An exclusive interview with Jackie Bondanza with Hounds Town USA. Jackie shares how Hounds Town USA got its start and where it’s going. 

Lee Kantor: Lee Kantor here, another episode of Franchise Marketing Radio, and this is going to be a good one. Today we have with us Jackie Bondanza with Hounds Town USA. Welcome, Jackie.

Jackie Bondanza: Oh, thanks for having me.

Lee Kantor: Well, I'm excited to learn what you're up to. Tell us a little bit about Hounds Town. How are you serving folks?

Jackie Bondanza: Ok, so Hounds Town is a fully interactive doggie day care facility? We've been around for about 20 years. We offer interactive, fully interactive doggie day care, meaning dogs come in, they play all day long in specialized packs, and we also offer overnight boarding, grooming, little by little amount of retail and a pet taxi service.

Lee Kantor: Now, what was the genesis of the idea? How did it get started?

Jackie Bondanza: So we were founded by Mike Gould back in two thousand, and he was one of the founding members of the NYPD canine unit. So he's had a very long career in professional canine management. And as he was coming upon retirement from the police department, he was looking for a second career. And this was really a natural extension of that for him. So we opened up a small little factory store in the year 2000 and started offering overnight boarding and also interactive daycare. And, you know, people thought he was a little crazy because they didn't think that anyone was going to pay him money to watch their dogs during the day. This concept of pet care for dogs 20 years ago, completely different than how we know it today. So the business has really just evolved over the past 20 years from that idea, that core idea that Mike had 20 years ago, that dogs really are social pack animals and they need a place to go and be themselves and be allowed to be dogs. And that is hands down.

Lee Kantor: And then how did you get involved?

Jackie Bondanza: So I actually came involved, became into the company as a customer. So back in about twenty twelve, I moved to the town where Jonestown was located and I was commuting to the city, to New York City, and I was on the six thirty eight train every morning and I needed a place to leave my dogs. So I found how and started bringing my dogs for daycare about five days a week and realized really quickly all of the differentiators of the brands. I had used a competitor for many, many years, so super familiar with the pet care space, but from a customer's perspective. So when I walked into Houts town, I thought, this is so unique. Mike's background is unparalleled to anyone else's in the industry and arguably in the world. He has all this knowledge about dogs. The way that they're doing things here is so different and it's so much better for the dogs. And it came to came to find out that the build out costs were so much lower because of the fact that we really he knew a lot about dogs and he was able to build these facilities at a much lower cost and a lot of our competitors. So I thought this is a fantastic idea. And I said to Mike, enfranchising this, this could be a real competitor in the pet care space. So I ended up leaving my career and helping my really build a franchise plan and be able to, you know, build that foundation to getting a house down in every town and city across the country.

Lee Kantor: When did the consumer catch up to that as a value proposition?

Jackie Bondanza: Yeah, interesting question. I would say probably about, you know, 10, 15 years ago, this concept of pet care as a commodity and not a luxury really started to emerge. So because we've been around for 20 years, we've been through several economic crises of the past in the past two decades, including the housing crisis of 2006. So it was a really interesting time for us to recognize that the services that we're offering to people are an absolute necessity. Our core customer is the average working Joe, so we don't market to those high end, more affluent people who prefer to sometimes a little bit more of an elevated service. And those facilities tend to charge for belly rubs and bottled water and things that are really more cater to the human than the dog. So we have always been sort of like the target of the pet care industry. And because of that, you know, we serve a lot of essential workers, nurses, teachers, EMT, firefighters, police officers, just that middle class working hard, hard working American. And I think that's why we've seen so much growth over the past 20 years. But I'd say especially in the past eight to 10 years, really, starting with that housing crisis into. Twenty six and seven, when we continue to see almost all of our customers still come through our doors, even though they were losing their jobs, some of them, because they knew the value and saw the value of daycare for their dog. That's when we knew we really had something.

Lee Kantor: And then so they're using the customers using this like they go to work and they're conscious of, oh, but my dog might be barking or my dog might be having anxiety or sadness. And when I get home, it's not optimal. And there may be if I have them in a more social environment, he'll feel better. He'll be better. He won't bother my neighbors. Is that kind of the thinking?

Jackie Bondanza: That is the thinking. I mean, the core of what we do is based on this premise that dogs are pack animals. They're born into litters. Right. And when we domesticate them and take them into our homes, we're doing a very nice thing. But we're also taking them away from that environment, that natural environment where they would not naturally interact with other dogs. And dogs really need that. It's like taking a human away from its natural family and then never providing that child the opportunity to interact with other children. So we kind of compare ourselves to a kindergarten class where kids need to go to school and learn socialization skills, build relationships with other children without necessarily adults involved. And that is our same philosophy in our home town. And yes, we have so many dogs that come to us that have separation anxiety and they're there. They've got excessive energy. They've got other behavior problems in the home that make it somewhat challenging for the owner. Right. And then when they come to Hounds Town, what they do is they're able to exert a lot of energy in a dog way. So they're interacting with other dogs. They're rolling around on the floor. They're using their mouth and their teeth to play with one another. And that is what dogs need and want to do. That is their version of exercise. When they do that, they go home more well-balanced and it just helps create a calmer, more well-adjusted dog. And that actually helps make pet ownership possible for people. We have many stories of people who have come to us and said I was about to give my dog up because I just couldn't, you know, they're just having issues in the home with her. But we found hands down that  just coming in a couple days a week really helps get that energy out and address some of these behavior issues in the home.

