ROTY: Steady as She Goes
Thanks to an exceptionally close-knit community and a determination to survive, our ROTY: One to Watch winner has endured a potentially career-ending perfect storm now enjoys fair winds and following seas.
At this point, there isn’t anything that really frazzles me; I’ve learned resilience and staying power,” said Susie Atherton, owner of Canine Creek Pet Wash and Boutique in Tehachapi, Calif., and winner of the Pet Product News International Retailer of the Year 2015-16 One to Watch Award.
Expressions of gratitude and the deep desire to connect with others often intensify as the result of adversity. Atherton, who has weathered her own dark night, is mindful of the healing power of a caring community.
“I think the reason I’m still around is that I love my town so much, and they loved me back,” she said.
Business from the Get-Go
Atherton embarked on her journey in 2004 with a move to Tehachapi. She and her husband already had transferred to several states in order to further his career. She started her own businesses in each new locale.
“I do really well being self-employed,” she said.
Soon after the move to Tehachapi, Atherton noticed a self-serve dog wash in a nearby city.
“I loved the concept,” she said, adding it provided the opportunity to combine an enterprising business spirit with a life-long passion for animals.
“In 2004, I opened my own 800-square-foot, four-tub dog wash in Tehachapi, planning to continue with my other business while waiting for customers,” said Atherton. “That didn’t last long because we started getting busier.”
Soon customers were requesting leashes and collars. Atherton listened and began stocking up.
A customer suggested Atherton consider adding quality foods to the inventory. Investigating pet nutrition turned to passion, and soon, healthful, natural treats and foods joined the mix.
Canine Creek quickly outgrew the small location, and it relocated to a 3,000-square-foot standalone building in 2008.
Into the Tempest
However, the economy crash that same year found Canine Creek struggling in the larger, more costly location.
“One year into our five-year lease, gas was almost $5 a gallon and people in Tehachapi and the surrounding communities started losing their jobs,” she said.
Atherton hung on, but the long hours required to keep the business afloat sunk her personal life. In 2012, Atherton was in the midst of a divorce when she received a diagnosis of breast cancer.
“The thought of dealing with a third disaster, a potentially fatal one, was just too much,” she said. “I was going to shut down when the lease ended seven months later.”
As word of her difficulties spread, the Tehachapi community rallied to offer financial support and helping hands. Townsfolk came forward to transport product and help build the store.
In January 2013, just four days after completing cancer radiation treatments, Atherton signed a lease on the present, 2,800-square-foot location in the center where she had opened her first shop.
Additional surgeries followed, and Atherton credits her staff for keeping things going.
“They kept the store running without me,” she said. “I was tapped out mentally, emotionally, financially and physically.”
Today, through sheer grit and the support of staff and community, Atherton and Canine Creek have turned the corner.
“Sales are growing in 2015, our net profit is up, and once again, I’m out supporting the community I love. I’ve planned 15 fundraising events for 2015,” she said.
A product mix comprised of treats, collars, leashes, beds and grooming supplies awaits Tehachapi shoppers, along with a range of high-quality pet foods including grain free and frozen raw, which has grown in popularity enough for the store to add a new freezer.
Sited in three suites of space, a professional groomer subleases a portion of one suite, adjacent to Canine Creek’s self-wash tubs. In addition, a professional bather rents the self-wash tubs on an as-needed basis.
As Tehachapi has no animal shelter, Canine Creek features a permanent, dedicated adoption center where rescues can hold adoption days in a completely fenced, indoor area, along with posting available animals on the center’s bulletin board. Rescues also can bring dogs to socialize as part of outreach.
Reuniting lost pets with their families and finding homes for abandoned pets is the goal of the Tehachapi Pet Network, a service started by Atherton in 2008. An in-store microchip scanner, donated by the humane society, furthers the cause.
Other in-store events include monthly vaccinations, nail trimming and microchip clinics with the help of a local veterinarian.
In December 2014, Canine Creek became the first retailer in Tehachapi with its own software application, which lets customers know of promotions and events through push notifications.
“I love my community and love being involved,” Atherton said.
The canine and human crowd enjoys a Dog Days of Summer event at Souza Family Vineyard.
Bringing pets and their owners together in a festive, social atmosphere is the objective of Dog Days of Summer. Once a month, from May to September, would-be oenophiles gather on the grounds of a local winery, Souza Family Vineyard, to enjoy a catered dinner, savor wines and take part in raffle drawings. A portion of the proceeds is donated to a chosen rescue or service dog agency.
“It’s Friday afternoon, people are happy; they are just getting off work and bring their dogs,” said Atherton. “Guests make friends, and it’s great for the dogs, too.”
For folks more into hops than grapes, Simon Saison Sundays take place once a month from April to September at Honey Wagon Brewing, a local brewery.
“The brewery created a special ale called Simon Saison, with Simon—my dog—on the logo,” Atherton said.
The dog friendly get-together benefits Have a Heart Rescue in its efforts to establish a no-kill rescue in Tehachapi.
Susie Atherton’s dog, Simon
Near and dear to Atherton’s heart, Bark For Life is a dog walk fundraiser promoting the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. From humble beginnings in 2009, with eight to 10 dogs participating, the promenade has grown. In 2015, more than 120 purple-clad dogs and their owners strolled to raise funds and awareness. Participants receive a Canine Creek goody bag that includes an engraved dog tag with the name of the event on one side.
“The tag is a collectible; participants can bring it in, and we will engrave their phone number on the other side,” she said.
Closer to home, Atherton assists the Tehachapi Cancer Foundation, which provides support and resources to local residents, by helping patients with anything pet related, from simple feeding to transportation.
It’s the People
Exceptional staff members are central to the success of Canine Creek, and Atherton said she looks for employees with a good work ethic, a warm personality, an attitude of service and the desire to engage customers.
Should Canine Creek not carry a product, staff members pick up the phone to locate the desired item.
“Because we take the time to do that, customers come to me first,” she said. “It’s important to take care of the customer, even if we have to send them somewhere else. They’ll always come back to us first.”
Collaborating with retailers across the country is the goal of the Pet Industry Retailer Networking group, which Atherton started in 2005 to gain advice and support from fellow pet retailers.
Paying It Forward
“Tehachapi is a small town; we’re all connected in one way or another,” said Atherton. “This community has been so supportive of my store; it’s important to give back to others in their time of need.”
After vandalism and arson, the Tehachapi High School athletics booster club was without its fundraising snack bar. Joining in the spirit of the community, Canine Creek will host an event this month to help the Warriors get back on their feet.
“Rebuilding a snack bar may not seem like a need, but it’s a major source of funding for the athletic programs, an important part of the high school experience,” Atherton said. “Supporting schools is a full circle where everyone benefits.”
“Canine Creek would not be here today if it weren’t for my strong ties to the community I love,” she said.
“I think having all those disasters hit at the same time has given me more perspective on what’s important,” Atherton added. “I am more passionate about helping my customers with their animals than I am about making money. I don’t care about selling something today, I want to create a lifetime customer.”
AT A GLANCE: Canine Creek Pet Wash and Boutique
Location: 798 Tucker Rd. #5, Tehachapi, CA 93561
Owner: Susie Atherton
Employees: 2 full-time; 1 part-time
Years in business: 11
Square feet: 2,800
Products and services: Superpremium dog and cat food; made in the USA treats, toys, grooming supplies, collars and leashes; engraved ID tags; self-serve dog wash; full-service grooming; adoption center; nutritional counseling; vaccine clinics, nail trims and microchips; free Wi-Fi
This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Pet Product News.