A Stroke of Serendipity
By combining dedication to pet nutrition, customer service and community involvement, the Loyal Biscuit Co. has earned the loyalty and love of Maine’s pet owners.
Heidi Neal’s entry into the pet industry was part leap of faith, part stroke of luck. Yet despite the unplanned nature of her sudden switch from a marketing job in the banking industry to owning a pet retail store, the Loyal Biscuit Co. has grown from a single shop to an award-winning four-store operation in just a few years under her leadership.
Were it not for an offhand comment, the Loyal Biscuit Co. might not exist today at all. A conversation with her husband, Joel, about a friend who was selling her business served as the spark for the career change, with Neal mentioning that she would love to own the Loyal Biscuit, their local pet retail store in Rockland, Maine. Already a regular customer at the store with her black lab, Bentley, she decided to look into it.
“Later that week I sent the owner an email because I special ordered my dog food, so I was asking about my order and said, by the way, if you ever want to sell, I’d love to have the opportunity to at least talk to you about it,” Neal says.
The owners responded, explaining that the store had been on the market for two months in advance of their move to another state, and if they didn’t find a buyer by Christmas, they would close the business. That was on December 15.
“I panicked and called Joel, and we went down and talked to them and decided to take the leap,” Neal says. “It was completely random. I had no idea what I was doing when I got into it. I was a marketing officer. I knew nothing about retail, nothing about POS systems, I didn’t know what made good dog food, didn’t know about ordering.”
With limited time to learn the ropes before she would have to take over operations herself, Neal got a two-week crash course in the pet industry and running a retail store. The former owner stayed on to get Neal connected with the distributors and manufacturers’ representatives, teach her how to do weekly orders and put together a binder of what to look for in new products. Once the two weeks were up, Neal was essentially on her own.
“For the first 10 months it was just me,” she says. “Six days a week I knew exactly where I was going to be. I was in the store from 10:00 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday was for paperwork and orders.”
In a whirlwind expansion, the Loyal Biscuit Co. spread to several other Maine towns and launched Fidelis, a line of organic treats, as well as its own Tug ME dog toys in just a few years. Eighteen months after purchasing the Rockland store, Neal opened a Belfast location, then grabbed an opportunity to secure a Camden location directly between the existing stores only nine months later.
“There was a store in Camden that became available for sale, and we were like, ‘we are not ready for our third store,”’ Neal says. “But we couldn’t have someone coming in the middle there, so we did it. It was quite crazy.”
After taking some time to regroup, test out different POS systems and get the Loyal Biscuit’s operations adjusted to its newly tripled size, the business opened its fourth and newest location in Waterville.
“Now every single day is different,” Neal says. “I could be driving between the stores, in my office, I could be covering for someone who calls out sick. I could be anywhere at any given time.”
The business has also received a growing amount of public recognition over the past year. Besides the Loyal Biscuit being named the Best Overall Retailer (2-10 Stores) at last year’s Global Pet Expo, Neal was also presented with the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Maine Small Business Leader of the Year award in 2015.
“I’ve had a lot of public speaking requests, which is very strange,” Neal says. “People are much more aware of what we are and what we do.”
Driving this success is a continued commitment to quality pet food and products, and a deep-rooted involvement in the community. Neal enforces strict standards when bringing in new products for the stores—including no wheat, corn, soy or byproducts in food—and makes sure her staff is well-versed in pet nutrition to better serve their customers.
“First and foremost, we’ve always been about nutrition,” Neal says. “That priority for us will never change. With toys and collars, we try to find things that are very unique from companies that have a great reputation. That’s really our focus, health and quality and education.”
The Loyal Biscuit has also been recognized for its efforts to support shelter animals. The business partners with area restaurants and entertainers to host an annual Pints for Paws fundraiser, in which proceeds from every pint of beer sold go to support local shelters. The event has raised more than $25,000 over the last four years. The retailer also works with pet food manufacturer Canidae on a holiday food drive, which raised enough money to purchase six months worth of cat food and 10 months worth of dog food for two shelters this year. Despite the essential role of her business, Neal gives the credit to animal-loving customers for these programs’ successes.
“It’s all donations from our customers,” she says. “We’re just the vehicle that brings it all together.”
The next step for the Loyal Biscuit is the purchase of a larger building in downtown Rockland, where the store’s original location will move in March. As a Rockland native, the permanent investment is especially significant to Neal, but she plans to continue pushing the business’ growth outside her hometown.
“Once Rockland is official and we’re moved in, we’re not done,” she says. “I have my eye on several more stores. I want to bring what we do to more communities in Maine, and maybe even beyond.”
With growing competition from online retail and the difficulties of staying on top of a constantly shifting industry landscape marked by acquisitions and consolidation, Neal knows that expanding will not be without its challenges. But despite the potential obstacles facing pet specialty retailers, she is optimistic about her business’ ability to remain an essential and trusted information source to pet parents.
“People are becoming more aware of what they feed their pets, and I think there’s been a lot of exposure, especially through social media, about why certain foods aren’t healthy,” Neal says. “It is the independent retailers that have the knowledge and can help them navigate the confusing world of ingredients. Building that loyalty and trust with the customers is super important, so they’ll keep coming back to you.”