After spending about a year and a half selling quality dog and cat food out of their second-floor spot on confusion corner, Mike and Derek, co-owners of The Village Pet, have moved to a brand new space just next door. My pup Slim practically drags me through the front door, where we're typically greeted by shop cat Ira and one of Mike or Derek's dogs. Slim always heads straight for the counter and waits not-so-patiently for a delicious treat from one of the guys. Mike and Derek are friendly and informative, knowledgeable but never preachy. Post-its noting recommendations from customers and listing new products to research line the counter next to the computer. Stainless steel shelves are filled with varieties of dog and cat food, along with other pet supplies. The new space feels open and airy, a good place for pets and their humans, and the bright orange exterior draws your eye immediately.
FULL: Tell me about how things have changed for you guys since moving from your second floor space next door.
Mike: We took that spot to get here. When we were first looking, we couldn’t find another space on Osborne that had what we needed, so we took that so we’d have first right when this one came open. It was short-term pain for the long-term gain. And we didn’t suffer up there, we survived, but now we’re thriving.
Derek: This was always the vision.
Mike: People who come down to the Village, who don’t live around here, are stopping in now.
Derek: It’s a case of visibility too. With the colour scheme we chose, we stand out.
Mike: This space is just more inviting. And we’re lucky to have gotten into this particular building, because we got to brand this place with the paint job. It makes us feel like we’re part of the Village now. The funny thing too is that Derek really wanted the orange, but I was hesitant about it. One of the core principals in our partnership is that if one of us is adamant about something and the other one’s hesitant, you go with it. Adamant wins.
Derek: Our goal in being here is to be a staple of the neighbourhood. Actually a big moment for me was when we got Dave Moxley from Moxley’s Rentals in here. I knew him from years back, when I was cleaning up graffiti with the Osborne Street Biz, and when we first had the store, we’d go in there to get keys cut and whatnot. I knew his son had a dog, and I’d always tell him to come by. After we opened up this space, he walked in, said, “Well, I figured I’d finally stop by.” After that, I said to Mike, “We made it!”
Mike: There were times when we were worried back when we were on the second floor. There’s a lot of turn over in the Village and we didn’t want to be a flash in the pan. But we feel we offer something that hasn’t been present in the Village yet. We know our customers, we know their names and their pet’s names, we have a great relationship with the people who come in here.
Derek: Moving down here has finally given us an actual footprint.
FULL: What made you decide to set up shop in Osborne Village in the first place?
Mike: My brother lives on Roslyn and he asked me one day to drive him down to Saint B for cat food. I said, “There’s no pet store at all in the Village?” and he said, “No.” “South Osborne?” “No.” Before that, Derek and I had been thinking about opening another bar.
Derek: Mike used to own the Rose n’ Bee Pub on Sherbrook.
Mike: So I went to Derek and told him, “I’ve got a business idea, but it’s not a bar, and it’s not sexy.”
Derek: It only took me an hour to come back around and say, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
Mike: It’s the most densely populated area in Winnipeg and most pets per capita, with no pet store - no pet store downtown or in South Osborne. There are places where you can pick up a few things close by, but there isn’t a store that offers a variety of food and supplies for pets.
Derek: We like to say that we curate our products. We don’t sell anything that we wouldn’t give to our own pets.
FULL: What got you interested in quality pet food in the first place? How were you able to learn more about the products you carry?
Derek: We definitely had to learn as we went. I’ve always had cats and dogs, which started out as the root of our business. We’ve expanded what we offer based on what our customers want. We’ve had to learn a lot about small animal stuff, for example. Before this, I had no idea!
Mike: Initially we had decided not to carry small animal products, because we didn’t want to carry something that we didn’t feel like we knew a lot about it.
Derek: If we couldn’t do it right, we didn’t want to do it.
Mike: But then people kept asking about it, so we started doing research. At first we had hay.
Derek: Then people started telling us about OxBow, so we were able to bring that in. And that’s one of the nice things about the fact that we’re not a chain. It allows us to be light on our feet and bring products in based on what our customers want. We can respond to the market. A customer asks about something, we do the research, and if we feel we can stand behind it, we bring it in. That’s part of why we work I think, we aren’t forcing our customers to adapt to us, we’re adapting to them.
