Pet Project

The Raso family. We learn how their passions helped turn their hand from restaurants to pet stores.

By Nikki Stefanoff.

It may seem like a curious decision to switch from spending over 20 years running successful Melbourne restaurants to opening a chain of pet stores, but not so for the Raso family.

“We fed people before and now we’re just feeding their animals,” says Frank Raso, one of the partners in the business. “People love their pets: where we would struggle to charge $40 for a three-course meal, people are more than happy to spend that on their four-legged friends!”

Frank runs the Victoria-based Mega Pet Warehouse stores alongside his sister-in-law Caroline, with brothers Sam and Santo Raso as partners. With a background in engineering, a stint in accounting and a few years spent as a successful chef in one of the family restaurants, Frank is no stranger to turning his hand to new things.

Caroline’s career is just as diverse and, before opening Mega Pet Warehouse, she worked as a personal assistant to a QC (Queen’s Counsel), while at the same time helping to run the restaurants.

This journey from restaurant to pet store began back in 2004 when, after spotting a retail opportunity tucked away on a Bayswater industrial estate, Caroline and Frank made the decision to combine their years of business acumen and take on a retail challenge.

“The property as it stood needed some love and attention, but we saw its potential,” says Caroline.

“We knew nothing about running a retail business, but we felt confident enough in our business skills to take it on. We learned everything on the job by asking lots of questions of various sales reps and doing a great deal of private study.”

It helped that they both love animals. Caroline grew up helping to show dogs with her family and Frank speaks fondly about his ‘mutt’ at home. The business works alongside animal shelters to promote adoption programs and regularly donates food.

“A love of animals is integral to what we do. You only need to spend five minutes with a customer to see how their face lights up when you talk about their pets,” says Caroline. “A pet completes a family and being an animal lover is something we always look for when interviewing staff. That and their ability to cope with handling rats and mice!”

Caroline and Frank are the first to admit that taking on such a large business hasn’t always been easy and has taken a lot of dedication as well as a positive outlook. “Once you’ve got your key business knowledge, the rest can be learned,” says Frank. “Our success is down to the skills we’ve had for years. It’s about staying focused and adapting your skillset to the task at hand.” And adapt they have, taking their food preparation and nutritional knowledge and rethinking it to benefit animals rather than humans.

When starting to expand the business it was important that animal well-being was at the forefront of the Rasos’ plan and so Mega Pet Warehouse began focusing on feeding pets in a more natural way – through fresh meat. By offering their customers a wide range of fresh pet meat Frank and Caroline have taken a back-to-basics approach. “Animals eat meat, it’s what they need,” says Frank. “So, we wanted to give people the option to feed their pets what they naturally need.”

“We’re also aware that animals are part of the family and we were keen to give people the option to feed their pets the same as the rest of the household,” adds Caroline. “It’s why we carry a holistic range of vegan and paleo dog foods.”

What began as a passing opportunity has, over the last decade, developed into a chain of large stand-alone stores. While moving their inaugural shop to Ringwood in late 2004, they were simultaneously opening a second store in Hoppers Crossing. “2004 was a busy year for us,” laughs Caroline. “It was all hands on deck and not a lot of family time.”

Epping opened in 2005, Dandenong followed in 2006 and in August 2015 they opened a new and improved Epping store. The stores need a lot of space and so are based within homemaker centres, a lesson they learned after closing the Dandenong store in 2013 and relocating it to Cheltenham.

“The original Dandenong store was in a shopping plaza, which was way off our business model,” explains Caroline. “It was never as successful as the other stores. We gave it seven years, then decided to move it to Cheltenham where it’s thrived.”

With both Caroline and Frank being very hands-on in all areas of the business it must be hard to think, or talk, about anything else. “It can drive the rest of the family mad,” says Caroline. “So when we’re at family gatherings we try our hardest to talk about other things. It can be tricky as we’re all involved one way or another, even my kids have worked in the shops, but we do try to leave the shoptalk to official meetings.”

Working with family is your idea of either heaven or hell, but for the Rasos it’s all they know. “Keeping it in the family just makes sense to us,” says Caroline. “It helps to keep running costs down to a minimum and we like that we’re all working towards the same goal, which helps when there’s the inevitable difference of opinion.”

So how do they mediate a tricky discussion? “If it’s getting a bit sticky then we’ll take a vote and ask ourselves the question ‘what’s best for the business?’” says Caroline.

With a move into the online space imminent and the business continuing to expand, how would these traditional restaurateurs explain the secret to their success? “It’s simple,” says Frank. “Use the skills you’ve got and if you can’t do something then accept it with the realisation that you don’t have to do everything yourself. Surround yourself with talented people and learn that business is a collaborative process.”

Looking to take on a new business venture? To find out how Bank of Melbourne can support you through this process, make an appointment at your local branch or call 13 82 66.