Connecticut is a competitive market for the Wild Birds Unlimited brand, and no one knows this quite like franchisee Jessica Penfield. Penfield and her husband, Ken, opened their Wild Birds Unlimited franchise in the town of Old Saybrook on January 31, and the community response has already been tremendous.
“We have an amazing Chamber of Commerce in Old Saybrook that we’ve been involved in, and the morning we opened, we had a number of people from that chamber come,” she said. “We had the ribbon cutting at 9:30 a.m. on January 31 and we were going to officially open the store at 10 a.m, but people were already coming in the door. That whole weekend was very busy. My husband and I had an idea that this would be a good location and that we would attract a lot of people interested in backyard birding, but we were overwhelmed by how many people came up to us and said how glad they were that we had arrived.”
Penfield’s relationship with Wild Birds Unlimited began about 10 years ago when she was caring for an elderly uncle.
“I would help him do things around the house and run errands, and one of those errands was to go to his local Wild Birds Unlimited in Niantic, Connecticut and get feed for his feeders,” she said. “We’d stop in and chat with the owner. Then I started buying my bird feed there.”
About two years ago, that same store owner offered Penfield a part-time job at the Niantic location. She jumped at the opportunity.
“I really enjoyed the interaction with the customers and talking about the birds that were coming to their yards and the ways they were trying to attract the birds,” Penfield said. “Hearing their stories was just so much fun.”
Penfield was interested in finding a full-time job, but after not finding anything suitable, so she decided to look into franchising with the brand. She and Ken then began having conversations with Wild Birds Unlimited Chief Development Officer Paul Pickett and then Manager of Franchise Development Lisa McGill.
“We also got out and visited stores,” Penfield said. “That is really a key component of it. Getting out there and talking to the other owners and seeing what they do, if they like it and how many years they’ve been in it was invaluable to me because every one of the owners was so willing to answer questions and help with everything. They are the people who are in the store day after day, year after year. Their opinions and advice were very important to us.”
Also important to Penfield was how early on in the franchising process Wild Birds Unlimited provided them with their franchisee satisfaction survey.
“We were very impressed that the store owners themselves rated the franchise very highly and seemed to have a really high level of franchisee satisfaction,” she said.
The Penfields also had a positive experience with the rest of the Wild Birds Unlimited franchise support center team throughout the opening process. Neither Penfield nor her husband had previous store ownership experience, so they found all of the support they received extremely helpful.
“There was somebody for every single component— the IT people, the marketing people, the people who set up and design the space for you,” Penfield said. “There was a resource available to us for every situation, and they were all very helpful.”
Today, Penfield is in the process of making the Old Saybrook franchise, which is a brand-new location for the brand, successful. Her husband still holds his full-time job and helps on weekends. The store has already hosted events and speakers, including a “phenomenal” couple, she said, who has a bird rehabbing facility nearby and work with birds of prey.
“We had a local author who recently wrote a book about birding in Connecticut come in for a talk and a book signing,” Penfield said. “We also had someone come from the local Connecticut Audubon Society. They set up a booth and showed people how to make pine cone feeders, which went over well. We’re very eager to work with all of these like-minded people who are interested in nature, birding and just being outdoors and taking advantage of all the beautiful habitats we have.”
Penfield has also done talks on backyard bird topics at the local senior center, as well as at a nearby community college. She noted that Connecticut is an especially wonderful market for Wild Birds Unlimited.
“We’re very fortunate that we have Long Island Sound to our south, and then to our east, we have the Connecticut River,” Penfield said. “Inland, we have a number of land trust properties and preserves, so no matter what type of nature people like, we have something.”
Having all of this in proximity creates a plethora of bird-watching opportunities for the area’s many nature enthusiasts.
“We have plenty of shorebirds around, and if you like kayaking up the Connecticut River, there is plenty to see there as well,” Penfield said. “Connecticut has a growing population of bald eagles, so that’s a big attraction, and if you like the woods, we have preserves and beautiful trails you can hike and focus on migratory birds, songbirds and other great birds that you find in wooded habitats. There are so many different choices, and it seems like people in the community are very nature, conservation and ecology-focused. I think that lends itself to why we’ll have great success where we are located.”
The Wild Birds Unlimited franchise support center team is thrilled with the warm community reception the brand has received in Old Saybrook. The Connecticut coastline is a major target area for the brand to grow, as is neighboring Long Island, New York.
“We are so proud of how well the Wild Birds Unlimited brand is being represented by Jessica and Ken in Old Saybrook, Connecticut,” Pickett said. “We look forward to adding more Wild Birds Unlimited stores in Connecticut and Long Island, New York to continue to spread the joy that Wild Birds Unlimited brings to customers in both of these target markets.”
Penfield’s advice to prospective franchisees is to speak with current franchisees to get a feel for what is involved and expected. She noted how she and her husband took every opportunity they could to visit as many stores as possible to get a feel for franchising with the brand.
“Get out and visit stores,” she said. “I did not talk to a single owner who was not willing to take time out of their busy day to answer any questions I had and give me support. The store owners are a tremendous resource.”
The startup costs for a Wild Birds Unlimited franchise range from $150,837 to $260,837, which includes the franchise fee. The franchise fee is $30,000 per location. To learn more about franchising with Wild Birds Unlimited, visit https://franchise.wbu.com/.