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Meet Michael Levy and Lindsey Jeansonne of Pet Food Express

Today we’d like to introduce you to Michael Levy and Lindsey Jeansonne.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Michael and Lindsey. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
Michael: It all started back when I was a boy of 7 and wasn’t allowed to get a dog, so I began bringing home stray cats (see picture below). At 16, I finally got my first dog, a German Shepherd, and trained him to respond to many commands off-leash. Years later, while attending City College of San Francisco in 1976, I decided to start a dog training business in order to supplement student loans.

My new business grew rapidly so the following year I dropped out of college and became a full-time professional dog trainer and ultimately grew it to become the largest professional dog training company in Northern California! I opened my first “brick and mortar” store in 1980 in San Francisco for dog training and pet supplies, and I quickly realized I wanted to focus on pet supplies. At that time, it was hard to find any quality pet foods, and I really believed in pet nutrition making a difference in a pet’s life. I started expanding my paw-print (so to speak) by opening a few additional stores. I met my business partner, Mark Witriol, a few years later in 1992, and together we’ve grown Pet Food Express into a 63 store chain in California.

Mark and I both agree that our employees are our greatest strength. They are the ones face-to-face with the customers every day. Many years ago, we created “Pet Food Express University” where all our new employees spend a week going through training on everything from customer service to pet nutrition. But it doesn’t stop there, all of our store managers attend classes every month and we also provide continuing education to all our employees as well. We put our trust in them, and they share that trust directly with our pet-loving customers!

Lindsey: I began my Pet Food Express (PFE) career as a part-time employee when I was a university student working on a master’s degree. When I graduated, I found that I had come to regard PFE as a remarkable company that fed my passion for animals in every respect: the care, nurturing and wellness of personal pets was a driving focus for the company and, in addition to that, EVERY day was bring-your-pet-to-work day.

However, my affinity for and identity with PFE’s business philosophies and practices went much further. PFE’s broad spectrum of community outreach programs made an indelible impression on me. It was also clear to me that the company was uncompromisingly committed to top-of-the-line, innovative, safe and healthy pet products and services. In the decade that I have been with PFE, I have taken great pride in the company’s commitment to research that drives the evolution and constant improvement of our products, services and practices. The company motto, “If we won’t give it to our pets, we won’t sell it for yours,” speaks volumes.

When I was invited to open up the greater L.A. area, I jumped at the chance. Though it meant moving away from family and friends, I saw it as an extraordinary opportunity to take an important role in furthering PFE’s mission to maximize the health, safety and welfare of furry family members. During scouting visits to L.A., it was clear that PFE’s offerings would fit naturally in a region densely populated by families with beloved pets. It was an honor to be a part of staking the PFE flag in the L.A. area and to be warmly received by local residents as we opened each of our 9 stores.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Michael: There were many bumps in the road to building the business, but I think that’s what makes entrepreneurship so interesting and rewarding. There are two big hurdles that stand out most to me.

The first major challenge came in 2003 and 2007 during the pet food recall that sickened hundreds of dogs. We are very careful in selecting our vendors before putting pet food on our shelves, but both of those cases put our customers and their pets at risk. When the recall happened, we just did what we thought was right and wanted to get any potential dangerous food out of consumer’s hands right away. We recalled all the food from the vendors (not just the food in question), offered rebates without proof of purchase and paid for any veterinary bills for our customer’s pets who had fallen ill. It was the right thing to do, but it was extremely stressful at the time.

The second major challenge is happening right now in Southern California. Everyone knows Pet Food Express up north but we are still relatively new down here. We opened our first store in Southern California about 4 years ago and we expected our Northern California reputation to follow us. It turns out for the average person in Southern California driving by, we looked just like another nice-looking pet store. And like most of our competitors, our name begins with “Pet”. There is a huge difference in the shopping experience but pet parents need to discover that for themselves! We needed to get people through our doors to experience what it’s like to shop in a Pet Food Express and that’s key to building our business. Fortunately, our customers are now spreading the word for us, and that’s really helping us reach our stride in Southern California.

