According to its website, "Dave's Soda and Pet City had its modest beginnings in the bay of an empty gas station. Dave Ratner, owner and CIO (Chief Instigating Officer), recalls, 'I started the soda company, Dave's Soda City, in 1975. About three years later, I bought a dog. I was in a supermarket buying food for Bentley and noticed that they had more pet food than soda. I thought, Hey, what a great idea for a store.' Today, Dave's has grown into a mini chain of four superstores with more than 90 employees."
Dave Ratner was about 27 years old in 1978, when he came up with his winning idea. In a recent interview, we asked Dave what he's been up to since.
Valley Advocate: One great idea? Since then, what other inspirations have you had?
Dave Ratner: We are in our 15th season of our TV show [now on Fox 6 in Springfield]. The show has made Sandy [Gentile, Dave's pet supply manager], Matt [Moretti, Dave's fish department. manager], and me very well known faces in western Mass. The second best idea I have had is coming out with all the different formulas of Dave's brand of pet food. We are now selling it in about 400 stores on the East Coast.
VA: Pepsi and Purina, Coca Cola and Friskies. Did any of the big soda brands worry about being associated with pet food? Or vice versa? Or think to suggest that a Soda and Pet City makes as much sense in Little Rock or Sacramento as it does in Springfield or Hadley?
DR: You know, I had to send certified checks to manufacturers when I first started since they thought I was insane.
VA: How has the mix of business—the pet side versus the soda side—changed over the years?
DR: Just a slight change! From 100 percent soda to about 98 percent pet stuff.
VA: You've got a TV Show. And you're a regular on radio. Your mustachioed image has been rendered into a cartoon. Have you always had a knack for the marketing stuff?
DR: To say I love marketing is an understatement. My idea of a vacation is going to a conference about marketing. The trick for me is to figure out what can I do to make people like my stores more than my competitor's stores. As an independently owned business, we don't have the money to outspend the national guys, so we have to out market them.
VA: Do you ever wonder what life would have been like if you'd never had your pet food epiphany? If you'd stayed Dave's Soda City and put as much of your personality behind fizzy soft drinks as you do all things pet related, would you still be an iconic figure in the Valley?
DR: If I had just stayed in the soda biz, I wouldn't have a business. I often wonder what life would be like if I hadn't had that "I-can-sell-pet-food!" moment.
VA: Get mushy: Tell us about your affinity for animals.
DR: I love dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, guinea pigs and just about all animals, except I am not crazy about reptiles. There is nothing cuter in this world than a puppy or a kitten. Best part of my job is when I get on the floor in the store and have a puppy crawl up on me and I get a face full of wet, yucky kisses. And that drives my dogs nuts when I get home!
VA: Are you a cat man or a dog man?
DR: We have always had German shepherds. I think cats are great, but my babies are dogs. They would be Trudie and Stuart—his friends call him Stewie.
VA: Are there any pets you'd like to carry but don't? Are there any pets you carry that you wish you didn't?
DR: I would love to be able to carry more salt water fish but we will only sell captive-bred animals. I made the decision years ago to only carry-captive bred or farm-raised animals, so we can't get the big beautiful fish you often see.
VA: With 90 employees chain-wide, you are a significant employer in the region. Are you as humane to the people who work for you as you are to animals?
DR: You bet. We neuter or spay all of them right away so they don't breed. I can only say we have folks who have been with us forever, so there must be something good here. All kidding aside, the reason we win the Best of the Valley is not because of me. It is because we have the best and nicest folks in the world working here. I think my crew is pretty happy or we wouldn't win every year. The one thing that is really important is the culture at Dave's. That culture is simply this: it's our job to make sure customers will recommend Dave's to all their friends.
VA: What has the Pioneer Valley provided you as an entrepreneur? Is there something about the Valley that helped make your business a success?
DR: The folks in the Valley are fiercely loyal to local businesses like mine. I'm not sure how to put this but the Valley has rewarded me for doing the right things. The more involved we get with the community, the more we help schools, churches, shelters and so on, the better our business gets. What a concept, huh?