Brad Kriser is not afraid to get a little dirty if it means helping a pet in need. That much is clear on a warm spring day in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles when the founder and CEO of the Kriser’s Natural Pet chain sits on the ground to inspect the teeth of a shy Westie whose owner has come into the store looking for advice about canine dental care. After patiently coaxing the dog into his lap for a closer look, Kriser notes plaque buildup and inflammation.
"It’s not the worst I’ve seen, but I would definitely recommend you have him looked at by a vet," he tells the dog’s owners, turning to the store manager to provide the name of a veterinarian who recently participated in the location’s Dental Health Awareness event.
"She’s the best," he explains. "She will let you know exactly what needs to be done and she never recommends doing more than is necessary."
After effusively thanking Kriser and his store manager, the customers ultimately walk out with an important referral for ensuring their pet’s health, a small bottle of oral care food/water additive and the knowledge that they have a valuable pet care resource in their local Kriser’s store.
This a scene that has played out again and again, in some form or another, in Kriser’s stores across the country and reflects what drew Kriser into this business in the first place—his passion for pets. Over the past 12 years, this passion has been key to the growth of Kriser’s from a single store in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago into a successful pet specialty chain that operates 55 stores across multiple markets, including Chicago, Southern California, Denver, Ft. Collins, Colo., Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Texas, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland.
Still, it’s not passion alone that has fueled the phenomenal success of Kriser’s. An unwavering commitment to offering the pet owners it serves unsurpassed customer service, education and product quality, as well as a refined approach to store design, merchandising and overall branding, are all vital elements in the chain’s winning formula and reasons why Pet Business has selected Kriser’s Natural Pet as its 2018 Retailer of the Year.
Though born in 2006, the origin story of the Kriser’s chain actually began six years earlier, when its founder decided to leave his old career behind to pursue a more satisfying path.
"I worked for a number of companies in the internet world, and I wasn’t really happy with what I was doing," Kriser recounts. "I wanted to do something that would make me excited to get up in the morning—something I could be passionate about."
Initially, that something was The Barking Lot, a multi-service business where Chicagoans could find boarding, daycare, grooming, training and even massage therapy for their pets. The business—which still operates today in the suburbs of Chicago—also offered a small retail selection that, while conceived as simply a convenience for service clients, would eventually serve as the inspiration for the Kriser’s pet store chain.
"Within a 10,000 square foot building, I only dedicated about 800 square feet to [retail]," Kriser explains. "It literally started out with just some bookshelves and pallets on the ground, but it quickly morphed into a real business. That is what got me to see the opportunity to create [the Kriser’s chain]; I saw that there was a real need for natural pet products in the market."
Identifying this previously unmet need in the marketplace was a big step toward creating a successful retail business, but in order to take the next step and actually fill that need, Kriser enlisted the help of someone who would play a critical role in getting the Kriser’s brand off the ground—his cousin, Ken Grouf.
With years of experience helping start a variety of companies—including serving as director of brand management for Yahoo when it was still a fledgling business, as well as key roles with non-profit organizations that built community playgrounds and engaged young people in full-time community service—Grouf brought to the table expertise in areas such as brand management, experience-building, operations and strategic planning.
"Ken’s background is amazing," explains Kriser. "He came in and worked with me to formulate the ideas that Kriser’s was founded on—particularly on the experience side. We saw an opportunity to not only get people into natural pet products, but also elevate the shopping experience and put education at the forefront."
For Grouf, the opportunity to join what he viewed as an important endeavor was an obvious choice. "The way I’ve always viewed all of my decisions is I want to make a difference," he explains. "I have to be able to look at myself every day and know that I’m leaving my family not to go to work, but to make a difference in the world."
"So, when Brad approached me with his concept, I said ‘Wow, this could help families,’ because pets were going to live longer, healthier, happier lives because of what we were setting out to do. I truly believed that we had an opportunity to make a difference in the world, one pet at a time."
The Right Model
What Kriser and Grouf came up with together is a retail model that focuses on offering healthy, natural pet nutrition—along with a variety of other high-quality staples for dogs and cats—in a warm, friendly environment that is easy to shop and obtain valuable pet care information.
