A few years ago, Nikki Centeno of Kenosha had a problem: Commercial dog food was giving her family’s adopted dog health problems. “Our vet said, feed her better food,” Nikki recalled, “but in the stores, we didn’t know what we were supposed to be looking for. We just looked for food that cost more money.” Nikki found a disappointing lack of service at the “big box” pet supply stores. Her search led to a question: was there a market opportunity for a better kind of pet store?
Nikki and her husband Joe like to travel. “We always look for places to buy dog treats. We started to realize these stores provided education about natural and holistic pet food and pet products—and we didn’t have that in Kenosha,” Nikki said. Meanwhile, she completed a marketing degree at Gateway College, which complemented her work experience in customer service and retail. “I didn’t think I was going to open a business,” she said with a laugh. “But Joe pushed me to think about what I wanted to do with my marketing degree. ‘What do you really love, after me and the kids?’ he asked. I answered, ‘dogs!’”
K9 Kibble opened in 2013 as a retail store specializing in USA-made products for dogs and cats that aren’t available at “big box” stores.
Choosing a location and an opportunity
The Centenos’ search for better products for their pet coincided with a move to a neighborhood adjacent to downtown Kenosha. New shops, restaurants, and hotels were popping up. “We saw the neighborhood was becoming something great,” Nikki said, “and we’d seen small pet stores in communities like this.” Nikki and Joe decided to explore launching a retail pet store.
The Centenos began researching the pet industry, studying the competition, and learning about entrepreneurship. They found that pet supply, now a $58-billion industry in the U.S., had grown steadily even through the Great Recession. She found a Wisconsin manufacturer of high-quality dog food. The opportunity looked promising—but were the Centenos ready to become entrepreneurs?
Nikki enrolled in a business planning class offered by Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC). Included was one-on-one counseling with a consultant from the small business development center. Nikki met with UW-Parkside SBDC director Jim McPhaul. “The class gave us structure, and Jim answered our questions. He was great to work with,” Nikki said. Jim saw the Centenos’ passion for pets. “They took the time to do their due diligence,” he observed. “It’s always a pleasure to work with clients like the Centenos.”
Nikki and Joe sought financing through WWBIC using the business plan they’d written. “It had to be solid, and Jim made sure we had it all straight,” she said.
Accomplishments with the SBDC at UW-Parkside:
- Financial projections for seeking financing
- Planning for product line and positioning
- Sounding board for business expansion
“Thrival,” not just survival
Five years after opening, K9 Kibble has outperformed initial projections, expanded, and added staff. A self-serve dog wash and room for new products came with the expansion. “We initially focused on food, treats, and supplements,” Nikki said. “Then we created lifestyle sections, like travel and apparel, to make it easier to find what you’re looking for.”
Nikki is now involved in training employees to deliver the excellent customer service that is her standard. She has expanded K9 Kibble’s marketing efforts by hiring a social media company. “We’re seeing a pop in new customers as a result,” Nikki said. Competition has increased with the opening of a new pet store in Kenosha. To maintain K9 Kibble’s competitive advantage, Nikki said, “We’re telling the stories of the companies whose products we carry—the quality they’re bringing to the market.”