From the beginning, we’ve tried to fit ourselves into the community by offering services like delivery. Because we don’t have a huge area, it’s not going to cut into our budget too much.
Mike: We do go into Wolseley, South Osborne, a bit of Pembina.
Derek: We go as far as the Exchange District, because that area is also totally underserved when it comes to pets.
Mike: And we wanted to offer delivery because we know a lot of people in this area don’t own cars.
FULL: Part of why I was so happy when you guys opened was because before I had to get in my car if I wanted to buy pet food, unless I was going to get grocery-store pet food, and I didn’t feel good about the quality they offer.
Derek: And the importance of quality is something we learned with our own animals. We always tell our customers, “Pay now or pay later, when it comes to your pet’s health.”
Mike: At the same time, we always try to have a range of prices. Like Pulsar, it’s made in Saskatchewan with locally sourced ingredients, gain free, still very high quality, but it’s more stripped down so it comes in at a price point that people from various demographics can afford.
Derek: Just because someone makes less money, doesn’t mean they don’t love their pet. That’s why we chose the slogan “Love your pet.”
Mike: And it isn’t about loving your pet expensively. We try as much as we can to be competitive in our pricing. We don’t have the buying power of the big chains, but we also don’t mark up our prices as much, because we’re the only two people who work here for the moment.
Derek: Quality is the most important for us. Our brand depends on our reputation. So we’d much rather give someone solid advice than make a sale. Another thing we do is give away a lot of our products. We pay for most the samples we have, but we give that stuff away to show our customers that we have faith in our products and the fact that their animals are going to love those products. It’s easy to sell what you believe in.
Derek: You’ll notice that we don’t carry a lot of brands, and that's because we care more about price diversity than brand diversity. We want to make sure that everything we bring in is of a high quality.
Mike: Especially being small with limited shelf space, when we bring something in, it’s because it fits into a gap - it meets a customer’s needs that we couldn’t meet before. We don’t have the stock to hold ten different products that are essentially the same at the same price point. We’re just going to pick the product that’s the best.
Derek: At the same time, we don’t want to make choices for our customers.
Full: I find that sometimes that choice isn’t one that the buyer feels qualified to make. Like for me, I go to the drugstore and I need to buy a lotion. There are twenty different products with ingredients I can’t pronounce all at a similar price point. And I wish that instead I had three options that an expert had researched and I could know, without a doubt, were all safe, and I could just pick one based on how much money I had to spend.
Derek: And that’s why it’s so important that we have people’s trust. That’s why we choose good advice over a sale. We want people to come in here and know that no matter what they choose, it’s going to be a good product.
Mike: When we started out, we were overwhelmed by the glut of options in pet food. We weren’t experts at first, but we’ve done a lot of research.
Derek: And it’s been fun. I never knew I’d spend so much time talking about cat shit with people. But that’s what happens.
Mike: And sometimes we’re able to bring in products that people didn’t even ask for or expect. Like Rainforest Kitty Litter. Our rep said that other people tried it in the city and it didn’t work, but we thought it would work for Osborne Village.
Derek: It’s flushable, cedar and organic. A lot of people put their kitty litter in the bathroom.
Mike: Especially with so many people living in small spaces and apartment buildings in this area, the ability to scoop the litter directly into your toilet is a real convenience.
Derek: It just becomes so easy to sell products when you believe in what they stand for and what they can offer people. One of my favourites is Hero dog treats. It was started by a Veteran, employs Veterans to help them transition back to civilian life, and they donate to an organization that trains dogs to be companions to people with PTSD.
Mike: Someone walks in looking for dog treats and I can sell that to them. Why bring in other similar products at similar price points when I know this one is awesome?
FULL: I have to admit, Mike changed my mind about the rabbit’s ear dog treats from Hero. He gave them to me as a sample, and I was like, "Uh, I don’t know, it has fur on it." But Slim went nuts for them.
Mike: And that’s why we do samples. People come in and they’re not sure about switching to a particular cat food because cats can be picky. We give them one can as a sample, the cat loves it and they come back for more. We also break open bags and keep them behind the counter to give treats to people’s pet’s when they come here. I know it’s a sales gimmick, but at the same time it means we stand behind what we sell.
Find Mike, Derek, and their pets in their new, bright orange home at 216 Osborne.