While delivering this type of experience to pet owners has many facets, it all begins with the chain’s "Kriser’s Approved" product selection.
"From the beginning, we’ve made sure that everything in our store is important for giving pets a healthy life," says Grouf, noting that this extends beyond food to also include products such as toys that encourage active play and supplements that support balanced nutrition.
Still, having the right product selection involves more than making sure essential product categories are covered; it also means choosing the right vendor partners in those categories. That is why Kriser still makes sure he is personally involved with this part of the business.
"I meet with and approve every company we work with," he says.
Of course, not every supplier lives up the high standards set by Kriser. The chain’s approach to the emerging CBD trend offers a good, recent example of this. While there is a number of manufacturers offering pet products formulated with CBD, Kriser’s chooses to work exclusively with just one such vendor—Pet Releaf.
"We’re looking for companies that do things the right way and aren’t trying to fake the consumer out," Kriser explains. "We probably turned down about 50 companies that came to us with CBD products, and we only work with one, because there is a huge amount of trust there."
Another element that has been important to the Kriser’s model from the beginning is the inclusion of professional grooming services in every store—for good reason. "Not only is it a traffic and revenue driver, we look at it as part of a pet’s natural life," Kriser says, pointing out that many of the services that groomers perform—from dematting to nail clipping—can have a big impact on the comfort and health of a pet. "Also, groomers get such a close look at the dogs, that they often notice health issues that even the owners might have missed."
Once he and Grouf had developed the right business model, Kriser didn’t simply set out to open just a single store. Instead, the plan was to start with locations in three very different parts of Chicago.
"We wanted to be able to test different markets," he says. "Lincoln Park was a very gentrified city neighborhood; the South Loop was a high-rise area that was more densely packed with a mixed universe of people; and Wilmette was a true suburban market in the North Shore [region]. The question was, could [our retail model] work in all of these different types of markets?"
The answer to that question was a resounding "yes," as the chain quickly grew to six locations inside the greater Chicago area over a three-year period. Kriser’s focus on healthy, natural pet nutrition clearly resonated with a broad consumer base, which grew even broader in the wake of a major pet food recall in 2007.
"It was very unfortunate that so many pets were hurt by the foods involved in that recall," says Kriser. "But at least it opened people up to seeing what is actually in their pet’s food and got them asking questions."
Although this post-recall shift in pet owners’ attitudes was a pivotal moment for the chain, simply having the right products on the shelves was not enough to position Kriser’s to win the trust of skeptical consumers.
"We had to be able to understand and educate people about what was going on, why the products we offer are safer, and what the actual ingredients are and where they come from," says Kriser. "And we had to do it in an environment that pet owners would want to come back to. We had to build an ongoing relationship."
Not surprisingly, as more shoppers gravitated to natural, wholesome pet nutrition, the number of suppliers stepping up to meet this demand also grew. As a result, Kriser’s found new opportunities to build valuable vendor partnerships that would help drive further success.
"We were pioneers in [natural pet nutrition]," says Kriser. "So, when we started, I don’t think there were even 10 [food] companies making the type of products we were looking for. The recall opened up an opportunity for people to come in and start manufacturing quality foods, and
now I wouldn’t even venture to guess how many brands are out there."
Expanding on Success
Having met with early success in Chicago, the Kriser’s retail concept was put to its next test in 2010 with an expansion into Southern California. To help facilitate the move into a new market 2,000 miles away from where the chain was founded, Kriser decided to move to Los Angeles and drafted Grouf onto the chain’s executive team on a full-time basis a year earlier. It was a decision that made a lot of sense on multiple levels, he says.
"The market made a lot of sense for our model," Kriser explains. "But what it really came down to is Ken and I being together. He wasn’t going to move to Chicago, so I went to him. It also helped that my wife came from the area and still had family there."
Kriser’s Southern California expansion took off quickly. By the end of its first year in the new market, it was operating three locations in Los Angeles, with seven more opening in 2011.
According to Grouf, this rapid growth was purposeful and played an important role in overcoming one of the biggest challenges any retailer faces when trying to engage a new customer base. "When we move into a new market, we want to make sure we can open enough stores quickly to build brand awareness," he says.
