Animal Attraction

Kim Lash explains pet food is one dish in a smorgasbord of pet products at Pet Food Warehouse in South Burlington and Shelburne

by Craig Bailey

It could be said that Pet Food Warehouse Ltd. opened for business in the mid-'80s because the late Jonathan Lash had big feet.

Reigning cats and dogs: Pet Food Warehouse in South Burlington and Shelburne caters to all pets, but focuses on cats and dogs. "We love it when customers come in with their pets," says owner Kim Lash (inset). Pictured: Kevin Eddy and Beth McAllister.

"Here's the real story," says Kim Lash, relishing the chance to recall the events that led her husband to establish the business. One day Mark Shulman brought Jonathan into the basement of Gladstone's Shoes, a business Shulman's father owned in Winooski, to show him larger sizes. Something else caught Jonathan's eye: a stockpile of exotic dog food.

Shulman explained to his friend that he had to travel out of state to buy premium food for his show dogs, storing it in his basement. Jonathan, ever on the lookout for a business opportunity, had an epiphany. "It just mushroomed," Kim says of the business Shulman and her husband incorporated in 1983 to sell premium pet foods.

Over the next two decades, Pet Food Warehouse has weathered many changes: an early departure by Shulman, two moves, the addition of a second store and Jonathan's unexpected death in 1995. One constant, however, has been the company's commitment to pet nutrition and well-being.

Most of the brightly colored packages of dog and cat food at the rear of the Williston Road store are unfamiliar to the uninitiated. "We don't carry very many commercial brand foods that you find in the supermarket," explains Lash, sole owner and president of the company since '95. Instead, the business stocks premium foods like Eukanuba, Triumph, Iams, Science Diet, Old Mother Hubbard, and its two biggest sellers: Natura and Eagle Pack. "Those are brands we do a lot to promote," says Lash, "because we feel they're excellent foods."

With pet foods, she explains, quality is judged by nutrition. In one bag, meat products are supplemented with a hodgepodge of healthy as well as surprising ingredients: brown rice, sunflower oil, cottage cheese and more, along with natural preservatives. Cat and dog products constitute most of the store's pet food, but animals as diverse as birds, ferrets, hamsters and pot-bellied pigs are represented as well. "There's that many pot-bellied pigs out there," says manager Kevin Eddy. "It used to be one of those special order-type deals, but now it's pretty much a regularly stocked item."

While the foods Pet Food Warehouse stocks appear more expensive -- easily twice the price of supermarket brands -- "In the long run, it's really a lot cheaper to feed this type of food," according to Lash. "Because of the quality of the ingredients, the dogs or the cats don't have to eat as much, and they also digest most of it." The results are healthier pets and less waste.

Lash speculates, "People probably think of us just as premium foods." Ironically, the wide variety of accessories proves more profitable. Accessories buyer Phillip Trussell strives to satisfy customers' unquenchable appetite for new product by filling shelves with loads of pet trinkets and toys from 150 vendors. Elsewhere in the store there are pet beds, crates, books, leashes, treats and more.

"We do a lot of research in terms of how good they are for animals," Lash says. "There's nothing we would sell that we wouldn't give to our own animals."

Educating consumers about the benefits of premium pet foods is part of Lash's marketing challenge. With so many varieties of food in stock, educating the company's 28 employees is a bigger challenge. "These people aren't trained nutritionists or veterinarians," Lash stresses, "but I think our staff is very knowledgeable." She adds many employees are multiple pet owners; some have worked with animals in previous jobs.

"We're not just out there selling product," offers Eddy. "We're trying to provide good advice and sell people the correct product." Eddy spends much of his time managing the wholesale branch of the business, Vermont Pet Food and Supply. The subsidiary serves 50 to 75 clients, mostly feed and seed stores in Chittenden County, from a warehouse on Boyer Circle in Williston. Two full-time employees work the facility, which also warehouses product for Pet Food Warehouse in South Burlington, managed by Jane Turner, and the smaller Shelburne store on Shelburne Road, managed by Corine Delotto.

Employee training at Pet Food Warehouse is focused on a substantial product manual the business has compiled. "Our managers at both stores go through all the basic information about the products -- the foods and the accessories -- with all the new people," says Lash. "This takes months.

"Once or twice a year, each pet food company that we deal with comes into town and we have a seminar with all our staff. It's usually a two-hour meeting," she says. "It gets very involved."

Newer staff members work shifts with more experienced salespeople to assure customers' questions are always answered. If not, Lash says, "Sometimes we call the food manufacturers direct to get the answer or we work with the veterinarian."

Pet food constitutes half of the business's name, but accessories take up the lion's share of floor space. From top: Tammy Keener and Torrie Latimer.

"They're very knowledgeable and very helpful," according to Mary Boushey of South Burlington, an owner of three cats who's shopped at the Williston Road store for a dozen years. "I read every single cat food can that I pick up, and what I need for my pets is at Pet Food Warehouse.

"I also do volunteer work at the humane society," Boushey adds, "and they're nice enough to have canisters out there for donations."

"We do fund-raisers with all of them," Lash says of area humane societies. Educating people about pets and creating outreach programs are part of her mission. "We all really enjoy doing that type of thing," she says. "In fact, we love it!"

