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VOL. 41 | NO. 28 | Friday, July 14, 2017

From Main Street to Mars

Pets are becoming a big part of the Midstate economy

By Hollie Deese

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Renee Bell enjoyed some serious success during her 30 years in the music industry.

She worked with Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride, Brooks & Dunn and other stars, for example, during the 20 years she spent as an A&R executive at Sony Music.

She’s focused on a different breed of success these days, running Winston Dog, a two-year-old luxury dog boutique in Green Hills. She got the idea for the specialty shop when she couldn’t find the kinds of items she wanted to buy for her own new puppy.

“I wanted to do something different than everybody else is doing,” Bell says, adding about 80 percent of the merchandise she carries can’t be found elsewhere in Nashville.

By offering items exclusive to her shop, Bell points out, she targets customers who are willing to trade the ease of ordering online with the ability to touch and feel the merchandise first, especially important for items like pet beds and carriers that can’t be returned because of health codes.

Bell and her boutique are just a tiny part of the estimated $69 billion dollars that will be spent by pet owners in 2017, according to the American Pet Products Association. That’s an estimate working off the actual $66.75 billion spent in 2016, according to the association.

Pet lovers can spin a business out of just about any service, accessory, activity, exercise, safety course, food, event or idea to attract pet owners and their animal friends. Communities spring up among pet owners, some for fun like Halloween costume parades, and some who rescue and rehabilitate animals – and, all of it contributes to the pet economy.

There is also the more serious aspect of pet businesses, the veterinarians that deal with health care, medical needs, and even help owners cope with end of life decisions.

Fluff Out

In the back of Bell’s 800-square-foot store is a “Fluff Out” bar meant to keep dogs looking good in between regular grooming appointments or home baths. Customers can drop their fur babies off for a blow out, walk over to Whole Foods and come back 30 minutes later. Winston Dog does everything but bathe, including full trims, nails and teeth brushing.

Isabella, a Havanese, and her owner, Sharon Supalla, right, socialize with Adelaide Geer and her dog, Ellie, at Winston Dog in Green Hills.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“When I was working in the music business, music and dogs were my life,” adds Bell, owner of five pups. “I loved my job. But this job is really fun because we get new puppies in all the time.

“When people come in here, they love their dogs or they wouldn’t be in here. And they’re very excited, and they love looking. It’s a really happy environment. When I created it, I wanted it to be like a children’s store for dogs.”

In the past two years, Bell’s store has evolved as she has gauged the needs of her customers. She scaled back the amount of clothes and added more high-end collars, leashes and beds.

Her items are still luxuries, but are more practical, like bandanas and handmade bowls. Even much of the clothing she carries doubles as a harness.

Winston is one of Bell’s dogs, her oldest, whom she had rescued as a puppy. “He’s 13 years old, and it just felt appropriate to name the store after him,” she says of the 6½-pound Maltese.

Exterior of Winston Dog Boutique in Green Hills.

The store is profitable, but getting the word out takes work. Someone comes in nearly every day having never heard of the place.

“It takes time because you have to constantly try to figure out how to reach new customers,” Bell admits. “We do Facebook, we do Instagram. We have a lot of followers, but it’s just a process.”

Big businesses see value

Like Winston Dog, Mars Petcare is a local pet company, but on an entirely different scale.

Mars Petcare U.S. employs more than 20,000 associates, and Mars Petcare worldwide has more than 40,000. Mars Petcare employs roughly 1,000 associates in Middle Tennessee.

Mars Petcare recently picked the Ovation mixed-use development in Cool Springs for its $96 million new U.S. headquarters, which will occupy up to 224,000 square feet of space in two connected buildings with structured parking.

Jam Stewart, director of corporate communications, at Mars Petcare, says that with Mars Petcare’s plans to acquire VCA, the pet care division will be the largest segment within Mars, Inc.

“In recent years, we’ve grown to focus not just on pet food, but on the whole pet and every aspect of pet’s lives, including their nutrition, health, wellness and welcoming pets in more places,” Stewart explains.

“The current Mars Petcare headquarters are split between two separate buildings, so moving to one single location will help to create a more collaborative space for our associates,” Stewart says. “As we design our new facility, which we’ll be moving into in 2019, we are making sure that it’s an innovative space, providing an engaging environment for our associates, and that our design is centered around our pets who come to work every day.”