At the same time, however, the chain remained committed to growing its presence in its hometown and opened three additional locations in the Windy City during this period. But Kriser’s aspirations for growth were not limited to L.A. and Chicago, so the company set its sights on yet another market that seemed perfect for the chain’s approach to pet care—Denver.
"The healthy mentality and lifestyle of pet owners in Denver fits very well with what we do," says Kriser, adding that the city’s population growth and income levels also made the market attractive. "Another funny little fact is that Denver, at that time at least, had the highest average dog weight. It’s not that the dogs there were overweight, but people tended to have bigger dogs—and bigger dogs eat more food."
"Also, the number of households with pets is very high in Denver," points out Grouf.
Still, the move into Mile High City in 2011 was not without its challenges—first and foremost among these being that what was once a wide open market got relatively crowded quite quickly.
"When we started looking at Denver, we didn’t see anyone there that had really done anything yet," says Kriser. "But at literally the same time we moved into the market, three other chains moved in with us. So, there were a lot of trials for the first few years, but those stores are doing fantastic."
Armed with lessons learned from succeeding in its first three markets, the next region targeted for expanding the reach of the Kriser’s brand was Texas. However, the company first had to decide where it would take its first steps into a state that had several flourishing cities.
"When Ken and I started considering Texas, we looked at Houston and Dallas," explains Kriser. "Once again, we saw an opportunity within both of those markets for natural pet and a limited number of established players who were doing it as well as us."
Ultimately, Dallas was ruled out because the layout of the city was fragmented, thus making it a tougher market to apply the brand-building strategy that had driven Kriser’s past expansion success. "We found that amount of stores we would have to open in Dallas quickly to build the kind of brand awareness we were looking for was more than what we could commit to at that time," says Kriser.
Houston, on the other hand, featured the type of neighborhood-centric layout that Kriser and Grouf viewed as a perfect fit for the chain, inspiring them to open their first store in the market in 2014.
"Having those distinct neighborhoods allows you to build your brand as the neighborhood pet store," Kriser explains, noting that this is the same mindset that drove an expansion into the Austin and San Antonio markets in 2016.
After successfully entering three new markets over a two-year period, Kriser’s still wasn’t done expanding its reach, and its next move was the most surprising for a couple of reasons. The acquisition of the five-store Wylie Wagg chain in Virginia and Washington, D.C., was a first for the company, which had previously focused on new store openings for its expansion. It also gave Kriser’s its first locations on the East Coast.
According to Grouf, this wasn’t a step that was taken spontaneously.
"You have to be very careful, when you’re running a business, not to expand without the right plan in place," he says. "We were actually already looking at the Washington, D.C., market when we started talking to Wylie Wagg, and we thought it was a great opportunity to move into that market and build our brand quickly."
A Family Business
This type of strategic thinking, combined with an ongoing commitment to offering only the highest-quality and healthiest products available for pets, is what has ultimately driven success for the Kriser’s chain in every market it has entered so far. Still very much the humble storeowner that left an unsatisfying career to follow his passion for pets, Kriser does not take that formula—or the people who have made it possible—for granted.
"I’ve been lucky to have Ken as a partner who can guide our day-to-day operations, our management and our strategy in building the company," he says. "That has allowed me to focus on making sure we have the best products and stay in constant communication with our suppliers and our stores."
However, the success of Kriser’s is owed to more than just the two men who first worked together to formulate a winning retail model and whose formal partnership ushered in an era of impressive expansion. According to Grouf, what has really been vital is the way the cousins have extended their familial connection to include every person and every animal the business touches.
"From the very beginning, we set out to build a strong family culture," he explains. "It’s a culture where people take care of each other. That means treating our team members, our customers and pets like they’re part of our family."
It is a sentiment that Kriser agrees with wholeheartedly. "If it was just me and Ken, this never would have worked," he says. "We’ve always known that it was important to surround ourselves with great people to achieve our goals."
No. 1 among those goals relates back to that shy Westie in Studio City whose life was made a little bit better by the interaction he had in the right pet store on a spring day. "Those are the best moments for me," says Kriser. "I started this business to help pets have happy, healthier lives."