From Etsy to national retailer in four years
Townswoman fashions ‘Hounds’ for the holidays Deck the halls with hounds and schnauzers — that’s a tune West Springfield business owner Maria Ampolo might be humming this season. Ms. Ampolo is co-founder of Hearth Hounds, a locally-based company that supplies 256 retail stores, five different gift catalogues, and a website, HearthHounds.com, with canine Christmas stockings made in the likeness of 23 different dog breeds.
(Hold your dismay, cat lovers. Ms. Ampolo is already designing a line of feline stockings to hang by the fire for 2019).
“Last year we sold 12,000 stockings. This year it’s going to be closer to 16,500,” said Ms. Ampolo, who unwittingly unleashed a booming business in 2013 when she handcrafted a Christmas stocking in the likeness of her rescued racing greyhound, Gwennie.
Ms. Ampolo’s friends raved about Gwennie’s stocking and encouraged her to try selling others on Etsy, an e-marketplace for handmade items. So, she stitched together 10 more stockings and posted them. “I thought, well, let’s what kind of interest it gets,” Ms. Ampolo said. “Within four hours they were all sold. It was amazing! Nobody was more surprised than me.”
Over the next few years, Ms. Ampolo’s creativity, hard work, and dogged determination to teach herself whatever she needed to know, paid off. The final launch came in the form of help from her friends.
“I hate to say that old cliché that it takes a village, but it definitely does,” Ms. Ampolo said, sitting in her Riverdale Street warehouse. The space, tucked behind Cap and Hitch, is an organized Jenga of cardboard boxes packed with stockings waiting to be shipped to retailers. “We have so many people in the community, from day one, who have helped me.”
Ironically, a good number of Ms. Ampolo’s helpers graduated with her in West Springfield High School’s class of 1980. “The fates kind of brought us all back together again,” she said.
Hearth Hounds’ Head of Operations Kate Scoles and seamstress Sandra Kinsley are not West Springfield High School alumni, but it was Gail Thomas (WSHS ’80) who gave Ms. Ampolo her first business loan. Cindy Johnson (WSHS ’80) works as Hearth Hound’s talented sales manager. Chris Ashley (WSHS ’80) paints details on brindle stockings and assists with order fulfillment, and Robert King (WSHS ’80) is Ms. Ampolo’s co-founder and business partner.
Mr. King, a retired veteran now living in Colorado, provided the capital to move Hearth Hounds from an athome, Etsy business into a supplier for retail stores from Massachusetts to Australia. He and Ms. Ampolo had been in touch over Facebook, and when she described her business to him, he said he wanted in.
“At first, I thought he was joking. I thought he was just being supportive,” Ms. Ampolo said. That was in 2015, and Mr. King hadn’t been joking at all. With his financial backing, Ms. Ampolo created an LLC and filed for patents on her first 12 stocking breeds. By 2017, Hearth Hounds was ready to supply retailers across the country.
“It was a whole process, but there’s still nothing else like them. We got the patents. We got to the market first,” Ms. Ampolo said.
The stockings are true to each breed, and they’re adorable (even the Grinch was a dog lover, right?). Each one is approximately 10 inches wide by 22 inches long, and they’re made out of a combination of soft and flamboyantly fluffy fabrics. The longhair breeds, such as the shih tzus and Yorkshire terriers, come with a little comb and note that says, “Please groom me,” so new owners can tame bed head caused by packaging.
Ms. Ampolo’s breed catalogue includes loyal German shepherds, honest beagles, curly-headed poodles, eager collies, and loving golden retrievers. Their collars are made of ornate ribbons decorated with bells and bows. The dogs have leathery noses, velvety ears, and thoughtful eyes.
Ms. Ampolo, a self-admitted perfectionist, said she studies each new breed for days, then designs three or more stocking prototypes before finally taking pictures of each stage of the sewing process so the pattern is as easy to follow as possible. Her attentive creativity means the stockings are accurate enough to win over infatuated humans who are loyal to each breed.
The bulldog, for example, has wrinkles sewn into his droopy face. “That was a labor of love,” Ms. Ampolo said, describing another challenge. “A pug doesn’t really have a face from the side; then I figured out the look is really in the eye.”
With Christmas hotdogging across the calendar toward them, Ms. Ampolo and her team are reassuringly busy. Ms. Ampolo credits Ms. Scoles with “working like a maniac” during the last few months. “I call Kate our secret weapon,” Ms. Ampolo said. “She’s smart. She does everything. She’s like a one-woman show.”
After the holidays, trade shows begin. These are huge marketing events across the country where retailers order their inventory (hopefully lots of Hearth Hounds) for Christmas next year. Hearth Hounds are also permanently displayed for retailers at America’s Mart in Atlanta and the California Marketing Associates in Las Vegas. In March, the company will be part of the Global Pet Expo in Florida.
“It’s stressful,” Ampolo said, letting out one of her generous, freeform laughs. “Careful what you wish for!”
Right now, she said, “It’s nail-biting time. We’re in that in-between stage where the business is growing, but [we’re] spending more money to keep up with the growing business.”
Still, Ms. Ampolo sees Hearth Hounds as a bone she can absolutely run with. “It’s just a matter of tenacity,” she said. “My father [Louis Ampolo] taught me that. If two or three people say something’s insane, you have to ignore that. You have to find your market out there.”
With success riding shotgun, Ms. Ampolo and Mr. King will soon be able to donate more to the animal and veteran charities Hearth Hounds already supports. And, if the business outgrows its West Side roots and eventually gets sold, “Then we’ll be on to our next business, which will be a dog café,” Ms. Ampolo said.
Then she added, smiling, “I’m only just a little crazy.” From Dec. 1 through Dec. 8, Hearth Hounds will support Springfield’s Dakin Humane Society by donating 25 percent of each Hearth Hound product purchased through Dakin’s website at dakinhumane.org.