Retailer Of The Year: A Recipe For Success
With an emphasis on community involvement and healthful, high-quality products for pets, Loyal Biscuit has become a destination for Maine pet lovers and vacationers alike.
"Giving back is what we do; community service is a huge part of my life,” said Heidi Vanorse Neal, co-owner with her husband, Joel Neal, of Loyal Biscuit, Pet Product News International’s 2014-2015 Retailer of the Year for Community Outreach. “When we bought Loyal Biscuit, it was a natural fit.”
Heidi embarked on her community service career at a young age, from coaching peewee basketball as a seventh grader to a 10-year stint on the board of directors for the Maine Lobster Festival.
She traveled with Midcoast Habitat for Humanity to Sri Lanka, providing assistance to the tsunami-ravaged island country, and followed it with a turn in Mexico in support of a clean water project.
Moreover, this ideology is a family affair, and Joel, in addition to having responsibilities as a Rockland police officer, might also be found serving as a judge for the Rockland Boatyard Dog Festival, or chanting bids as the auctioneer at a Pints for Paws fundraiser.
“We are rooted in our community; since day one this has really been our philosophy,” she said. “We don’t host any event without some percentage of proceeds going to an organization benefiting animals.”
After a 15-year career in the banking industry left Heidi with a taste for change, she decided to live her secret dream: to be the proprietor of her favorite Rockland pet retailer, Loyal Biscuit Co.
“I emailed the owners on Dec. 15, 2009,” said Heidi. “I received a reply immediately. The store had been for sale for two months and, without a buyer, would be closing at the end of the year. We were in the right place at the right time.”
In January 2010, minimal retail experience aside, the couple relied on instinct and leapt into the pet business.
Loyal Biscuit Co. has expanded to include three more locations. The Belfast store opened in June 2011, Camden in February 2012 and Waterville in August 2014.
Each site infuses its own unique flavor into an inventory, shelving, color scheme and logo that are uniform and easily identifiable with the brand. For instance, the Rockland and Waterville stores are prominent on the Main Street of their respective cities.
Camden, positioned in a historic mill overlooking picturesque Megunticook River, evokes a more rustic ambiance. Belmont resides in a busy shopping plaza.
Customers visiting pet-friendly Loyal Biscuit Co. can choose from a selection of natural, holistic, corn-, wheat- and soy-free, U.S.- or Canada-sourced foods, including raw and freeze dried.
“Community outreach is our focus, but we are known first and foremost for our nutrition and for the quality of the products that we carry,” Heidi said.
A full complement of pet supplies rounds out the mix. Mouthwatering dog bakery treats in a variety of shapes and flavors temptingly are displayed at each checkout counter. As a nod to local tourism, bone-shaped cookies flaunt the word “Maine” in frosting across the top.
Each location offers self-serve dog washing, and dog washes often are donated as raffle prizes or gifts for local events.
Kicking It With Community
Commitment to and love of community form the Loyal Biscuit credo. These efforts focus on raising awareness for homeless pets, finding them homes and fundraising efforts to assist rescues and shelters.
Along these lines, lending a hand to homeless cats from local humane societies is the objective of the satellite adoption centers located within the Rocklin, Belfast and Waterville locations.
“Since 2012 we have found homes for more than 250 cats,” Heidi said.
Adoption days are held regularly in partnership with various agencies, and adoption events organized in conjunction with the many festivals taking place in Rockland shares needs of these animals with a broader audience.
“In June, for Summer Solstice, the city closes traffic on Main Street for the festival,” Heidi said. “It’s very family friendly, and we set up outside the store with different vendors and hold an adoption day as well.”
Community collaboration and savoring a good time makes Pints for Paws the place to be. The soiree is held several times per year in partnership with local restaurants.
“We have held the majority of these events at Trackside Station, a restaurant in an old train station in Rockland, eight so far,” Heidi said. “To date, we’ve raised nearly $20,000 overall.”
The gatherings feature live entertainment from local folk musician Paddy Mills, raffle prizes, and live and silent auctions. A percentage of proceeds from each pint of beer sold that night is earmarked for area shelters. Revelers don’t come empty handed; items, such as canned dog or cat food, papers towels or old blankets, are contributed at the event.