Lee Kantor: Now, is that how most people use it? Is just sporadically or is it some people is this is just part of their workday, is they drop the dog off in the morning, they go to work and then they pick it up on the way home

Jackie Bondanza: For the most part. We have our customers use us anywhere from typically two to some six days a week. This is an essential part of their day. A lot of people are hard working and they're out of the home sometimes 12, 13, 14 hours a day. And they have peace of mind when they drop their dog off at Hounds Town at six in the morning and pick them up at eight o'clock at night. They know that the dog is not home alone, you know, chewing, chewing their house or peeing in the house and that they're being able to get the proper socialization and that makes them better dogs. So we are part of our customers day for sure.

Lee Kantor: Now, what was the transition like when you're running kind of a mom and pop when when he first started this and it was just his location or maybe corporate, some corporate owned, there's you know, that's your business is you're trying to get more kind of dog owners to find out about the brand and things like that. And it's very kind of in its own bubble there. But then you decide to franchise and the business kind of shifts from now. We're trying to do that for our own corporate stores. But also now we're really in the training business and the sales business and we're trying to get strangers' out there in a different place to now get up and running quickly and start making money and start serving their community. How did that kind of shift happen? Because those are two really separate businesses.

Jackie Bondanza: They are. And it's definitely been an interesting ride. I was not familiar with franchising when I started doing this. And I hope that that's a testament to the fact that, you know, everybody can learn new things. Everyone on our team has an incredible work drive and a dedication to developing the brand. And we went out there and we found people who knew more about franchising and sales and building that business than we did. And I think you have to have that humility. You have to have that intelligence to be able to say, I don't know much about this, but if I want to build this company, I have to go and source other companies and vendors and employees that are going to be able to do this. And that is what. Mike and I have always done is we're very big on self reflection, I think it's huge in business and understanding our strengths and weaknesses. And although we know the ins and outs of our brands and could run a store with our eyes closed, there are other things that we're not as great at and we always try to remain aware of that and hire for that. So bring in people who are experts at franchising. And that's what we've done over the past eight years. I've been doing this and that's one of the reasons why today we are about to sell our one hundredth territory. So we've just partnered with some really great people and companies to help us get there.

Lee Kantor: Now, you started out as a customer and then kind of joined the firm. Is that how the franchises have kind of organically started as well? Were you getting requests from people that were already familiar with the brand and the service and they said, hey, how come there's not one where I am?

Jackie Bondanza: To some degree, yes. Our first three locations, which were on Long Island, were owned by either customers or former employees. So Mike had built two stores that he sold as turnkey units and that really helped get us off the ground. And those the owners of those two stores were both former employees and customers. So they were super familiar with the brand. And then from there, yes, we have had inquiries from other customers that say, why isn't there a town in their town? Or they're familiar with it because a relative lives near a house town. And we have awarded franchises to that type of prospect. But we also, for the vast majority of it, we're attracting customers I'm sorry, prospects that have never heard of hands down. And they discover us because they are searching for pet care franchises and we are one of the more affordable brands. They're also attracted to us because we're very purposefully anti corporate. We have a very kind of we try to keep everything very light and accessible and that goes for our customers and our franchisees. So we get a lot of people who are looking to transition away from a high stress corporate job and they're looking to do something more fun with their lives. And that's where Brownstown typically fits the mold for them.

Lee Kantor: Now, do you have any advice for the folks that maybe have an emerging franchise and they're thinking or maybe they've just started and they've got a couple or they're thinking about taking their business and making it a franchise? Are there some dos and don'ts that you have learned that might be able to ease their learning curve a little bit?

Jackie Bondanza: Oh, there are so many. I would say, you know, you have to understand what you don't know and what you're not good at. And that self reflection is just so, so important. I would always tell anyone to start there and then to look for people and companies that can help you. You have to be open to learning and understanding how new business structures work and ask for advice and do a lot of research. There are some people out there that are and companies that aren't as great as others. We've certainly made mistakes. But I think one of the best things we've done is hired a team of consultants early on who were very experienced in franchising and who were very involved in the IFA. So the International Franchise Association has been a huge resource for us as we've grown our brand. It can be overwhelming at times for sure, but I find that this franchising community is so supportive. I've had people, very high profile people from very successful high profile brands reach out and be willing to help. And I have taken all of that, all of that help. I've to take every opportunity to just kind of speak to anyone who can give you advice. Not not to say you should take all of the advice, but I think soaking up information and then being able to discern what's best for your company is what I have found to be the best path forward.

