Pet Insight spoke with Mark Boonnark, co-owner of Healthy Spot, to discuss how he joined the pet industry, what differentiates Healthy Spot and the value in creating a positive experience for consumers each time they visit their stores.
Describe your career path and how you came to work in pet.
Basically I started the business with my college friend Andrew Kim. We both went to Berkeley together and became friends through college. After graduation, we both took the more traditional career path – he worked in finance up in San Francisco for about five years, and I moved back to Los Angeles and worked for an advertising agency for about four to five years. From that point, it’s where our lives intersected again, and the idea of Healthy Spot was born. We were both at a crossroads in life where we wanted to do something that we had more ownership of, that was more fulfilling, more enlightening and from our standpoint, that gave back and left a mark, an impact on the world. I joked that it’s the Berkeley and the hippie in us – getting a paycheck wasn’t enough and that’s what led us down this path.
What encouraged you and Andrew Kim to co-found The Healthy Spot?
The pet food recalls had happened in ’03 and again in ’07 and that got Andrew looking into nutrition for his own rescue dog. And that’s how the idea was really born – it’s everyone loves their animals and wants to do best for them. Often times people think they’re doing best, but there’s such a lack of education and awareness of the products that are out there, people are misled unfortunately. Even from my own experience, I always went to PETCO and bought the more expensive brands, thinking they were healthier options. At the time, things have changed over the years, but at the time, people didn’t really question what was in their pet food. Then you see what has changed is the educational aspect, you see on the human side as well, people are now looking at their ingredients, looking at their nutritional analysis and learning about the sourcing of their ingredients, the product and even the values of the company they’re supporting. That’s been our passion from day one. We wanted to be that trusted, unbiased third party partner for the consumers and for their pets. We figured we’d do all the heavy lifting – all the research and all of the homework on top of that making a strong effort to educate and bring awareness to everyone who walks into our doors. We work with a lot of distributors, and they’re always suggesting, you need to carry brand X and brand Y because they’re doing really well right now, but we didn’t take that approach at all. We evaluated the products purely based on their quality – that’s how we keep up with our product offering. We joke it’s a little bit of innocence and a little bit of ignorance to retail and the pet industry, but we have been able to start with a fresh, clean slate and guide from the perspective of a pure passionate pet owner. We’re educated, we have great ideas and strategies but we didn’t, outside of high school jobs, have professional retail experience. From there it evolved – we wanted the same philosophies with the hardgoods and products we carried as well – we have a lot of eco-friendly, natural, alternatives partly with our services and we’re big on transparency. We do grooming and daycare – figuratively and literally – the rooms are glass, you can see into them, you can see your dog being groomed on the table, daycare – you can see the whole facility. We’re really big on training and re-training our employees. Even our groomers, who have years of training, are re-trained to meet our standards. That’s how we got to where we are today.
How did you and Kim decide to focus on offering holistic, natural and organic products at Healthy Spot locations?
It was really spurred on by the pet food recalls – it was the catalyst. Looking into it, we learned what the healthiest fit for the animal was based on their biology, based on efficiency, absorption and nutritional integrity. These natural products were what nature had intended for them to eat, even when you look at raw food, for example, it’s a biological fit for dog and cats. They have a very short digestive system, the pH of their stomachs are different, they’re built to eat raw foods and more meat and protein. They weren’t built like a cow to digest grains, which we were seeing as an issue in the industry. People were using a lot of fillers, people were using low quality ingredients and we were seeing so many animals with health issues including allergies and cancer.
What do you find rewarding about working in the pet industry?
It’s really just inspiring people. That’s our mission, inspiring healthy pet lifestyles, that’s what we feel is most rewarding. We see people have switched to healthier foods, we’ve seen simply energy level and the happiness of their pet increase, even their dogs and cats are enjoying their food more – we see it in more extreme issues where dogs have cancer or health issues, our help and their diet prolong their quality of life and eliminated some of their issues. When customers come back and they’re emotional about it, that’s as rewarding as it gets. From a bigger picture, the nutrition aspect and the healthy lifestyle of our clients, we’re big on philanthropy. From day one, puppy mill issues were much bigger when we first started, we were very adamant about not being involved in that. We decided to do everything we could within the confines of our store to support the local rescue initiatives. We donate to them and to events within the local community. We have our daycare services, but we shut down our services every Sunday to host a local group at all of our locations. It’s a different environment to showcase animals – it’s a cage-free room, kind of like a playground, people can go in and see the dogs. Lastly we do a round up, we were one of the first to do it, you see it’s more prevalent now, for every transaction, you can round up your transaction to the nearest dollar, and we pass that 100 percent through to our cause of the month. Through that change alone, we’ve raised over $100,000. It’s pretty crazy how it’s adding up.
What do you enjoy about running your own business?
