog. That is a different experience than stopping at the grocery store for kibble.

In addition to the intense employee training, Pet Food Express has capitalized on a slew of activities at its stores that set it apart, including regular puppy training workshops, adoption events and even veterinary care clinics.

Mike Murray, the company's director of community relations, said he was surprised when he joined the company in 2005 to see how thorough the training process is for all levels of employees.

All new hires are brought to the Oakland headquarters to learn about everything from dog and cat nutrition to what harnesses are the best fit for each animal.

"I bought my dog food based on how good the commercials were," Murray said, of his pre-training regime. The Pet Food Express name -- which Levy admits does not accurately describe his company -- was actually the title of his pet food delivery service in the 1980s, a facet of the pet training and retail company he had built in the Bay Area before selling his stake in the training portion and opening Pet Food Express in San Francisco in 1987.

Levy and business partner Mark Witriol have since grown the company to roughly 60 stores, including recently opened locations in Martinez and Pacifica. Not too shabby for somebody who helped pay for his college classes by becoming a dog trainer. Levy decided to drop out of school and eventually grew the business into roughly seven locations that covered everything from police dog training to housebreaking.

The retailer attributes much of the company's growth to the goodwill generated by the company's outreach to shelters, as well as its selection of high-quality food products and toys. For example, while dog toys are not federally regulated for safety, Pet Food Express uses the same standards that are in place for children's toys. And the baskets full of pigs' ears and other treats that attract so many curious canine noses have numerous "Made in the USA" tags on them and other stamps of approval.

That is important, as pet parents are spending more money than ever on their animal family. According to the American Pet Products Association, spending on pets has jumped from about $17 billion in 1994 to a projected $62.75 billion in 2016.

"It's a unique culture," Murray said. He should know. Murray founded the first German shepherd rescue group for the Bay Area and reached out to Levy and Witriol about a position that would allow him to foster partnerships with rescue groups and animal shelters.

Since he came on board, the company has built partnerships with roughly 250 shelters or rescue groups in California. The company holds major fundraisers that include its Bay Area Pet Fair, the largest pet adoption event in California, and a fundraiser for police dog supplies. On most weekends, in fact, customers can find an adoption event at one or more of the stores.

Rebecca Katz, director of Oakland Animal Services, said the retailer provides coupons for people who adopt animals from the Oakland shelter. She said that kind of help is needed more than ever, as shelters are flooded with needy animals and resources are always strained.

The company's efforts to do good may be noble, but they are also a boon for business. According to Levy, very little money is spent on traditional advertising, and much of Pet Food Express' business comes from word-of-mouth and through its visibility in working with shelters.

Said Katz, "They've done well by doing good."

By Annie Sciacca at 925-943-8073. Follow her at Twitter.com/AnnieSciacca.

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