Good Neighbor, Great Retailer
From educating the community about quality natural pet food to promoting animal fire rescue, Natural Pawz has been increasing awareness of the need to protect Houston's furry residents.
A labor of love, the Natural Pawz retail chain began in 2005 when Houston-based husband and wife Biff Picone and Nadine Joli-Coeur identified a correlation between their beloved dog Callie’s severe skin allergies and her diet. After putting Callie on a homemade diet that created a noticeable improvement in her condition, the couple received interest from family friends who wanted to try the food formula—interest that would eventually lead to the creation of a delivery service as demand grew within their social circle.
Though high demand was evident, Picone and Joli-Coeur didn’t want to rush into a business venture without detailed planning. “We knew nothing about retail,” recalls Picone. “We didn’t quit our jobs at work because we wanted to make sure that we got the store off to the right start, and six months later we were full time.”
The couple’s strategic approach to getting their fledgling business off the ground has apparently paid off. In just 10 years, Natural Pawz has grown from a small home-based operation into a 15-store chain in the Houston area.
Walking into a Natural Pawz location, pet parents will find an array of products designed to promote animal health from brands such as Nature’s Variety, Spring Naturals, Fromm, earthbath, West Paw and—of course—Callie’s Naturals. Shoppers might also find a display case filled with a selection of freshly baked treats suitable for pets, which could include frosted birthday bones, carob-dipped strawberry treats and peanut butter cups. Spa services are available at certain locations to clients who seek a natural grooming experience for their pets.
But Picone and Joli-Coeur’s faith in wholesome, quality pet products is only one aspect of their business. Though Natural Pawz has grown to include many locations, their success largely lies in promoting an atmosphere of a small, family-owned local shop focused on educating the community to promote all aspects of pet welfare.
Partnering with rescue operations by sponsoring adoption events and bringing the issues of local shelter animals to the forefront of Houston’s public consciousness is extremely important to the couple. “We found a lot of nonprofits that are pet-based don’t receive the same response as non-pet based,” Joli-Coeur reveals. Not only is the promotion of pet charities integral to their mission, so is maintaining the health of foster and shelter animals. “A lot of people don’t want to adopt a pet that doesn’t look healthy, and we help with that.”
Natural Pawz has donated more than 25,000 pounds of food to Houston’s city shelter and additional supplies to rescues throughout the region to help those neglected pets that need the most care. Through Natural Pawz’s dedication to rescue efforts and commitment to providing donations, Houston’s shelter pets are more often transferred into foster care.
While Natural Pawz receives positive feedback for its community efforts, Picone and Joli-Coeur believe others should be lauded for their animal-saving actions as well. Through the Pawz Hero Award, Natural Pawz recognizes emergency first responders who save pets. The decision to introduce the Pawz Hero Award was made after the couple learned of rescuers who made sacrifices to take great pet-saving measures.
“A firefighter had gone into a house, and the dog was in his kennel, and the firefighter took the entire kennel to save the dog’s life,” Picone recalls. “A dog got caught in a tire rim, and someone took it to a firehouse, and they used the Jaws of Life to get him out. [The Pawz Hero Award] morphed into another issue we are really proud of.”
A recent cause that Natural Pawz has taken up—the lack of emergency pet oxygen masks available during fire department response—was brought to light when Picone and Joli-Coeur learned of a fire in the house of an animal hoarder. The situation turned dire when multiple fire departments responded and only one had a pet oxygen mask.
The couple decided to use their Pawz for a Cauze fundraising event—through which Natural Pawz raises money for animal-focused nonprofit organizations—to help. During the fourth-annual Pawz for a Cauze initiative last year, the company focused on raising money to donate pet oxygen masks to different firehouses within the Houston area.
“Animals are rescued from fires at great risk,” says Picone. “We said, ‘We need to do something.’ We put together a program to purchase 100 oxygen mask kits that fit small and large dogs, and cats. Our goal was to be able to buy 100 masks, and we ended the effort at the end of June and were able to buy 200 masks.”
Following Natural Pawz’s oxygen-mask drive, the company was able to provide a mask to all of Houston’s firehouses, and within the first 90 days of receiving the lifesaving tools, firefighters were able to rescue 15 dogs and cats. In a press conference in September, Houston mayor Annise Parker expressed her gratitude to Natural Pawz for providing these tools, which she hoped would allow the city and residents to work together to improve animal safety.
The Houston Fire Department’s senior captain and public information officer Ruy Lozano has served the city for 19 years. His division managed the distribution of the oxygen masks to 92 departments. Before working with Natural Pawz, Lozano was not aware opportunities existed to have these tools donated, saying, “If resources are available, we will protect the lives of pets. Natural Pawz has given us tools to continue resuscitation efforts after the fire.”
But the donation effort reached beyond providing the tools to rescue pets. First responders also learned the importance of every firehouse having the resources to provide oxygen to pets during emergencies. “To some respect, it gave us tools to remain successful when helping a family member after a fire,” says Lozano. “Many people are thinking about their pets during a fire. I had the opportunity to learn about firefighters who had gone back into a home to save pets.”
Natural Pawz remains committed to ensuring every firehouse is equipped with pet oxygen masks. The firefighters of the Village Fire Department, serving the Memorial Villages area of Houston—which has three Natural Pawz locations—received a donation of six pet oxygen masks from the retail chain in March.
Picone and Joli-Coeur are adamant about spreading the word about the importance of pet oxygen masks throughout the country and hope that all independent pet shops will recognize the need to educate their communities about these lifesaving tools. But don’t expect them to expand their business nationwide.
“We’re a neighborhood store,” says Picone. “Growing up, you had your local grocery stores and drugstores. They were part of the community.” It is this sense of community that drives the couple to continue their work, striving to promote the well-being and care of pets.
When discussing any of the accolades Natural Pawz has received—such as the Better Business Bureau’s 2014 Winner of Distinction and last year’s Cardinal Crystal award for Best Grooming Shop in the U.S.—Picone insists that he and Joli-Coeur are fortunate to have their employees and customers. “We went into business to make a difference,” he says. “I am honored to receive any award.”
Catering to the city’s discerning health-conscientious pet parents, Natural Pawz continues to expand by launching new stores throughout the region, while protecting its clientele and community. Picone and Joli-Coeur believe that remaining true to their mom-and-pop roots is vital to the success of the business. Making Natural Pawz “the health food store for pets” in the local community is a simple concept, but it is enough for these owners, who are dedicated to old-school business ethics and community-focused service.