A career in banking was beginning to lose its luster for Heidi Neal, and so she followed the lead of her dog to find her new calling as the owner of Loyal Biscuit Company, which now has stores in Rockland, Rockport, Belfast, Bath, Hallowell, Waterville, and Brewer.
Born and raised in Rockland, Neal worked in marketing at Camden National Bank and Midcoast Federal Credit Union, with brief stints at the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Samoset Resort.
Our customers really think of their dogs and cats as family, not just pets.
Her love affair with Loyal Biscuit Company, a pet-supply boutique in Rockland, began with a tradition cherished by her dog, Fenway, who enjoyed weekly field trips to the store, starting in 2009.
Neal was in the process of shifting gears toward a teaching career when a casual conversation with her husband inspired her to pursue what, at the time, was only a daydream. That conversation was the catalyst for a chain of events that has proven that timing is everything.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Working Waterfront: What drew you to the pet supply business?
Heidi Neal: I was saying how much fun it would be to bring my dog to work with me every day—that’s where my brain was! My husband said,
“Why don’t you buy (the business)?” So I emailed the owner and she said that the store was for sale and, if she didn’t have a buyer by Christmas, she was closing. That was Dec. 15, 2009. We met with the owner, submitted an offer an hour later, and away we went! I gave a three-week notice at my job and we bought the store on Jan. 19, 2010. It was the right time, right place. Everything just fell into place.
WW: Did you do any market research, locally and nationally (at the time of purchase)?
HN: Uh, no! My husband was like, “If you’re going to do it, you better do it now.” There was no research. There was nothing! Basically, everything about the whole transaction and the way you’re supposed to buy a business did not happen. But it worked out.
WW: How did your banking background help you?
HN: I had the marketing, I had the events, and I had a good understanding of developing a brand, commercial loans, and financial terms. In my last role, I was the vice-president of branch operations and branch manager, so I oversaw people. Eventually all of that came into play.
WW: What’s the average customer like? Age, gender, income…?
HN: They care about nutrition. They care about the food they put in their mouths in their own families. Our customers really think of their dogs and cats as family, not just pets. They’re all across the board and we run the gamut on income. I have a $30 and a $120 bag of dog food.
WW: Have you noticed differences between stores?
HN: There are only six miles between Rockland and Camden, but it’s crazy to see the differences. I try to keep a consistent product mix, but there are definitely differences. There are things that I sell in the Camden-Rockport store that I just don’t sell anywhere else. I’ve tried to drop them and the customers revolt!
There is also a difference between the philosophy of the vets and their recommendations to customers; that is definitely an influence. Every market is different.
WW: How did you decide where to expand?
HN: I look at the population of dogs because the number of dog owners is public information. I look at the household income, the population, and location, especially parking. If you have to walk two blocks carrying a heavy bag of dog food, it’s never going to happen.
WW: Have those stores performed as you expected they would?
HN: Rockland, Camden, and Belfast have exceeded our expectations, but they’re also our oldest stores (eight-plus years). I’ve found that it takes almost three years for one of our new stores to take off, which Brewer is starting to do. We do better at a faster rate in smaller, tight-knit communities with a hometown feel.
WW: How many pets do you have?
HN: We have five dogs, which range from 12 pounds to 72 pounds, and a cat. Fenway, Chuck, Kevin, Piper, George, and Meredith are all named after TV characters from whatever show we happen to be watching at the time (except Fenway). They’re my little test subjects. If I’m ever on the fence about bringing something in, I take it home and let them try it out first.
WW: How do pets enrich our lives?
HN: In so many ways! There’s nothing better than sitting on the couch being surrounded by all five dogs in a pile. It’s the best! It’s just unconditional love.
WW: How do couples act? Are women more likely to push the husband to spend more?
HN: Oh yeah! It’s the women. Absolutely. I think it’s the same thing at home, with kids—it’s typically the woman who does the grocery shopping and the meal planning and picks the ingredients that the kids are eating. I think that just naturally extends to the family pet.
WW: What are the differences in how men vs women shop?
HN: Women take their time. If they’re picking out a toy, they look at a whole bunch of them. I find that most men just grab the first thing they find and throw it on the counter.
WW: How do you see your role within the community?
HN: There’s nothing better than being able to help someone take care of their dog. I love having those conversations. We want to be a source of education. We also work very closely with local shelters and rescue organizations in our markets. That’s a big part of who we are.