Family feathers its nest with bird stores

Couple's hobby hatches into a diverse, active two-shop business

Small business

July 24, 2000|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

The family joke in the Horvath house is that Mom bought a bird feeder and couldn't stop.

Claire Horvath, aka Mom, would shop for bird-feeding supplies at a Wild Bird Centers store in Columbia, and before long she realized it would be cheaper to stand behind the counter instead of in front of it.

Now, Horvath and her husband, Dave, own two Wild Bird Centers franchises - starting with one in Silver Spring 10 years ago and then buying the Columbia store in 1995. And in the decade that they've been in the bird business, their hobby has grown as much as their stores have.

During family trips, they sneak off for morning bird-walks. They take trips once a year with other owners of Wild Bird Centers franchise stores to spend three to five days, "birding like crazy people," as Claire Horvath says. And they would choose bird watching over watching television any day.

They enjoy it so much that the Horvaths have eight birdfeeders, a pond, a raspberry bush and grapevines to attract birds to the back yard of their Scaggsville home. "We really do spend a lot of time [working] on our back yard," Claire Horvath said.

The couple has spent time on the yard outside their shop as well, transforming a portion of greenery beside the Columbia store it into a bird sanctuary with feeders, flowers, bushes and a small pond.

Inside, bird feeders hang on the wall, binoculars encased in glass sit for sale behind the register and mini-fountains run in the backdrop, making for an atmosphere so serene that visitors sometimes come during their lunch hour just to unwind.

The Horvaths bought their first Wild Bird Centers franchise in 1990, opening with only a few feeders and some birdseed in Silver Spring, Claire Horvath's hometown. She had been a housewife and Tupperware saleswoman, and Dave Horvath, who is from Bethesda, had dabbled in the Tupperware business and managed fast-food restaurants and movie theaters - including one where the two met when Claire was his employee.

Now, they're working together again, though they usually trade-off staffing the Columbia and Silver Spring stores. Their business has expanded into sales of everything from bird books and bird baths to bird earrings and coffee beans grown on Central and South American shade plantations, a habitat for songbirds.

They have branched off into the squirrel business, selling feeders for those who love the critters and traps for those who don't. The traps, they said, catch the squirrels humanely.

On Saturday mornings, Claire Horvath leads bird walks around the neighborhood, drawing from two to 10 people. In May, the Horvathssponsor an oriole weekend, guaranteeing that those on their walk will see the state bird and drawing up to 30 walkers at each store. (The walks are free, but items at the store range from $1 for a bird identification chart to $300 for a high-end birdbath and $1,200 for binoculars.)

The store is a family business in the truest sense. Among its six employees are the Horvaths' daughters, Rebecca, 17, and Jennifer, 16, who have been selling birdseed since they were 6 and 7 years old.

"As a matter of fact," their father boasted, "they can carry out a 50-pound bag on their shoulder and a 25-pound bag under their arms."

About half of the Horvaths' business comes from feed sales. Each store sells three to six tons of bird seed each week. And though the couple did not disclose sales figures, the Horvaths said sales have quadrupled at each store since they opened the first one a decade ago. Though they don't call themselves bird experts, they've picked up some bird knowledge along the way. And they've learned a thing or two about the hefty eating habits of birds.

"When someone says they eat like a bird," Dave Horvath said, "it's not a compliment."

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