Here’s Why We’re Barking Mad for Hounds Town USA

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Melissa Castoro

CEO Jackie Bondanza dishes about the brand’s 20-year journey from small business to successful franchise.

Founded in 2001 by retired New York City police officer Michael S. Gould, Hounds Town USA is a testament to the power of perseverance and building a solid foundation for franchising success.

After retiring from the police force as one of the earliest members of the NYPD’s elite Canine Unit, Gould saw an opportunity for launching a business in the pet care industry. Offering doggy daycare, boarding, grooming, and pet care services, Hounds Town USA has spent the last two decades establishing a golden reputation as a pioneer in pet care.

“It was just kind of a natural extension of (Gould’s) really long career in having dogs as a partner in a law enforcement capacity,” says Hounds Town USA CEO Jackie Bondanza.

Despite Gould’s extensive experience working with dogs, however, launching a pet care company in the early 2000s – well before it was trendy for pet owners to lavish their pets with extra frills – was no easy task.

“People actually thought (Gould) was crazy,” Bondanza says. “They said, ‘There’s no way that idea is going to work. No one’s ever going to pay you money to watch their dog during the day.’ But he just kind of plowed through that. He knew that eventually the value for the dog would be recognized by the owners. And that’s obviously exactly what happened over the two decades we’ve been doing this.”

Starting from a 1200 square-foot store in Port Jefferson, Long Island, the brand expanded into the franchising space around seven years ago under Bondanza’s leadership. Since then, its system has grown to include 24 open locations with 40 more in the pipeline and 100 territories sold.

“I actually walked into the doors [of the original location] as a customer with my own two dogs and just recognized the need for this to be all over the country. I thought it had real potential in the pet care space,” Bondanza recalls.

Determined to help grow the small pet care business, Bondanza left her job as a book editor at a large publishing house 10 years ago and joined the small team at Hounds Town USA. Working in the original store, Bondanza started to help Gould build a plan for transforming the business into a franchise.

In 2006, Gould and the Hounds Town USA team developed an FDD and operations manual. The market crash deterred the small company from pursuing franchising, though, and plans for scaling the business were temporarily halted.

Seven years ago, the team finally made the leap into franchising. Though Bondanza admits it’s been a journey full of ups and downs, she says it’s all been worth it.

Building relationships – and trust

Beyond its strong business and legal foundation, Bondanza credits much of Hounds Town USA’s success to staying true to its values and building a strong culture based on genuine relationships with franchisees and customers alike.

“(Franchising) is really about building relationships – one-to-one relationships – and transferring that culture to every single person in your system and never losing sight of it,” Bondanza says.

An important part of building those relationships, according to Bondanza, is establishing a sense of trust through transparency. In addition to creating professional profiles on social media to connect with franchisees and customers directly, the team at Hounds Town USA also strives to be upfront about the potential struggles prospective franchisees should expect to encounter when operating their businesses.

“We try to be as transparent as possible with (franchisees) through the vetting process,” Bondanza says. “I’ve spoken to so many people on a clearance call and they’re like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you’re telling us about all the challenges of the business too; you’re not only trying to sell us on something.”

Because that openness and honesty is a key component of the brand’s success, Hounds Town USA’s 15-person corporate team meets at its “Townie HQ” once a week to discuss the company’s culture – keeping staff on track and committed to their values.

“We’re very, very big on our values,” Bondanza says. “And one of them is that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We like to have fun, and that feeling has to be transferred to every single franchisee and all of their employees.”

To make that happen, Hounds Town USA has baked its branding into every interaction the team has with its franchisees and candidates.

“Everything we’re having the franchisees watch, even if it’s on the learning management system, is branded in some way …” Bondanza says. “I think if we don’t do that, we lose the heart of why people are attracted to Hounds Town.”

A marathon, not a sprint

Despite the brand’s 20-year success, Bondanza says franchising has been more of a marathon than a sprint – and that slow, steady pace has enabled the team at Hounds Town USA to franchise the right way.

“I think that’s absolutely a key element (of franchising) – having a couple of stores that the franchisor runs, so you can understand your systems really well, understand your process, get the business model dow first, ideally in a couple of different markets, and then start franchising,” Bondanza says.

Although new franchisors often think it’s a good idea to run out and open as many new locations as possible, Bondanza advises against the practice. She explains that a slower pace of growth allows franchisors to test their business model and perfect weaknesses before expanding, creating a stronger foundation for franchisees to operate successfully across the system.

“If we didn’t do that, we would be testing our model as we were opening stores – and that’s not fair to franchisees,” Bondanza says.

Hounds Town USA’s slow and deliberate growth has paid off for the brand over the years. After partnering with franchise consulting firm Raintree, Bondanza says Hounds Town USA was able to close the deal with their first franchisee.

“It was just a snowball effect after that happened, just getting out into that new market with that new person,” Bondanza recalls.

The success of the brand’s first franchisee offered a glimpse into the future, with other successful franchisees following as the company continued to slowly grow over the last seven years – something Bondanza says has been inspiring to watch.

Recently, while reviewing franchisees’ profits and losses for the company’s annual Item 19 preparation, Bondanza says she was delighted to discover that one of Hounds Town USA’s newest franchisees’ first year-and-a-half in operation had exceeded their expectations.

“I remember the day he came to discovery day. He was miserable and just saw this as his way out,” Bondanza recalls. 

Since opening, that new franchisee has been able to make more money than he was making at the job he left to start his business – enabling his wife to leave her day job to work in their store, and providing more flexibility for the couple to care for their child.

Laying the right foundation

Although Hounds Town USA is an undeniable success story in the world of franchising, those victories haven’t come without challenges – something Bondanza readily admits.

“What kept me up at night has changed over the last 10 years,” Bondanza says. “What used to keep me up at night was, ‘How are we going to open 55 stores and I have four people on my team?’”

Although the pandemic certainly created challenges for the brand in terms of assembling a strong corporate team to assist with franchise sales and supporting both the brand and franchisees, Bondanza says she was able to rally a great group.

These days, Bondanza says she worries more about anticipating future challenges in changing times. Still, Hounds Town USA made efforts early on to insulate itself from unexpected challenges when it comes to margins – something new franchisors should take note of.

“Luckily for us, we worked really hard on making the margins in our business model phenomenal, so I don’t worry about our franchisees making money,” Bondanza says. “It’s more, how can we get out there in the market faster? And what potential threats are coming down the pike five to ten years from now?” 

Still, the brand’s position as a pioneer in an industry that still isn’t oversaturated or fiercely competitive has been an added benefit for Hounds Town USA, Bondanza says.

“We have the opportunity to be the trendsetters – and that’s a really exciting place to be,” Bondanza says.

By positioning themselves in smart ways, preparing realistically for challenges, and supporting franchisees with a strong foundation for the entire franchise system, Hounds Town USA has ensured its success – and the team is looking forward to more.

“We’ve worked incredibly hard for (our success), and we never expected it to come overnight,” Bondanza says. “So it’s really nice to see all of these things happening, and all of these opportunities becoming available to other people who might not have had them if we hadn’t kept at it, challenge after challenge. So, to quote the Goonies – ‘This is our time!’”