And that isn’t just talk – pets are welcome at work at Mars. Plus, Stewart says Nashville’s current population boom, and the pets that come along, gives Mars the opportunity to showcase how to better incorporate pets into daily work, home and life routines with their “Better Cities for Pets” program.

“We’re doing this by creating a model of what a pet-friendly community can look like, starting in Middle Tennessee, rolling out programming and policies that support pets,” Stewart continues.

The company kicked off a “Pets Welcome” business pilot program and community celebration in downtown Franklin in June, where more than 90 local businesses opened their doors to customers and their furry friends.

“We’ll use this program to assess the positive impact that pets can have on local businesses as we build our model,” Stewart adds.

To support this program, Stewart says they have developed a toolkit of materials for local businesses to use, including easy-to-spot “Pets Welcome” window signs, water bowls to set out for visiting pets, a code of conduct for businesses to follow, pet behavior management tips, and more.

They are even collaborating with state lawmakers to pass resolutions that honor pets. In June, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the “Pets Matter Month” resolution, authored by House Speaker Beth Harwell and co-sponsored by House members who represent the six Mars sites and 2,600 associates who live in Tennessee and work at Mars Petcare, Mars Chocolate and Wrigley.

Stewart says the Mars office is pet-friendly year-round, and associates have seen firsthand the benefits of having pets at work. They even offer an online resource, www.bettercitiesforpets.com/petsworkatwork that includes a sample pet policy to help businesses and offices define what works for them.

“In Nashville, we’re also partnering with the Mayor’s Advisory Council to kick off programming focused on shelters, and how better shelters start with responsible homes, and working with Mayor Megan Barry to promote responsible pet ownership and the health, safety and economic value of pets through compelling video content,” Stewart says.

Creating happiness in work

Finding joy at work is a common reason people gravitate toward pets.

Mewsic Kitty Cafe is “very much about connection and that’s between cats and people and people and people,” owner Maegan Phan says.

-- Submitted

Maegan Phan first heard about kitty cafés in 2014 while looking up content on Facebook for her job at a foreign language institute. Initially, the cafes were happening in Japan, and Phan was enamored with the idea of grabbing a cup of coffee, surrounded by purring, furry friends.

“I just thought that was the coolest thing ever,” Phan adds. “I’ve always thought, to be able to go and hang out in a room full of cats at the end of a long day, would be very therapeutic. I thought it could never happen in the states because of our health codes. I kept a pulse on it and then it did start happening in the states.”

First in California and New York, cat cafes have begun to open in areas in between. And when Pounce cat café opened in Charleston last fall Phan and her husband, Thien Phan, knew the time was right for Nashville.

New entrepreneurs, they recently held a four-day pop up event at Atmology, a meeting space on West End, to see what the response would be.

“We just wanted to test the market and see if this was something that could do well here,” Phan says. “Something that was fairly low-investment on our part, financially. Plus, we just thought it would be better to introduce it sooner than later.”

Tickets sold out. Nearly 500 people come through, with several more stopping by without a reservation. The cats were brought in from the Nashville Cat Rescue, and seven were adopted out. The organization was also able to raise funds through merchandise sales, and even pick up several dozen new volunteers.

“We hope to be open permanently by this time next year,” Phan says. “With demand, we know there’s a lot of people that wanted to go that didn’t get to go, so we’re looking at probably sometime in the fall doing another pop-up. Just to have that bounce in between now and the permanent location.”

Finding a temporary location that will allow her to bring in a dozen cats for a short-term event isn’t easy though, but neither is finding affordable commercial space.

“From the real estate brokers we’ve talked to, it’s just like the housing market,” she explains. “You see something and it’s gone before you hardly get a chance to ask.”

Phan says it’s easy to call something like a kitty café a trend, but what it is really doing is changing the adoption model. “You’re able to meet, maybe a future family member, in a more natural environment. A space that’s more like your own living room,” she says. “The cat’s able to show you more of his or her real personality because being locked up is really stressful for animals.”

She says she thinks the concept could translate easily for other businesses too, like book stores, creating alternative foster environments for animals.

