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Nothing fishy going on

It's not high wages, exceptional benefits or modern facilities that create enthusiastic employees at Sailfin Pet Shop. Rather, it's the flashy fins, slithering scales and furry four-legged critters that keep the staff members happily serving customers.

Assistant manager Rachel Whitcomb enjoys helping customers find the right pet for their lifestyles and seeing how happy the pet makes them, she said.

Owner John Cwaygel began working at Sailfin while attending the University of Illinois. When the opportunity presented itself 30 years ago, he bought the shop.

Our expertise is sitting down with someone, whether it's a fishbowl or a thousand gallon fish system, and explaining how to do it, why to do it and assisting the client in anyway possible so it's done properly, Cwaygel said.

The employees review the pros and cons of each pet with each customer.

A lot of people just don't know, and that's what we are here for. We give them the positives and negatives, Whitcomb said.

Sailfin employees occasionally steer customers away from certain pets.

If we are doing our job properly and don't think an animal is the best fit, we will present them other options, Whitcomb said.

Cwaygel said he wants to send a healthy pet home with each customer.

I'd rather keep it here for another two or three weeks than risk the client relationship or the health of the animal by moving it too early, he said.

The business's philosophy is that if it offers quality products and strives to educate customers, the revenue will come naturally, Cwaygel said.

He started keeping animals as a child and eventually bred and sold fish.

My folks allowed me to take it to the next level, next level, next level, he said.

At the age when most kids were out playing ball or with dolls, Cwaygel was hanging out at his local pet store absorbing as much information as possible.

That's been one of the cornerstones of the business, he said. Someone took the time to help me, and we've tried to maintain that.

Cwaygel strives for each employee to be knowledgeable of what they sell. Employees try to explain to customers everything they need to know about caring for a pet they purchase, Whitcomb said.

Whatever you buy here - whether it be a betta or a hamster, you are going to leave knowing exactly what that animal needs, Whitcomb said.

Because of Sailfin's small size, its employees are able to form relationships with their customers.

We definitely sit down with the person so they know exactly what they are getting, Whitcomb said. A filter never leaves the store in the box here, unless the person already knows a lot about it. We'll spend the extra 15 minutes with you breaking everything out so you know what's going on.

The store sells a wide variety of pets, including fish, birds, reptiles and rodents, which need different care.

Our training process is pretty strict. It can be overwhelming, Whitcomb said.

The employees are not allowed to talk to a customer for the first three months of employment, Cwaygel said.

They'll clean tanks, they will clean animals. They will deal with everything on a day to day level and then, slowly but surely, they are integrated to the sales floor, he said.

Sailfin, which is located on Neil Street in Champaign, has a reputation in the area, Whitcomb said.

I think what we are is a destination business, Cwaygel said. In other words, unless it was horrible for people to find us, people will still follow us, thankfully. So, I don't think we necessarily need a storefront on Neil Street or Prospect. We're close enough to the university where students can get to us. And we're close enough to the core of Champaign residences that we're still accessible.

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