Big Dogs

A look at the business of making the dogs geaux woof

Story by Donna Reges Hall

PhydeauxPhydeaux is the seemingly swanky independent pet store which owner Frank Papa claims people often mistake for a boutique because of its quirky name and décor.

While Phydeaux is unusual in its quality and design, Papa says it’s a practical everyday store for pet needs ranging from food, treats and toys to grooming and cleaning supplies, as well as a host of other high-quality pet accessories.

Papa has been in the Triangle area for more than 20 years, first as a business student at UNC, and later employed as a computer developer. He saw the niche opportunity for a high-end pet store and explored this idea, starting small.

“I’m not coming into this as a person with money who decided this was going to be fun,” Papa relates. “I started this in a 1,200 square foot shop in Carrboro and did everything myself because I really didn’t have any money, and I just grew it to this point. So I’ve done every job here. Everyone does every job.”

The unexpected success of that first shop led to a transition to Chapel Hill in 2002 and most recently to a new 14,000 square foot location in the heart of downtown Raleigh, in Seaboard Station.

Papa says his typical clients are “people who love their pets and want to take care of them and enjoy doing it. We’re a little bit more geared toward the high end of the market but we’re affordable too.”

You won’t find mainstream pet foods that are available in grocery stores or big-box stores at Phydeaux. For example, the criteria for foods and treats include not selling products that contain any kind of by-product, wheat, corn, soy, BHA, BHT, or ethoxyquin.

In this age of instant gratification via Web orders, it’s an impressive feat that 95 percent of Phydeaux’s business takes place in-store, with the remaining 5 percent online.

“It’s unusual,” Papa says. “It’s kind of a dying industry and retail is really hard, but we’re doing well and growing.”

Papa attributes making the Inc. 5000 List to his employees, who he calls the face of the business now that he’s stepped away from the cash register. Exceptional, knowledgeable service is an important aspect that sets Phydeaux apart. This recipe for success seems to be working, with local customers voting Phydeaux as “Best Pet Specialty Store” in the Triangle four years in a row in Independent Weekly.

“I enjoy all the different, unusual things I have to do all the time to keep the place running,” Papa explains. “Buying unusual things, going to warehouses…soup to nuts, I have to be good at everything whether it’s fixing stuff, whether it’s IT, whether it’s things I can’t even imagine. It’s just kind of fun, because everyday I end up driving around doing all kinds of weird stuff.”

At the same time it’s harder than any job he’s ever had and this can get overwhelming. As a small business owner, Papa is adamant about his feeling that there is no one to tell you what you’re doing and you have figure out things on your own.

Without extra money for consultants, it’s been a winding road of obstacles to figure along the way over the last nine years, and Papa has faced those down in his own independent manner, learning through experience. He proclaims to hate typical business books because often they don’t address real world scenarios.

“I would like to read something by someone who built something them self and was actually making a profit,” says Papa. “That would be interesting. Because I think it’s easy to say just make people happy. It works at Google, it works at SAS Institute, but to make it work and turn a profit…that’s the real trick.”

Advice he’d give to other business owners is to understand that if you’re doing this on your own, it’s all-encompassing. There is always a problem and that never goes away.

He sites corporate competition as another challenge for small business owners, as well as garnering access to credit and money. Most normal people would collapse, says Papa, but his heart is in the business and that motivates him.

The future appears bright for Phydeaux with two locations and perhaps more on the way.  Papa calls the newest Raleigh store a “litmus test” for growth and says he’d like to continue to expand locations if he can keep the culture the same. To him, this means maintaining the way people work and the way they’re treated.

“Everyone really does have real, actual responsibility,” Papa says. “We’re really different than any retail business I’ve ever been in. It’s important. I think that’s why it works, while so many other competitors have fallen or aren’t thriving. The way things are structured here is very, very unusual. Everyone does every job. The organization is going to continue to stay as flat as possible.”

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