Lindsey: When we opened our first greater L.A. area store in Pasadena almost 4 years ago, we faced many of the same logistical and staffing start-up challenges that a new company might face. Fortunately, with dozens of stores in Northern California, our seasoned corporate departments adapted quickly to the challenges that came with adding stores at a significant distance from headquarters.

Furthermore, we have been fortunate to draw upon a vibrant and talented pool of candidates in L.A. and surrounding areas. Of course, with each new location, our reputation for high touch service and product excellence has become more widely recognized. That recognition, together with PFE’s well-established reputation for extensive employee training and career path development enables us to continue to attract extraordinary talent.

PFE relies heavily on grassroots marketing which can take time to mature in reach and brand recognition. We know that those we serve — customers, local rescue groups and shelters, as well as our team members — are integral to spreading the word of our excellence in products, services and business practices. Ultimately, it is they who will drive new customers our way. Southern California is a huge region and, while we are pleased to have installed 9 stores in the region in just under four years, we are eager to drive recognition of the Pet Food Express name deeper and farther into the surrounding communities.

Please tell us about Pet Food Express.
Michael: We love pets! Technically, we sell pet food and supplies, but I would say our business is really about relationships and trust. If you walk into a Pet Food Express with your pet, the employee is more likely to know the name of your dog than your name! Our employees love pets and so do we. We have three beliefs that we live and work by giving back, customer service, and setting industry standards.

Here are some of our accomplishments that make us most proud:
Customer Service:
o Honored with “Best Place to Work” every year for the past 6 years (survey done by Bay Area News Group – independent newspaper group)
o 4.5-5 star reviews on every store’s Yelp page

Giving back:
o We support and work closely with more than 200 pet rescues and shelters in California providing monetary donations, product donations and special events to promote adoption. We hold 3 major fundraisers every year providing more than a million dollars to police K9s, rescues/shelters and schools.
o Awarded the first-ever “Giver Award” by the National Retail Federation in 2015
o Business Insider named Pet Food Express one of the Top 10 companies shaping the future of retail for its focus on giving back to the community

Only pet retail that has published a “safety assurance program” for your pet:
o PFE tests ALL toys for lead levels (making sure they meet the federal guidelines for kids toys since there are no federal guidelines for pet toys)
o Bans questionable ingredients that are technically legal, including animal by-product meals, animal fat, meat & bone meal, propylene glycol and all artificial flavors and colors

Because of those 3 pillars, we are the only retailer in the Pet Industry to have been honored with Retailer of the Year – 4 times (including in 2017)!

I am most proud of our teams and their continuing dedication to helping foster happy, healthy relationships between our customers and their pets. Our employees are, first and foremost, pet lovers. They enjoy learning about the products we carry and are skilled in helping customers navigate everything from pet behavioral issues to finding a new, healthier food. The store’s host classes geared towards improving pet health, including first aid/CPR classes, pre-weaned kitten care classes and dog training sessions.

PFE has always been deeply committed to facilitating pet adoptions. Literally, tens of thousands of cat, dogs, and other animals have found forever homes through numerous PFE hosted and sponsored events and services across California. In the L.A. region, we have been a part of dozens of local pet-related events and host weekly adoption events in each of our stores. In addition, 3 of our L.A. area stores have permanent cat adoption facilities that, in partnership with local shelters, have adopted out more than 600 cats and counting!

In times of natural disasters, PFE has always been quick to step in and generously supply rescue organizations with pet food and supplies. During the recent devastating fires in L.A., we donated product to several local groups and offered free pet washes to affected pets. PFE works closely with law enforcement to provide K-9 units with protective vests, trauma kits and heat sensors for cars. These are just a few of the programs that define the magnitude of PFE’s commitment to pets and the communities we serve. Indeed, PFE is much more than a pet supply company: it is a family that cares about its employees, customers and community

Contact Info:

Image Credit:

Beverly Hills Courier

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