Business Is Bubbling: Aquatics store sells underwater wonder

SYDNEY SCHAEFER / NNY BUSINESS
Pam, left, and Mark Whiting, co-owners of Aqua Plus, pose for a portrait among fishtanks inside the store located on Coffeen Street in Watertown.

BY: Olivia Belanger
Usually the question is “Are you a dog person or a cat person?” For Mark R. Whiting, he has always been a fish person.

At a young age, Mr. Whiting remembers heading down to the local pet store and chatting with the owner about proper fish care for his aquarium. From his first fish bowl at 12 years-old to the 1,000-gallon tank built into his home now, he’s been hooked.

It wasn’t until 2014 he realized he wanted to take his hobby and turn into a career, after being in construction for 40 years.

“I just thought it would be nice to have a job where I didn’t have to stand outside and fight the elements, while also doing something I really enjoy,” Mr. Whiting said.

That May, Mr. Whiting and his wife, Pam J. Whiting, opened up Aqua Plus, located at 607 Coffeen St. Now approaching their fifth year of business, Mr. Whiting said he only wanted to sell products he would use himself.

High-quality tanks, filters and food fill the shelves of the store, even though it costs him more.

“You’ve got to believe in what you sell,” Mr. Whiting said.

Mrs. Whiting admitted she thought he was crazy for wanting to open the store, but still wanted to support her husband.

“At first, I was like ‘Oh, dear God,’” Mrs. Whiting said. “I have grown to have a passion, though.”

Similar to how he helped his wife, Mr. Whiting tries to educate every customer, rather than chain pet stores that “scoop the fish, bag them and send you out the door.”

Aqua Plus has both salt water and fresh water fish for sale, ranging in price from 50 cents to $800. He carries over 1,000 different fresh water fish and about 50 salt water fish.

With customers who travel as far as Canada or St. Lawrence County for his business often, he wants to make sure the fish you’re interested in is right for you.

“If you walk over to the salt water tank and you’re not a patient person, I will tell you not to buy a salt water fish,” Mr. Whiting said.

Before buying a salt water fish, Mr. Whiting said the tank needs almost two months for the water level to test correctly. After that process, then a fish can be put in.

For fresh water fish, the process is simpler, with the fish and tank able to be purchased the same day. If planning on having more than three fish, Mr. Whiting suggests the fish are bought about two days a part.

When fish are added to a tank, they secrete ammonia, spiking the ammonia in the tank. If too many fish are added at once, Mr. Whiting said it will get into the fish’s gills and kill them.

“The mom and pop stores have the advantage over the bigger stores that don’t have educated staff,” Mr. Whiting said.

The store also provides tank cleaning and water testing services to ensure the health of the fish. Mr. Whiting said they’ll also feed fish for customers while they’re on vacation or set up and install brand new tanks.

In addition to fish, Aqua Plus sells bearded dragons, geckos, snakes, guinea pigs, hamsters and hedgehogs. Prices range from $8 to $290, with guinea pigs and hamsters being the most popular.

Mr. and Mrs. Whiting realized they weren’t making enough profit off of only fish, so with the help of their store manager, they decided to expand the livestock.

“Our manager has years of experience in reptiles so we decided to branch out,” Mr. Whiting said.

And it worked in their favor – Mr. Whiting said the live crickets they sell as food for the reptiles make up about 25 percent of his annual profits.

 “We sell about 10,000 crickets per week,” Mr. Whiting said.

Aqua Plus is now turning a profit as well, bringing in about $100,000 per year.

Moving forward, Mr. Whiting said he is hopeful that community members will stay local, now with more competition in the area.

“We don’t sell for money,” Mr. Whiting said. “Our reputation is for the fish to make it and the customer to be able to take care of it.”