Irazema Walters, co-owner of The Paw Pantry, a natural pet foods store in Harlingen, has learned that better nutrition can transform any dog’s or cat’s life, maybe even save it. That’s why she opened the pantry two years ago, after having operated a more traditional pet-store business, where she had slowly added healthier food products. “I love helping pets, helping to cure them,” she said, “so that their owners will be able to keep them.”
Starting up the business was a bit of a struggle, given that natural pet food distributors didn’t deliver in the Valley — they were not convinced about the market’s viability here. “We’re considered to be living under a rock, so they’re generally not eager to come down here. You have to have somebody to push them.” Walters decided to be that person.
To her credit, she is not only running a successful business: its volume has increased by 50% even though her store size has shrunk. She has also uncovered a niche market in the Valley.
Walters’s timing is spot on, for, according to the American Pet Products Association, natural food products are a growth industry, ranking as the second most often purchased dog food. With food options expanding, including alternative categories and treat options such as pet food toppers, raw food and probiotics, industry analysts forecast a rosy future in this sector. Sales are expected to maintain an upward trajectory for at least the next five years.
Although being on the industry’s radar is indeed a coup, Walters and her business partner, Mary Lou Pena, regard customer service as the truer measure of success. A self-educated pet nutrition consultant, Walters “constantly reads and reads” in order to advise customers, whom they regard as family, about the best diets and products for their pets.
She admitted it is difficult to keep up with the latest discoveries or recalls, let alone the dangerous additives that still lurk in many products. “Most pet owners don’t know about Red-40, BHA, propylene glycol,” the last a preservative related to antifreeze. “They don’t know that these ingredients are in a lot of popular pet foods. We don’t pressure customers to buy our products, but we tell them what to look out for, because these chemicals aren’t healthy.”
Her counseling often leads to small and sometimes miraculous transformations. Recently, a young couple came in with their ailing pit bull puppy, whose skin was inflamed from head to toe. Recommending that they try feeding him PureVita chicken and brown rice and use a soap-free shampoo (because the dog had a foul odor), Walters hoped for the best. Two weeks later, the couple came in for refills. The dog was 75% better, a transformation so sudden that even Walters was amazed. The last time she saw the dog, “it was prancing around, had its tail up and wagging, and there was not a red thing on its skin. I made a difference in that puppy’s life.”
Despite turning her customers and other pet store employees into believers, Walters has yet to convince much of the Valley veterinary community about the curative impact of a natural food diet on pets. On occasion local veterinarians refer pet owners to them, but not often. “Most of them don’t know how to think about treating a pet from the inside out. In the bigger cities, it’s different. But down here you don’t see that. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t practice modern medicine, because we need that. But why can’t we have a vet who’s a little more open-minded to do both?”
Many of Paw Pantry’s customers, who tend to be older (over 40), seem to have caught on to the options. They often visit after they’ve taken their pet to a veterinarian. “They want to know what else we may have that will work to address their pet’s condition, whether it be something like a kidney or bladder problem.”
As their business continues to grow, Walters is considering other ways she can spread the word, such as hosting workshops. She’s working on a dog training session in late October. But mostly she plans on staying the course: counseling customers about their dog’s or cat’s diets and giving out copious samples.
“The work can be emotional,” Walters said, but it’s worth it, “particularly when customers tell you that you saved their pet’s life or when you hear them endorsing you. Just the other day one of our customers told a new one ‘she really know what she’s talking about. She can help your pet. Just be patient.’ That’s priceless.”
For more information, call 412-7297 or see The-Paw-Pantry on Facebook.
This story appears in the October 2015 edition of Valley Business Report. For more stories from the October edition, click on the “Current & Past Issues” tab.