It was the third week of The City’s shelter-in-place order but an otherwise typical day at Cal’s Pet Supply, where Tricia Principe checked in her shipment and shelved a range of specialty dog and cat foods, chew toys and artisanal treats just as she would on any other Thursday.
“Pets have to eat just like people have to eat,” said Principe from her shop in the center of the Richmond District. “Any disruption to their diet can cause problems for them as well as for their people.”
The thought of closing Cal’s doors in the face of the epidemic never occurred to Principe, though she’s made the necessary adjustments to keep her customers, herself and her workers safe in the city-wide effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
“Sure it’s a little scary but we’re doing everything we can to keep things sanitized between each transaction — wiping down the credit card machine, the door, the phone, the shopping baskets,” she said. “Our community needs us. It’s a huge responsibility and also a privilege to serve them.”
Principe added a table between her counter and her customers to ensure there is always six feet between them.
“I’ve marked intervals in front and behind the counter and around the store. I ordered some little vinyl labels to remind people to keep their distance,” she said. “It’s just a matter of controlling the flow and giving everyone the space.”
Any potential lack of business due to reduced foot traffic and the rush to online shopping has been mitigated by customer loyalty and Cal’s special attention to the needs of local pets and their people, little luxuries like curbside service, cat grass and other plant-baseds items.
“We’ve always sold quite a bit of the CBD products for dogs dealing with anxiety,” said Principe, though she’s hearing less about pet stress during the crisis. “Their people are around,” she said, and with families at home, adoptions were on the rise (the San Francisco SPCA adoption center and Animal Care and Control have since closed until further notice).
“People who were planning to get a puppy in the summer, or planning to foster are adopting puppies and older dogs right now,” said Principe. She’s selling more puppy pads, doggie diapers and wipes, not only to new dog parents but to folks unable to get their dogs out as often as they might like in these times.
“Pets are faring pretty well during the crisis,” observed Principe, a long time animal lover. “I’ve learned a lot from the birds, dogs and cats in my life.”
Following the recession in 2008, Principe was laid off from her profession in graphic design. Job seeking at midlife wasn’t netting much until she heard about the opportunity to acquire Cal’s. The store’s founder was ready to retire, and though Principe had no prior experience in the pet industry, after working closely with him for a couple of months and getting to know the business, her ability to manage and organize kicked in and allowed for a natural transition in 2011.
“It all just fit together. The timing was perfect. It was the best thing I ever did,” said Principe who’s originally from San Jose, has lived throughout California and has called The City home for nearly 30 years.
“I’m very lucky everyone in our community is supportive of our business and is committed to shopping small,” said Principe. “I carry as many things as I can from smaller businesses. Our dog beds are from a small woman-owned business in Berkeley. Our cat trees are from a small company in Petaluma. I’m always grateful to live here, to work here and that our money stays here,” said Principe who lives a few miles from the shop with her husband, Mark who joins her at work sometimes.
Last year, Cal’s survived another disruption to its business when a necessary retrofit stretched from March to August.
“The landlord paid the construction people a little bit more to work around us so we could stay open. I was grateful but it wasn’t easy at times. We had to get creative,” said Principe who knows she lucked out with the arrangement. “If I ever decide to do a pop up store, I have the experience.”
Having just celebrated her ninth year as Cal’s owner, at every turn, she pointed to community support as the key to the success of a modest storefront business’s survival in the age of big box and online shopping. From bookstores to restaurants and pet shops, for small businesses to emerge from the pandemic intact, continued patronage is critical right now.
“Everyone has been so understanding and very respectful” she said of her customer’s response to the national emergency. Some have even shown up with hand sanitizer and gloves, concerned Cal’s might get caught up in the shortages “One customer brought us face masks,” said Principe.
“It warms my heart to no end. Providing a service that’s helpful to our neighbors, a lot of whom have become friends we didn’t have before is one of the best parts of the business,” she said. “Everything I did in my life was all leading to this. This is where I belong.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.