Bringing the ‘peace of the ocean’ to the Triad
If you are looking for Nemo or Dory in the Triad area, you might start at the ever-growing Greensboro-based aquarium service and retail shop located at 7209-B Cessna Dr.
J.J. Elliott and Dexter Hill, co-owners of Triad Reef Critters started their aquarium hobby out of their basement at their Stokesdale/Kernersville home, and in 2010 Triad Reef Critters formally opened its doors.
“It was a hobby that got out of control,” Hill said. “We operated out of the lower part of our home for the first three years. Through word-of-mouth, it came to what they referred to us as ‘off the beaten path but worth the drive.’”
On Saturdays, Hill said their driveway was full of cars. That is when Elliott and Hill decided to either get in or out of business. They went for it and leased space on Regency Drive from one of their customers. About three years into their five-year lease, they realized they were outgrowing the space. In November 2017, Elliott and Hill moved all of their reef critters to the 10,000 square-foot business park space located on Cessna Drive in Greensboro.
“We basically built the store from the ground up in a period of about four months,” he said.
Hill said he has always been an aquarium enthusiast. He started with freshwater and moved on to saltwater about 27 years ago. When he was younger, his father turned his living room into a freshwater fish store and bred fish.
“I’ve always found having aquariums and messing with fish to be very relaxing, and challenging at times as well,” Hill said. “You can get very involved in it to the point where, in addition to naming your fish, you propagate them and raise babies or make new corals.”
Elliott used to be in the corporate banking sphere while Hill’s background is in agriculture. About five years ago, Elliott came home after being laid off from her job and was worried about their financial future. Hill suggested that they finally take that 30-day South Pacific cruise that they had been planning. The couple went diving, snorkeling and Hill said by the time they got back, Elliott was just as much in love with his hobby as he was.
“I really loved it, that was actually the first gift from you,” Elliott said to Hill. “It was a 20-pound rock for an aquarium in my office.”
“But her taste in rocks have changed since then,” Hill said motioning to her engagement ring.
Elliott said she is happy that things with her banking job didn’t go as planned. She said now when she sees her banking friends, and they ask what she does, she gets to say, “I sell Nemo for a living.”
Hill said he used to work for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and then was the manager of the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market. After that, he started flipping houses. Hill heard about an auction at the now out of business Aquamains, an aquarium shop formerly located on West Market Street, and decided to take a look.
“They were just giving away the aquariums and pumps and stuff,” he said. “I just bought walls of aquariums.”
Hill had been raising coral at his house, and he tried to sell it at other stores in the area. Elliott said saltwater coral grows, almost like a garden, and it can be shared with friends by “fragging,” or propagating. However, Hill said local shops weren’t willing to give him much for his homegrown coral.
“I thought, well let me just do a little co-op and invite some friends and fellow hobbyist to come in and get some stuff from me, and I could sell my corals as well,” he said. “It started off that way and the next thing I knew, I started buying from Indonesia, Philippines and Australia.”
Hill said Triad Reef Critters is well-received by customers in the Triad and is the prime location in the area to shop for aquarium goods and services. In addition to retail, Hill said the company also does service as well. Hill said most stores have gone to only servicing because it is something you can’t buy online.
“We also offer the ability to deliver the aquarium, set it up, service it and care for it,” Hill said. “So that people [who] would love to have a piece of the ocean in their home, that don’t have a clue, can enjoy it the same as people who spend hours every day researching it.”
“We do custom design work, so if you have in your mind what you want your aquarium to look like, regardless of shape or size, we do that type of work for people,” Elliott said. “Again, if you want to be able to own a tank that is great, if you don’t ever want to touch the tank then we have a service team that will come out and service your tank as frequently as you need too.”
Elliott said there are about 80 tanks throughout the Triad that Triad Reef Critters touches. Some of the local commercial clients Triad Reef Critters have included several dentist offices and restaurants (such as Hong Kong Buffet) in Winston-Salem, Suite 300 in downtown Greensboro and Rice Toyota.
Hill said there are customers that come all the way from Charlotte and Raleigh that prefer Triad Reef Critters despite having shops closer to home.
“We have a 120-mile following,” Hill said. “One of the first things we did when we first started even as a tiny company operating out of a cigar box, [with] a calculator and a receipt pad, was collecting emails.”
Through an extensive email list, which Hill said has over 1,000 email addresses on it, he said customers have become more like Hill and Elliott’s “extended aquarium family.”
Hill said what sets Triad Reef Critters apart from the rest of the shops out there is that it embraces the conundrum many brick-and-mortar retail shops face in the age of Amazon and online shopping.
“While we’ve been growing, several of other businesses have been going out of business completely,” he said. “In their mind, online stores pushed them out of business by making it convenient for the customer and basically just diminishing prices. What we’ve done is kind of the opposite extreme. We have continued to offer fair prices, but we’ve also been the source for information. We’ve developed a culture that basically says, ‘we are not only going to sell people products, but more importantly we are going to ensure they are successful in the hobby.’”