Programs take the form of in-store workshops on pet grooming, flea dips to benefit humane societies, visits to schools for informational lessons, and an off-site adoption program with the North Country Animal League.

A few times a month for the past year, the league has brought a few animals in its mobile adoption van from its Morrisville headquarters to either Pet Food Warehouse location. Visitors to the store meet the animals and, if they wish, adopt a pet. "It's a very involved process, but it can be done in about 40 minutes. People go through that process right at Pet Food Warehouse," says Jennifer Flies, the league's executive director. "It's advertised ahead of time, so people aren't making impulse decisions." Flies attributes 50 adoptions to off-site visits to Pet Food Warehouse, and expresses kudos for the business's generosity with food and product donations to the league.

Lash acknowledges the adoption program has a goodwill effect on her business, but says other effects are more significant: "It does something for your business, but, more importantly, it does something for the animals that are being adopted."

"Pet Food Warehouse is extremely progressive in their attitude about humane issues," Flies offers. "They've really gone out 110 percent to be a good business/community partner, in the sense that they see the links between profit and non-profit. We've learned a lot from each other."

Lash's office is at the back of a string of offices off the 5,000-square-foot showroom in South Burlington. She explains her workday consists of handling the general affairs of the business, overseeing her half dozen managers. "My key staff is my business," she raves. "Most all the managers I have to this day were here when Jon was here." Her workday often ends by mid-afternoon, to allow her time with her children, Jesse, 12; Stefanie, 9; and the family cat and dog.

Lash, who lives in Shelburne, met Jonathan on a 1974 trip to visit her twin sister, Kerry, who had attended the University of Vermont. "My family had always had a cabin in Bethel," Lash explains, "so we've all had an affinity for Vermont." With a father who was a colonel in the Air Force, Lash grew up in Morocco, Africa, Alabama, California, New York, Massachusetts and Nebraska. At the time of her trip to the Green Mountains, she had recently earned an education degree from the University of Maryland.

After deciding to stay in Vermont, she worked a variety of administrative jobs while Jonathan earned his law degree from the Vermont Law School. The couple married in 1979.

Following Jonathan's discovery in the basement of Gladstone's, he incorporated Pet Food Warehouse with Shulman in 1983. Operating out of Gladstone's garage, the two made periodic trips to New York to purchase premium pet food, which they marked up for resale.

"People went crazy," says Lash. "There's a lot of people in Vermont who show dogs. It was wonderful." Six months later, Shulman and Jonathan stopped making trips out of state and delivery trucks started coming to them. "We couldn't keep up with the volume of consumers that were coming in," recalls Lash.

The business moved out of its 500-square-foot space in 1984 to Williston Road, behind Rent-a-Wreck; four years later it moved across the street to its current location. Along the way, the employee roster grew; the product line expanded; and the Lashes bought out Shulman, who moved to Florida.

Kim left her job at Nordica Ski Boot Co. to work full-time for the business in late 1986. In '91, Jonathan did the same -- closing his Burlington law practice to concentrate on pet food. The same year, the couple opened the Shelburne Road location. It's approximately half the size of company headquarters, but carries the same product lines.

It's no longer just pet breeders and owners of show animals who shop Pet Food Warehouse. The concept of premium pet foods spread to the mainstream long ago. "We've grown so tremendously in the last 12 years since I've been here," says Eddy, "it's almost mind-boggling."

"We have competition and it's evolved very slowly," Lash says. "We used to be pretty much the only pet food store around."

The self-serve pet wash at the South Burlington store has been so busy, Kim Lash is considering opening one at the Shelburne location. Pictured: Employees Bonnie Blades (left) and Christine LaFountain demonstrate with Tuffles, Lash's West Highland terrier.

Lash is cautious not to criticize her competitors. "I'd hate it if someone did that to me!" she laughs, before admitting, "I'm happy to say that we have a very loyal following of customers." To suggestions that businesses like PetSmart and might erode her market share, Lash looks on the bright side: "If anything, it's created more of an awareness of premium dog and cat food."

Lash believes free food samples and a return policy on pet food are distinctions of her business. In 1997, she opened Pet Wash Express, a self-serve, pet-wash facility in the South Burlington store, to provide another customer draw. "They go in and wash their own pets, which, truthfully, works out wonderfully," she theorizes, "because the pets feel more secure when they're with the owner." Patrons pay $12 to wash their pets in two raised tubs with ramps; cards redeemable for five washes sell for $50. The price includes shampoo, conditioner, aprons, towels, dryers and more. "It's been fantastic," enthuses Lash. She says weekends year-round are always busy, but springtime provides a specific clientele: "We get tons of skunked animals."

With additions like the pet wash and a forward-thinking strategy that might someday include home delivery, the business seems to be moving at a healthy clip. While many might have considered alternatives following the death of a spouse and business partner, Lash perseveres. "After Jonathan passed away, I don't think I ever really thought about selling this business. It was too much a part of him and of our lives," she reflects.

"I guess I just feel like this is," pausing to find the words, "I feel like this is part of the Vermont community. This place is like family to me."