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Thursday, Nov. 22, 2001
 
2001 Small Business profiles

Dog lover defies economic indicators to unleash her dream

By Frank Vinluan
Seattle Times business reporter

When Sue Whitaker decided to open a dog store before Thanksgiving, reaction from suppliers was swift and universal.

"Are you crazy?" she recalled one vendor asking. "Don't you know it's a recession?"

But there was support from Redmond's dog community, and Whitaker, an accountant by training who worked as an engineer by contract, set out to open a specialty dog store in Redmond Town Center in time for the holiday season.

She pulled it off last weekend, opening Eastside Dog a little more than a month after she got the idea while walking her 3-year-old golden retriever, Jake.

Whitaker calls it a place for dog lovers to meet with their dogs for fun and educational events. She visualizes reading clubs that include dogs, nutritional seminars, animal-communication seminars and animal-loving artists painting pet portraits.

The store's two full-time employees are fellow dog lovers whom Whitaker knows from walks in Marymoor Park.

To many, the center of Eastside "dog culture" is Marymoor Park's off-leash area, where dogs and dog lovers congregate daily. Walking there with Jake, Whitaker told friend Janice Staskowski she was thinking of opening a pet store.

Staskowski, owner of Utopia, a jewelry and gift store at Town Center, told Whitaker she should open the store there. But she advised that, unlike many pet stores, Whitaker's should specialize in organic foods, pet supplies and toys.

After their talk, Whitaker headed to a library and checked out 20 business books, skimming each for advice on opening a business. She then contacted Town Center, which expressed interest in the store's concept. With Staskowski's help, Whitaker negotiated a specialty lease for three months to minimize her risk.

"You wouldn't want to do this unless there was a way to do it without losing your shirt," Whitaker said, with Jake at her feet.

Whitaker visited other pet stores, looking at their foods and supplies. She contacted vendors for items. With a lot of pressing and a little luck, she persuaded vendors to sell to her even though she had no retail experience.

She put some of her own money into the venture, dipping into her retirement fund to pay for about $20,000 of inventory.

But the devil proved to be in the details.

Although the street-level storefront did not need significant remodeling, Whitaker realized she was missing basic components. The display fixtures for leashes and other items were bought from another store at Town Center at the last moment.

Whitaker also needed to convince credit-card and insurance companies she was a legitimate business.

Whitaker said she expected organic food to be the store's biggest sale item, but most customers have bought toys. She now expects toy purchases to increase during the holiday shopping season.

Eastside Dog needs to average $500 in business each day to break even, Whitaker said. On opening day, it did $600. Other days have been less.

But even in a recession, Whitaker said a specialty pet store should do well because people are reluctant to skimp on their pets.

Whitaker wants to invite veterinarians and dog-food company representatives to give talks about pet care. But she might need another month for that.

"I feel like I'm on a waterslide because things are going by so quickly, and I trust I'm going to land in water and not rocks," she said.

Frank Vinluan can be reached at 206-464-2291 or fvinluan@seattletimes.com.

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