Matt Ulrich owns a dog, two turtles, two tortoises and a couple of fish tanks at home.
“I have fewer tanks at home than I used to,” he said. “I’ve got 300 tanks to take care of at Finatics.” That’s why people call Ulrich the Fish Guy.
He owns Finatics Tropical Fish, a pet store specializing in fish that’s home to 1,200 different species at any given time. It’s at 1374 Jadwin Ave. in the Uptown Shopping Center in Richland.
Ulrich is expanding the business to make room for more pets and plans to change its name so it’s more inclusive.
“I’ve always been that guy who has a passion for the natural world. But I didn’t want to be a marine biologist or a veterinarian,” he said.
Ulrich bought Finatics from the previous owner about four years ago, when the business was located around the corner on the south side of the shopping center.
It was the realization of a lifelong dream for Ulrich.
“This has been a lifelong passion. I got my first tank when I was 7 years old for Christmas, and I was hooked,” he said.
Ulrich toted a book along when visiting pet stores. He’d find a fish in a tank, then find the fish in his book.
Finatics is not his first foray into the pet world.
“We owned the Barking Lot (dog grooming business on Thayer Drive in Richland) for 22 years,” Ulrich said. “My first wife Audrey and I owned it, but she passed away 12 years ago. My dream since boyhood was wanting to add a pet shop.”
The Paws-abilities Place dog park in Richland is dedicated to his late wife who died in a car crash. A fellow pet lover, she was the first president of the Tri-City Dog Park Society and worked tirelessly for a permanent dog park at Badger Mountain Park.
Ulrich remarried, and he and his wife, Spring, have a young family. She is a stay-at-home mother who takes care of the kids.
“(Spring) really has made it possible for me to chase this dream,” Ulrich said.
The old Finatics shop had at most 1,000 square feet of space. “The first thing we did was double the amount of tanks,” he said.
But when the pandemic hit in 2020, that 1,000 square feet became a problem.
“Customers could come in by appointment. We couldn’t have everyone in there in such tight spaces,” he said.
Ulrich said there has been an “unprecedented demand in our industry.”
According to the American Pet Product Association, in the past year U.S. pet owners have spent $103.6 billion on pets – pets themselves, food and treats, supplies, veterinarian care and other services.
In a 2021 survey, there is at least one dog in 69 million homes in this country; 45.3 million homes have at least one cat, 11.8 million homes have freshwater fish.
This country loves its pets.
IBISWorld, in an Oct. 28 report, reported that the U.S. has 13,215 pet stores in 2022.
That amounts to a small growth of 0.6%, on average, for the years 2017-22.
But here’s the thing: the majority of those pet stores are big box stores, such as PetSmart and PetCo.
The mom-and-pop industry really isn’t growing.
In Ulrich’s case, there aren’t many mom-and-pop pet stores left in the region.
“When I moved here 23 years ago, there were maybe four or five specialty pet stores here,” he said. “Now, they’re all gone. There’s a guy in Walla Walla who has a place, and another in Yakima. Those are my colleagues, rather than competitors.”
Still, Ulrich realized he had to get bigger if he was to survive.
“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing,” he said. “About 95 of every 100 mom-and-pop pet stores have gone away. Places that were 1,500 to 2,500 square feet – that’s just not enough square feet to make a profit.”
But finding a new place for Finatics was hard.
“I just couldn’t find the right real estate,” said Ulrich, who worked with a Realtor for three years.
And then the store’s current space finally came open on the west side of the Uptown, facing Jadwin Avenue.
That was in March 2021, when he signed a five-year lease for the 8,000-square-foot store.
The growth since has been exponential.
“From March to November, we went from $10,000 to $200,000 in product,” Ulrich said.
Employee numbers went from three in the previous shop to 10, “and I could use a couple more.”
The hard numbers for November and December have tripled over last year, he said.
Ulrich’s business name soon will change from being Finatics Tropical Fish to Big River Pets.
“We don’t want to be hemmed in by just being a tropical fish store,” he said.
A new reptile room is being carved out, using 600 square feet of space.
And inside that space will be a smaller, climate-controlled room for frogs.
Around the corner is The Barking Lot, which also sells dog treats and toys and cat treats. Employees, using a series of hallways, can get from one to the other without having to go outside.
“We’re making up a big sign that will say ‘The Barking Lot, part of the Big River Pet family’ or some such,” Ulrich said. “I’m operating one company but they will have separate entrances.”
Ulrich was a dog groomer for 22 years and was in semi-retirement. The Barking Lot closed for five months during the pandemic, and he lost half of his staff.
But his general manager is back and will take care of that side of the business.
But when it’s all said and done, fish and tanks, which are a popular item for sale in his store, will still be the main focus.
“Demand has been great. People still call to see if we’re open for shopping in person,” Ulrich said. “We’re a regional draw.”
Ulrich estimates customers come from a 2.5-hour radius.
And he’s got a distribution system.
“I’m all about developing 18 distributors. I get fish from all over the world,” he said. “I get orders from Portland, Seattle, the Bay Area, Los Angeles. Most shipping takes a day, or I’ll make a run to the airport.”
Finding the right pet for a customer is what brings Ulrich joy.
“I’m an entrepreneur by heart. Challenges are what gets me up for the day,” he said. “My belief is that if I do what I love, I don’t work a day in my life.”
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