By Lauren Zumbach
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Lisa Senafe opened her first store, then known as “Bentley’s Corner Barkery”, in suburban Chicago nine years ago with her husband, Giovanni, Bentley’s vice president of business development.
Lisa Senafe used to buy the most expensive pet food she could find, assuming higher price meant better quality.
She changed her mind after her two cats’ bouts with cancer sent her scouring ingredient lists, and gave her the inspiration for a health-conscious pet supply shop.
“We wanted to create a store where we’ll do the research for you,” said Senafe, founder and president of Bentley’s Pet Stuff.
Senafe opened her first store, then known as Bentley’s Corner Barkery, in suburban Chicago nine years ago with her husband, Giovanni, Bentley’s vice president of business development.
After a fall 2015 appearance on CNBC reality series “The Profit” and an investment from show host and entrepreneur Marcus Lemonis, Bentley’s has been on an acquisition spree, buying smaller independent pet supply chains as trends around healthy, natural pet food have brought more customers, but also more competition.
Bentley’s, based outside Chicago, now has 68 stores. Less than two years ago, there were just eight. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Right from the start, you weren’t selling brands customers were used to, you went all-in on the healthy products. What gave you the confidence there were enough other pet owners that wanted that?
A: I think we were kind of naive to that. A lot of it was built on faith and trust. When I had the idea, I said to (Giovanni), “You need to get a real job because we don’t know what this is going to be.”
Q: You mentioned there’s more interest in healthy, natural pet food products today than when you started, but it’s still only a slice of the overall market. Has that made things more difficult?
A: It can. When a customer comes in and your store looks completely off the wall, you have to educate them as to why. That’s the barrier in the beginning. It takes awhile to build up trust. We have to make that connection, that we’re not just here to sell you a bag of cookies. We’ll ask the right questions that will help place them with the (food that’s) the right fit.
Q: Is all the interest in natural pet products coming from millennials who don’t have kids yet, and their pets are their kids?
A: We have a big mix of customers. When I was (at the first store) every day, the amount of men coming through the door every day, I was shocked. We’re a health food store for dogs and cats, so it’s not always the connection that you would make. It’s cool to see people get excited. We have a motorcycle guy with a sidecar for his dog who used to drive up every summer on the weekends with his dog and come and get treats.
Q: On “The Profit,” it seemed like things were stretched a bit thin. Was that just a narrative for the show?
A: We were overstretched in different ways. We had an idea to grow and we were limited. … For seven stores, it was me and him. We were doing all the ordering, marketing, schedules, everything. It was becoming overwhelming.
Q: How have things changed as it’s grown? Is it still the same game you were excited about when you started the first store?
A: The excitement level is through the roof, it’s just being able to dodge those bullets. We’re growing so fast, we need to sometimes stop and take a breath and pause, see what’s working and what’s not and change quickly.
Q: Now that your distributors are consolidating and big-box and online retailers are selling products similar to those you carry, are you growing fast enough to compete with the Walmarts and Chewys of the world?
A: We’re not going to compete with them. Just like Whole Foods has a different audience, we have a different audience. Are we trying to capture some more audience? Yes, and we vary our products based on that. If somebody wants to buy a $100 bag of food, we’ve got it. If someone wants a $40 bag of food, we’ve got that too.
Q: Do you have an idea of where you want to end up? It sounds like there’s more growth coming.
A: We don’t have an answer on that, but there will definitely be growth. I don’t think we’ll ever want to not grow, because we love expanding into new areas and we love having the acquisition opportunities.
Q: You’re doing a bit of online and delivery business as well, do you see that playing a bigger role going forward?
A: It’s convenience. If you can’t make it to our store and it’s 10 p.m. at night and you want to order something from us in your pajamas, you can do it. It’s a nice to have, but we’re never going to compete in the online price game.