“Ultimately, as a business, Mewsic Kitty Cafe, we’re very much about connection and that’s between cats and people and people and people,” Phan adds. “It was really neat to watch it unfold and just see how universal that human-animal bond is and just see all different kinds of people come through. Just everybody really be able to let loose and be themselves around these kittens.”

Capturing a connection

In addition to her pet photography business, Amiee Stubbs works with Animal Rescue Corps.

-- Submitted

Nashville native Amiee Stubbs was always drawn to taking pictures.

In the photography club at Overton High School, she would stash a camera inside her tall hat while in the marching band in order to get the shot. She worked at an Old Tyme portrait studio in the Opryland theme park for about seven summers, eventually getting her photography degree from Middle Tennessee State University in 2012.

But it was her work shooting photos for the Nashville Zoo that really got her started on the pet photography path. She started as an intern at the zoo in 2011.

“I thought if I go to the zoo and learn how to photograph animals that will help me with my pet photography,” Stubbs explains. “And that’s really what I wanted, was to be able to take better dog and cat photos.”

She also works with Animal Rescue Corps., based out of Washington, D.C. The organization does large scale animal rescues all across the country, and she will go and document the rescues for them.

“I’ve learned a lot about animal behavior at the zoo and with all the rescues that I’m active in,” she says. “I think that’s really almost more important than knowing the photography part of it, in a way. I have to be able to read the animals; know that they’re comfortable or not comfortable. Just make sure that they stay safe and that they’re having a good time.”

Stubbs says that about 60 percent of her photo business is shooting pets, the rest revolves around the entertainment industry. And she thinks it is only going to grow.

“The way I grew up with dogs, there were newspapers down on the floor. There weren’t crates. There weren’t all these fun little toys and enrichment items,” she says. “There just weren’t those things when I was a kid.

Amiee Stubbs has parlayed an internship at the Nashville Zoo into a successful pet photography business. “Pets are family more so than they’ve ever been before,” she says.

-- Submitted Photographs Courtesy Of Aimee Stubbs

“Now, the pet industry is huge. Pets are family more so than they’ve ever been before. It’s definitely grown considerably in the last year. In fact, I can’t even accept all of the requests I get for pet sessions, because I don’t have time, unfortunately, to do them all.”

A pet session, for one to two pets only with no humans, is $275. October through December she can barely take a breath from all the bookings as people gear up for holiday gifts and cards.

Stubbs also teaches private photography lessons at the Nashville Zoo, which is also growing. Last week she booked a record seven lessons. “I don’t know if the zoo is getting more popular or more people are just getting these nicer cameras and want to learn how to use them, but it looks like it’s shaping up to be a record year.’’

Stubbs aims to create portraits for pet owners that is not only art that lives on the wall forever, but captures who that pet was in their lives.

Many of the people who contact her have an animal that is older, possibly dying, and that was the impetus to get the portrait in the first place.

“When I have a dog who is sick and not doing well, I’ve been able to take some images that even surprised me, of just trying to capture that spirit in an older pup who may not be feeling so well,” Stubbs points out.

“Somehow I’ve been able to capture and bring it back just for that second. That’s all I need to make that photo, to kind of remember. Our pets do not live as long as we wish that they did.”

Jeff Miller was so confident in the strength of Nashville’s pet business industry that last month he bought, “Nashville Paw,’’ magazine from founder Heather Dowdy, who started the publication in 2006. Plus, working in the pet industry seemed like it would be much more fun than the 25 years he put into the corporate world.

“I have always liked connecting people and ideas and things, and that’s what I came to learn is the opportunity of “Nashville Paw’’ to be a bit of a hub to connect, whether it’s new entrepreneurs coming in and starting new businesses – and they’re popping up everywhere – or helping to create win-win connections between advertisers and non-profits and hosting events where they can all just sort of support each other,” Miller says.

Miller moved to East Nashville in January and is frequently down at Shelby Park with his wife, Joy, and their two dogs.

He sees the pet-focused culture embraced by the area and says he hopes to increase the number of events the magazine hosts next year, as well as finding a way to better serve Nashville’s surrounding communities.

“And they’re growing all the time,” Miller adds. “But when Heather started it in 2006, there were a handful of others, groomers, boarders, daycare, pet food and pet product companies that started around that same time. And they all kind of grew up together.

“And with the explosive growth in Nashville, it’s just continuing to mount.”

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