Listening puts Chow Hound owner ahead of the pack
Greg Keane credits those wiggly, dirt-loving night crawlers for "infecting" him with the entrepreneurial bug.
When he was a kid, Keane would crawl out of bed to search for the earthworms that surface after dark, clean them up and have them ready for purchase early in the morning for anglers willing to purchase them for bait.
"I'd make about $20 the whole season, but they were free for the catching and that intrigued me," said Keane.
He went on to launch other characteristic kid-run operations: lemonade stands, golf club polisher and caddie. "I was always looking for some way to make money," said Keane.
Chow Hound Pet Supply's first retail store opened in Grand Rapids 22 years ago. The privately held company has since grown to seven stores with about 125 full- and part-time employees. The stores are located in Grand Rapids, Plainfield Township, Holland, Standale and Cascade Township. The most recent store opened in Grand Haven in September.
"The price to rent the building was good so we could make money, and, visibility-wise, it was good," Keane said of the Grand Haven store at 628 N. Beacon Blvd. "We've looked at Grand Haven for quite awhile. This time, the numbers made sense; the landlord wouldn't be the only one making money."
Keane said he has no immediate plans to open an eighth Chow Hound. "But tomorrow, that could change," he said. "You know the saying, 'If you're not growing, you're dying.'"
Then, he amends his earlier statement. "It's nice to sit back this year and catch my breath."
A friend who ran an advertising agency pitched several names for Keane's business; Chow Hound conveyed the right tone and feel — more personable, less big box.
"We thought it was catchy," said Keane, whose brother Tyson oversees the business's marketing and IT. "It was something that looked like a mom and pop company. We were looking for something that gives us a good, corporate look, and Chow Hound has worked."
It did become a bit of a legal hassle more than a decade ago when Nestlé Purina PetCare Co., whose predominant brand for each animal food is generally referred to as "chow," asserted it owned the proprietary rights to the word and demanded Keane change his store's name, according to Keane.
He said he then trademarked the name and Purina challenged the trademark, but the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office said Keane could continue to use the Chow Hound name. Purina never litigated, Keane said.
The types of pet food Chow Hound sells have changed through the years, said Keane. Now it leans toward those with more natural, organic ingredients, grain and gluten-free foods, air-dried organ meats for cats and dogs, and related food products.
With each Chow Hound retail store averaging 8,000 square feet, Keane said it's vital to keep a pulse on what customers prefer to feed their pets.
"We're constantly looking into what the customer wants," he said. "Some of our products have become regular items because the customer wants it."
Some brands may run $100 for a 28-pound bag of dog food. Keane is mulling whether there might be enough interest to warrant selling an 11-pound bag of a certain brand for $140.
Selling these products with such price points is old hat on the West Coast, but the Midwest takes a little longer to warm up to the idea of high-end pet food.
"Some of this stuff we tried to launch years ago," said Keane. "They still like their chemicals and lots of it. But dogs are members of the family (now), and so this is changing. They're eating healthier."
It's a trend Keane thinks Americans should adopt for themselves. His observation was honed when he traveled to Ireland to play golf. "The only people I noticed who were fat were Americans," Keane said of his trip to the Emerald Isle six or seven years ago. "There were no drive-through restaurants or altered food products," he said. "They eat organic foods."
Despite its canine-friendly name, Chow Hound doesn't only sell dog food. Premium food for cats, gerbils, rabbits, fish, hamsters, ferrets, various reptiles, and both domestic and wild birds also are sold, as well as an average of 15,000 pet-related products that range from cages and sweaters to leashes, collars and toys.
This requires keeping an eye on pet product trends and a willingness to listen to customer input, said Keane.
Case in point: wild birdseed. There's a point when some people no longer may want to be the caretaker of a pet but do want to have some connection with animals. "People in the pet industry tell us that when people transition out of pets, they become more mobile, and that's what keeps us selling wild bird food," said Keane.
Keane said some of Chow Hound's best employees are animal lovers who have a proclivity for a particular species.
"They have a natural bent to learn more about a certain area, to have more of an expertise in what they're selling because of their hobbies: rabbit breeders, dog showers, reptile experts …"
Like any retailer, staying in the black is vital. But Keane, who owns a black Labrador and four or five fish, finds it a good fit to work with local animal adoption nonprofits to find homes for unwanted cats and dogs. And when it comes to felines, Chow Hound stores keep a handful on site for adoption. Some of these winsome, curious cats can be found amid the display shelves, which occasionally surprises customers who did not expect a cat to leap out from a stack of dog food, Keane noted with great mirth. No harm, no foul is the way he sees it. A small number of those cats become permanent fixtures at the stores.
"We've adopted out hundreds of cats with all of our stores. We have full cat-adoption displays in every location," said Keane.
Keane doesn't have to think twice about what first drew him to this business: Was it being an entrepreneur or his love for animals?
Entrepreneur, hands down, he said. He tends to be a no-nonsense kind of guy, he said, but you can't be the guiding force in a business like Chow Hound and not have it impact your view of animals. In Keane's case, this meant cats.
He always had a dog growing up.
"Ten years ago, I wasn't a cat guy," Keane said. "I've probably grown closer in my respect for them. Every one of our stores has adopted at least one cat. There are some cats that are so cool. Why would somebody give them up?"