Hill said if a customer wants to buy a fish, nine out of 10 stores will sell them a fish. But Hill said Triad Reef Critters would talk with and educate customers before they sell them a fish that may not be compatible with their aquarium. Hill said that is one of the main reasons why Triad Reef Critters have remained while others have gone away.
“Integrity is a big thing with our staff,” Elliott said. “We have kind of a vision and culture and integrity is one of those things that is part of it. One of the things we preach to our staff is always do the right thing.”
Elliott and Hill said it is very important for their staff members to fit into the culture of Triad Reef Critters, which consists of excellence, integrity, success, cleanliness, teamwork, knowledge, professionalism and having fun.
“Our mission is to bring the peace of the ocean into homes and businesses of the Triad,” Elliott said.
Hill and Elliott said they are not hiring just anybody for the job. They make sure their staff is well-educated and trained to be knowledgeable about what they are selling.
“The majority of our staff are actually college-educated people that have been in the hobby for quite a number of years,” Hill said.
Elliott said that this past year Triad Reef Critters actually got accolades from Action Coach, in which successful business professionals train other businesses. Hill said Action Coach gets business owners to model their businesses like other successful CEOs in bigger companies. Hill and Elliott said they model their business after big businesses such as Apple, Southwest Airlines and Starbucks.
“We were a finalist, one of the top five finalists, for the best retailer of the year,” Hill said. “We didn’t win, but we were excited.”
“We were excited to be among the top five as a fish store,” Elliott said.
Hill said Triad Reef Critters in addition to retail, have become a distributor of many products so that it keeps prices low. Hill and Elliott said they enjoy going to trade shows and networking with others that are in the same business. Hill said it’s important to Triad Reef Critters to know where and who they buy livestock from so that customers get products from the best suppliers. Hill said he is always asked the question, “Do you sell things that are sustainably raised?” He said even though 90 percent of the industry catches livestock from the wild, there are some suppliers that captive-breed livestock. Hill said those sustainable captive-breeders get Triad Reef Critters’ business first over those who don’t sustainably source livestock.
“If we buy clownfish, we buy from a guy named Soren Hansen in Maine, who owns a business called Sea and Reef,” Hill said. “They captive-breed everything that they have, so that is where [our] clownfish come from.”
Another sustainable effort Elliott and Hill make is selling their own propagated coral sections. To have more variety, Hill said Triad Reef Critters buys from others who propagate their own coral.
As for the future, Hill and Elliott plan to expand even more to include more freshwater livestock and more space for the aquarium showroom. Hill is also planning on launching a product on April 9 that he has designed (and for which his patent is still pending) called “Dexter’s Dividers.” The divider is for people who want different kinds of fish (that may not coexist with each other) in the same tank.
“It basically is the perfect solution for dividing an aquarium,” he said. “We are also developing our own website portal so we can sell directly to the customer. Again, we are not one to run away or be intimidated by online business; we actually follow the trends. Whatever the customer wants, the customer gets.”
Elliott said Triad Reef Critters are really invested in the Triad, from employing many residents to buying locally. For instance, Dexter’s Dividers are a product that is locally sourced (silicone and plastic from High Point and Greensboro) and partly assembled in-house at Triad Reef Critters. Hill said the owner of Larry’s Reef Services, Larry DuPont, was one of Triad Reef Critters’ first customers and is a retired Winston-Salem police officer. Hill and DuPont traveled to a trade show together in Los Angeles, and Hill said DuPont got into the hobby, specifically by feeding his fish a healthy diet. Hill said DuPont then started his own fish food company called Larry’s Reef Service (LRS Foods) out of Advance, North Carolina. Hill said DuPont started making a food product called LRS Frenzy Foods and launched it about six years ago. Hill said DuPont’s company grew and his product (which is locally sourced from the waters of North Carolina and Virginia) is now available in 500 retail stores in the United States and at least six different countries.
“Our store kind of helped build that big business, and he’s been very successful,” Hill said. “So now, basically we are going to take our product [Dexter’s Dividers] and give it to him to distribute our product for us.”
“We could have done it with many other distributors, but with Larry, he is local,” Elliott said.
Elliott said Triad Reef Critters wants to be a big part of the community, and one way they do that is through an annual Reef Fest in October that feeds barbeque to over 300 people. Hill said the store also holds informational classes for customers and for people who may want to start getting into the aquarium hobby.
“Somebody has to educate the people, somebody has got to care about the people, somebody has to ensure their success,” Hill said. “And that is us; we like doing it.”
Triad Reef Critters is open Mondays through Fridays from noon to 8 p.m. It’s open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. To learn more about Triad Reef Critters, follow its social media accounts on Twitter (@TriadReefTweets), Instagram and Facebook (@TriadReefCritters), call (336) 643-6457 or check out the website at www.triadreefcritters.com.
Katie Murawski is the editor of YES! Weekly. She is from Mooresville, North Carolina and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in film studies from Appalachian State University in 2017.