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A Local Favorite: Rivertown Feed & Pet Country Store

Rivertown Feed & Pet Country Store succeeds because it supports and grows with its community.
By Devon McPhee

Tami Lewis-Benson and her husband Don Benson love of animals goes beyond their store environs.
A wide variety of animals—horses, camels, goats, dogs, pet birds, chicken—has walked through the doors of Rivertown Feed & Pet Country Store in Petaluma, Calif. The eight-year-old business supplies a mix of companion- and feed-animal products to residents of this growing town located at the southern edge of Sonoma County.

Rivertown, a runner up for the Pet Product News International Retailer of the Year award, belongs to a group of businesses owned and operated by the Lewis family. The Lewises have played a role in caring for animals in the surrounding area for five generations.

AT A GLANCE


Rivertown Feed & Pet Country Store

Location: 200 First St., Petaluma, Calif.

Owner: Don Benson and Tamara
Lewis-Benson

Size: 16,000 square feet

Employees: 7 part-time, 16 full-time

Years in Business: Eight

Products and Services Offered: Stocks both pet and livestock items, including dog, cat, small mammal, bird, horse and reptile food and accessories, and feed for poultry and livestock. Specialty items include organic poultry and livestock feed. Live animals include birds, pond fish, rabbits and farm animals, such as poultry, game birds and waterfowl. Products and services include adoption days, delivery, grooming and dog training, and weekly on-site vaccination clinics.

Tamara (Tami) Lewis-Benson and her husband Don Benson operate Rivertown. Tami, an aviculturist with a background in anthrozoology, also devotes time to the Rivertown Avian Sanctuary, a rescue organization for exotic birds. Tami’s parents, Paul and Marlene Lewis, run the BarLew Boer Goat Ranch, where they teach thousands of families and students about raising a variety of ranch animals. The pair also operate Bar Ale Feed and Grain, a livestock feed mill. The family ran a store, too, also named Bar Ale. Rivertown is an offspring of the store, which burned down in 2000.

Housed in an old grain mill, the rustic Rivertown retail shop has seen its product mix shift over the last few years, moving from primarily feed and accessories for ranch and farm animals to more products and services for companion animals.

“There has been a gradual switchover into more pet food and pet supplies, beginning in the mid 80s,” Don said.

This new combination of products and services is indicative of the changes occurring in Petaluma itself. About 40 miles north of San Francisco, this once small agricultural town has seen a spike in new residents and businesses, including upscale restaurants and shopping areas, and a decline in local dairies and farms. Rivertown, in fact, now finds itself in the middle of the town’s theater district.

An increase in pet-food and pet-supply inventory reflects the changing demographics of Rivertown’s customers.
A willingness to embrace change has kept the business viable through the shifting demographics, Tami said.

“Rivertown has survived fires, continuous development and construction going on around it and other changes in this town,” she explained. “It will continue to thrive and survive due to its ability to transform with the times.”

To best serve their customers, Tami and Don employ individuals who have a wealth of experience with both livestock and companion animals.

A Family Affair

Rivertown Feed & Pet Country Store in Petaluma, Calif., is the newest chapter in the Lewis family’s 50-year history with the pet and livestock industry. Owned by husband and wife team Don Benson and Tami Lewis-Benson, the 8-year-old store sells supplies and accessories for both livestock and companion animals.

The Lewis family first became involved in the livestock industry in 1959, when Tami’s grandparents, Hemi and Tillie Ash, bought a local feed manufacturer. The pair renamed the operation Bar Ale Feed and Grain, and began manufacturing feed for ranchers in Northern California.

Today, Paul and Marlene Lewis, Tami’s parents, run the operation.

It produces feed for dozens of animals, such as cows, horses, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, llamas, emus and ostriches, and Rivertown carries the supply line in its store.

In addition to the feed mill, Tami’s parents operate BarLew Boer Goat Ranch, a four-generation family ranch that raises alpacas, goats and birds. The primary function of BarLew is public education. The Lewises provide farm tours for school groups and seniors, teaching them about real farm life, and many of their animals go to 4H, Future Farmers of America and California Junior Livestock projects.

Finally, the Lewis family also operates Rivertown Avian Sanctuary, a rescue organization for exotic birds. The sanctuary not only takes in unwanted birds, but also teaches children about proper bird care and nutrition.

Tami said she feels blessed to belong to a multi-generational family business devoted to farming and animals, and she is excited to share that experience with the next generation of Lewises.

“I’m really feeling lucky because we have a three-year-old granddaughter that gets to grow up on a ranch—not many kids get to experience that nowadays,” she said.  —DM

Many employees are young people from the surrounding dairy farms and ranches, or from the local high school’s wildlife museum. Older members usually have previous experience with companion-animal organizations or working in retail.

“Our employees are part of our community—they come from all over the area,” Don said. “They are familiar with our customers and what their needs are.”

Instead of traditional advertising, the Lewises spread the word about their store through community involvement.

“We enjoy giving back to the community that has stood by us through the years,” Tami said.

The couple donates gift certificates and supports such organizations as the Petaluma Animal Shelter, Forgotten Felines, the Petaluma High School FFA, the American Cancer Society, local schools and 4-H groups, as well as animal charities and organizations. Tami helps coordinate events for the local animal shelter and helps her parents and brother with educational events at local schools and organizations. The pair also participates in the Petaluma Downtown Association, which supports local independent businesses.

By embracing change, Tami and Don ensure that Rivertown will continue to serve Petaluma’s pet needs.
The store hosts fundraisers regularly as well, the largest being Santa Paws Photo Days, held annually the first Sunday in December.

The event includes music, food and prizes, and guests get to see Santa pose for pictures with some very unusual animals. Visitors pay a $10 admission at the door, and all proceeds from the event go to a local animal-rescue organization.

Looking ahead, Tami and Don say they plan to concentrate on making the store easier to shop in by reorganizing the store and expanding the aisles to give it more of a grocery-store-type layout.

“We’re always trying to improve, to make the shopping experience even better for our customers,” Don said. <HOME>

 


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