The challenges and conquering those challenges. Our goal wasn’t to just open one store, even from the days of sitting in my tiny apartment living room and discussing the idea, we had lofty goals of creating a national brand. We figured the more doors we could open, the more pets that we can reach. The journey from starting one store to now trying to open up multiple locations and expand is ever evolving and that’s a fun challenge. From the first store, we were ringing up customers, opening and closing, cleaning up and taking out the trash, to now we have a recruiter and a human resources manager, administrative help and experts in different respective, departments within the company to help us grow and expand. It’s now managing those moving pieces and managing the people – who are the true heart and soul of the company – and that’s what really has changed. Originally, we focused on the customer experience and that’s still definitely the core of our front lines, but now it also includes the employee experience. We want everyone who is employed by us to have a positive impactful experience with us.
How does your previous work experience influence your leadership at Healthy Spot?
Definitely, for both Andrew and I, we’ve both gravitated to our experiences. For him, he’s always been working with numbers and growth, so he’s headed up that front of things. We both play to our strengths, both from experience and naturally as well. He’s a people person, he’s motivational and develops our managers. On my end, with my advertising background, I’ve always thought I had a more creative, artistic eye. I have a good pulse on pop culture and the trends of retail as well. I pretty much act as our creative director in terms of our branding and the look and feel of our stores. I head up all of our product procurement – continuing to offer a fresh product offering, even in terms of leveraging our technology and improving our technology resources on the business end, I head that up to.
How do you work with Kim?
Originally, we gravitated to our strengths, but as we’ve acquired more employees, we’ve made it black and white so employees know who to contact and the chain of communication is as well, but we have a very synergistic relationship. We’re similar in some ways and it’s a perfect balance. We have our areas of expertise but the bigger picture things, such as overall business strategy, the direction of growth and expansion and the major product decision, we do that as a team.
How does Healthy Spot differentiate from other pet specialty stores?
Without giving away our secret sauce, one of the first things we did before we started the business, was set our mission, and from there not allow ourselves to deviate from it and hold ourselves to that high standard. Throughout the growth and the expansion, not letting that get diluted is really what differentiates ourselves, and I think that comes to fruition when you see the appearance of the store. But more importantly when you experience the store, that level of customer service, the level of education and training we put into our staff, that’s what really sets us apart. The products we carry, any retailer can probably get their hands on it, but it’s the care and the passion that we have that you can’t just replicate in a manual – that’s what really sets us apart.
What does Healthy Spot provide its consumers that online, mass and grocery retailers can not?
It’s that customer service – I feel we’re much more tied into the community. It’s important to have that relationship. We know our customers, we know their pets. Online is always a battle, their overhead is lower, they can reach a higher volume of people and they can compete on pricing. But there are certain things you can’t do online. From the experience aspect of it – you want to bring your pet into the store, meet other pets and check out the products first hand. You can’t get your grooming and daycare online. That’s where we set ourselves apart from those competitors. The big chains and the mass retailers, for us it’s that independent focus. Working with like-minded brands and companies that aren’t in those chains.
What is driving the demand for natural and holistic pet products?
In general, people are becoming more educated and aware of nutrition – not only for themselves but also for their family and pets are part of their family.
Who is the demographic you and Kim were trying to serve when you founded the company?
When we founded the company, the demographic was anyone and everyone who owns a pet. That’s one of our biggest things – value and the quality you get in our stores. We didn’t want the healthy, being healthier, having a healthier lifestyle to be only at a premium. The focus on offering healthy options for people of all socioeconomic status that is a standard which we will always hold ourselves to.
How has the demographic changed in recent years?
It’s only expanded, although that was our ideal in founding the company. It’s a little more affluent, a little more educated, and a little bit younger in some cases, as they’re more in tune with nutrition and healthy lifestyle. But it’s only expanded. You see it with companies like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s on the human side. When these companies started, only a smaller group could afford their products or cared about health or were more aware of it, now that the awareness and education have expanded so to have the demographic.
How does Healthy Spot create an optimal experience for consumers when they visit your retail locations?
It’s customer service – that’s the easiest way to describe it. Customer service and the experience – that’s our number one goal. We feel that customer service has been lost in the modern day. Everyone is living a fast paced, point A to point B lifestyle now and we want to bring back that lost art. We really try to engage and understand our customers and then therefore we can be more accurate with attending to the solutions to those needs.
How do you work with distributors?
We’ve found the brands we want to carry and it’s led us to the distributors we’ve had to go to. It’s never been we’ve partnered with a distributor and trusted the brand they recommended for us. It’s started the other way around – where we were led to the people we needed to go through to get the products we need. At this point, distributors are evolving as well, some are focusing more on smaller and independent brands, so it’s just made it a more natural fit for us.
Where are opportunities for growth in California?
We’re still just five locations in Southern California, and I feel even in Southern California, there are so many pockets in so many cities and towns where there can be an opproutnity for us in a densely populated area.
Which conditions would encourage you and Kim to expand the company’s footprint?
Just the right opportunities – for our business and from the real estate opportunities to the demographics into what brings that added value to our brand as well.
What can we expect from Healthy Spot in the near future?
We’ve never wanted to open stores just to grow store count. We want, similarly to the concept of quality, out of our products, out of our employees and our service, it’s the same thing with our growth strategy. We don’t want to just open stores, we want to have strong, well run, well operated and efficient stores. We do a lot to reinvest in our infrastructure, growing our team, investing in our staff and our managers to make sure we hold those standards high. And from that point, we’re only setting the foundation for us to grow more rapidly.