“In Rockland, everything we raise goes to Pope Memorial, Belfast and Camden go to the Camden shelter, and Waterville will go to the Waterville shelter,” she said.
For the live auction, Joel takes to the podium. In the festive spirit of the evening, a bidding war over a single cupcake, topped with dog-shaped frosting, once brought the gavel down at $50.
Adding even more to the coffers of local organizations dedicated to lending a hand to hopeful pets, Pennies for Paws fundraisers are held several times per year in each store. Customers are given the opportunity to round up their purchase price at checkout, gifting those pennies to the chosen entity for that month. Often the contribution exceeds pennies, and monies raised save lives in more ways than one.
“We designated one month for the Maine Pet Oxygen Mask Program and were able to purchase 10 oxygen masks that we distributed to our local fire departments and ambulance services,” Heidi said.
Bringing lost pets home is the goal of Loyal Biscuit microchipping clinics. The spring 2014 events received newspaper coverage and, in turn, caught the attention of a local TV station. The news featured an interview with Heidi, as well as a spokesperson from the beneficiary shelter. The events were a hit.
“We held the clinics three Saturdays in a row,” she said. “We microchipped 69 dogs all together, and one hundred percent of the proceeds, $1,700, went to the Pope Memorial Humane Society.”
Loyal Biscuit Co. also is an active participant in many shelter and rescue events held throughout the four communities.
Local Biscuits, Tug Toy
In support of environmental concerns and Maine commerce, Heidi teamed up with Loyal Biscuit baker April Thibodeau to launch Fidelis Biscuit Co. Ingredients in the dog treats are Maine-sourced and organic.
“Green” packaging is biodegradable and compostable, and the treats are sold in a reusable treat tin. Recently, Loyal Biscuit staff member Ashley Bickford joined in as a partner.
Loyal Biscuit Tug Me toys were added to the product line in October 2012. Heidi’s father, David Vanorse, oversees this aspect of the business, cutting the fleece in the basement of the Rockland store.
Toys are braided by inmates of the Charleston Correctional Facility in Charleston, Maine (a prison work program), are stocked in all Loyal Biscuit stores and are carried by several Maine and New England merchants.
A Show of Loyalty
Faithful Loyal Biscuit shoppers affix logoed bumper stickers, available free at checkout counters, to their cars. In answer, staff members carry special coupons to place on the windshields of those vehicles, stating: “We have spotted a Loyal Biscuit Co. sticker on your car, thank you for your support, have a free dog wash on us.”
But Loyal Biscuit employees are more than coupon distributors, and Heidi said staff members must share a conviction for community involvement and family.
“I look for personality first and for people who follow our philosophy,” Heidi said. “We are a very family-oriented staff.”
Training consists of one-on-one instruction, online training courses, such as Pet Store Pro, and vendor presentations. A new store handbook, created and compiled by a Loyal Biscuit store manager, is used to assist staff members in answering customer questions regarding foods and the proper feeding of pets.
“It is an absolutely fabulous work that basically breaks down all the ailments with recommendations and food options,” Heidi said.
Spreading the nutritional word to customers, including the training and seminars in-store, and many other Loyal Biscuit happenings, is accomplished with Facebook and a newsletter.
Loyal Biscuit At a Glance
Co-Owners: Heidi Vanorse Neal and Joel Neal
Locations: 1 Belmont Ave., Belfast; 39 Mechanic St., Camden; 442 Main St., Rockland; and 99 Main St., Waterville (all in Maine)
Size: 1,800 average square feet; Waterville, 3,000
Employees: Four full-time, seven part-time
Years in Business: Five
Products And Services: Healthful, holistic all-natural pet foods and treats, toys, collars, leashes, beds, self-serve dog wash, feline satellite adoption centers, adoption days, grooming supplies, supplements, Fidelis Biscuit Co., Tug Me toys, frequent buyer program, educational seminars, puppy training, microchipping, Pints for Paws
This article appears in the February 2015 issue of Pet Product News