Former Marriott architect finds relaxation, and a living, in backyard bird feeding


Michael Zuiker has owned and run a Wild Birds Unlimited franchise in Arlington, Va., for 23 years. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Thomas Heath
Reporter July 6

My next-door neighbor thought I was nuts when he saw me screeching out the front door, tearing across my yard like a madman, arms flailing.

“What the heck is going on?” he asked.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. View Archive

I told him the squirrels were invading my bird feeder.

He let out a quizzical “hmmmm,” nodded and walked back to his house without saying a word. I would like to think that he generously considered me eccentric.

Fast-forward a dozen years to my recent interview with Michael Zuiker, the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited, an Arlington, Va., store that sells birdseed and — guess what — a squirrel-proof bird feeder.

I don’t have my bird feeder any longer. I got over that, just as I did my brief coin collecting urge. And my outdoor smoker obsession. And the (thankfully brief) research into starting a hot-dog stand.

How do you keep the squirrels away?

“A couple of ways, Zuiker said. “Get a good squirrel-proof feeder with a weight-activated spring device that shuts the food source off when the squirrel steps on it.”

What about a pole?

Those only work if you put a baffle ($24.99) on the pole to prevent the squirrel from scampering up to the feeder. The baffle should be at least five feet from the ground, or the pesky high-jumper leaps over it. Keep in mind that the pole should also be at least 10 feet from a fence, garage, tree, deck or anything else the resourceful rodent can leap from.

Now that we have the squirrel issue settled, I wanted to know about Zuiker’s business, which he describes thusly: “I sell good wild birdseed for people who love the hobby of backyard bird feeding.”

Zuiker’s business grosses about $800,000 a year, and he pays himself about $100,000. The architect and former Marriott employee has six part-time employees (most are students). Zuiker, the only full-time employee, also provides himself health insurance.

More than 60 percent of his revenue comes from birdseed. He sells about two to three tons every week, charging $42 for a 20-pound bag. The rest of the revenue is mostly from bird feeders, birdhouses and devices such as the baffle. The typical tab averages $45 to $60.

The seed is the biggest cost, eating up about half of Zuiker’s revenue. After that, a 5 percent royalty and marketing fee to the company’s franchisor in Indianapolis is $40,000 a year.

The seed plays havoc with his budget because, as a commodity, its price can vary with the weather or with demand from other industries. Most of the seed comes from farms in the Midwest, Colorado and the Dakotas, where growers can choose to plant another crop — such as corn — that brings them a higher price. Five years ago, for example, a snack company bought a huge chunk of the black oil sunflower crop — one of the premium seeds — to put in its chips. That created a scarcity that sent Zuiker’s costs through the roof.

Another big cost, and one that has risen significantly, is rent. Zuiker pays about $7,000 a month to lease space for his business.

But Zuiker needs to be in Arlington, where green lawns and trees are a bird paradise. The county’s residents also have enough money to indulge their passion.

“After 23 years of doing this, it’s still amazing how much customers will spend,” Zuiker said. “I have a new customer who spends $300 every two weeks. They love it. They are very passionate about it. Almost as passionate as people are about dogs and cats.”

Zuiker, 62, who concedes that he is “a bit odd,” has loved nature since his childhood in Chicago. His father, who worked for the Pullman Company, manufacturer of railroad cars, took the family each year on a cross-country parks tour.

Zuiker graduated with a degree in architecture technology from Southern Illinois University. He worked for Marriott for 10 years designing Roy Rogers restaurant franchises, which Marriott founded to replace its Hot Shoppes Jr. fast-food chain. When the hospitality giant downsized in the late 1980s, Zuiker lost his job and looked for his next career.

He was 39 when he and his then-wife started looking at franchises, sparked in part by what he knew about the business model from his Roy Rogers days. He looked at Jiffy Lube and the TCBY yogurt chain, but he wanted to work in a business that deals with hobbies and nature.

He started researching franchises, reading books and tracking how long a new franchise usually stays open. He started focusing on Wild Birds Unlimited, founded in 1981. He also learned that backyard bird feeding is the second most-popular hobby in the United States, after gardening.

So in 1991, he and his wife drove to Wild Birds Unlimited’s headquarters in Indianapolis to meet the company’s executives and founder. Zuiker and his wife stopped at several Wild Birds stores along the way to pick the brains of franchisees.

He liked the relaxed vibe he felt in the stores he visited. He also felt that the owners were on to a novel idea.

“Nobody had seen these stores,” he said. “People had bought their birdseed and birdhouses at nurseries, feedlots and hardware stores.”

To learn if he could deal with the daily grind of retail, Zuiker took at job at a Nature Company store in Tysons Corner for six months. He enjoyed dealing with the different personalities that came into the store and decided that 99 percent of customers are nice people. That sealed it, and Zuiker chose to take the plunge into the franchise world.

He had about $60,000 from his Marriott severance, which got him started. He paid Wild Birds $7,000 to cover his franchise fee. He hired an attorney to help him incorporate.

He had lived in Arlington for 15 years and knew it inside out, so he jumped into his old Chevy pickup truck and drove neighborhoods until he found retail space on Lee Highway. He used $30,000 to turn a 900-square-foot space in a strip mall into a store.

For the first six months, Wild Birds Unlimited dedicated consultants to help Zuiker get started. He went to Indianapolis, where he spent three days learning to buy inventory and set up displays. He also was given a list of vendors that could supply exclusive products that would make his store a destination for bird lovers.

“If I was on my own, I could not have made it,” he said.

Unlike some entrepreneurs, Zuiker paid himself a salary from the beginning.

“Everybody says when you are an entrepreneur, you can’t take any money out for the first five years,” he said. “Nobody works five years for nothing. People get burned out and lose their business.”

My bird feeder is long gone, but my front lawn is a magnet for cardinals, blue jays and robins, as well as crows and sparrows.

So, I had to ask: What’s the best way to get birds to visit your yard?

Running water. Birds drink and bathe, just like the rest of us.

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