Lee Kantor: Now, one of the advantages of partnering with the franchisor, having your own franchise is kind of the brain trust and the kind of thought leadership that comes with a larger organization so that you as an individual don't have to kind of figure it out. How do you guys help your franchisees through covid, which was so disruptive to so many people?

Jackie Bondanza: Yes, it was. Luckily, we were in the essential business, so we were permitted to stay open throughout covid in every state, but it was a difficult time for sure. Our franchisees were obviously very concerned. There was a period of time where nobody knew what was going on or what to do. So what we did, we did a few things. First, we changed our communication frequency and realized it was critical to communicate to all 50 of our franchisees daily, especially in March and April. And then we move that to weekly once things started to calm down. We also made ourselves accessible essentially twenty four, seven, even if it was just to take a phone call from a franchisee who was kind of panicking and didn't know what to do. We implemented a couple of different programs, including a marketing program that aimed to retain as many of our customers as possible. So we moved from an acquisition campaign immediately to a retention campaign. We started to run health care specials. So we really focused on that core essential worker that is the base of our customers. So just communicating all that, implementing all that, helping our franchisees with. We've had a partnership with a bank who ended up funding a lot of our open locations with PP money just being that like a central hub. That resource for people I think was huge for them. And the communication piece just staying in contact and being just a phone call or text away, I think helped our system get through it.

Lee Kantor: Now, you talked a little bit about the idea of franchising, but can we dig in a little deeper? Is it a person that is in this kind of second act of their career? Maybe they got laid off. Maybe this is something that they've always dreamed of, of having their own business. Are they typically dog lovers? Like, what is the kind of the skills that they should have must have of an ideal franchisee?

Jackie Bondanza: We do get a lot of people looking at transitions from corporate that are in their kind of second act. We also get people who fit a different category. You know, everyone kind of comes from all walks of professional life. But I would say a couple of the most important characteristics of a successful franchisee for us include customer service experience. Our top performing franchisees have some type of sales background. You've got to like to get out there in your community and build relationships with people. This is a customer service business and then having some sort of hiring and management experience and some and some degree of ability to run a small business, which is a very, very different experience than stepping in from a corporate job where you one might be managing and hiring a much higher level people than we we are in our hands down businesses. So those are typically the top two qualities that we look for. Loving dogs helps. But as we tell our prospects, this is not about playing with dogs all day. We are providing a very important service to our customers. So we are a service business first and like we say it, hands down. The customer is always right, but the customer is actually the dog. So our focus is in taking care of the dog throughout the day and of course, tending to the customers. But we want our customers to know that their dog actually comes first. So those are kind of the two types of things. A lot we get a lot of people who are looking that are younger, not necessarily even at retirement age, and looking to just get out of corporate or they're looking to set themselves up with something in their family, up with something when they retire in 10 years, five years or so. So it's been an interesting mix of professionals coming in.

Lee Kantor: Now, are your franchisees kind of these professional franchises where they're adding this to our portfolio of other franchises or at this stage or you're getting kind of the people that are building their own empire around Hamsterdam?

Jackie Bondanza: Typically, we are not getting franchisees who are to some degree franchisees at other brands and just adding this to their portfolio. We tend to look for more semi absentee owner operators. And what you described is that they're looking to kind of build their own empire. That is more of the prospect that we're looking for. We typically don't entertain people who are coming in to just add this to a portfolio and who are looking for an investment, because this is a very personal business and most of our highest performers are in the store to some degree, because that personal connection with the customer is so important to the success now for.

Lee Kantor: Is that a way to identify that person? That's a tricky person to find.

Jackie Bondanza: It is. It's a tricky person to find. But pretty early on in our vetting process, we have conversations about that and we ask them what are your goals? What are you looking to do here? Where do you see yourself in five years? Do you want to work in the store? And our model certainly has certainly been made and built to be semi absentee. So we do have people who are in our system that have corporate jobs and other careers, and they're able to do this as kind of a side business for lack of a better term. And then they're looking to transition to doing it more full time or growing out three and five units over the course of the next maybe three or five years. So we look for people who understand that they have to be involved in the business, at least the first year to make sure the business gets off the ground and then they can turn around and go and, you know, pursue another business venture, whether that's with us or another brand.

Lee Kantor: Well, congratulations on all the success. If there's someone out there that wants to learn more, what's the website?

Jackie Bondanza: We are at Poundstone franchise dot com. That's our franchise website. You can also check out our customer facing website at town USA Dotcom.

Lee Kantor: All right. Well, Jacki, thank you so much for sharing your story today. You're doing important work and we appreciate you.

Jackie Bondanza: Thanks so much for having me. All right.

Lee Kantor: This is Lee Kantor. We'll see you all next time on Franchise Marketing Radio.

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