Zitomer’s Goes to the Dogs (and Cats)

Sharon Sternheim has eaten dog food. “I’ve tasted it,” she admitted on Nov. 8. Of course, not all dog food is equal. The dog food Mrs. Sternheim consumed was top-of-the-line, gourmet bowwow, nutritional and preservative-free manna–”it tastes like a natural food product”–which she’ll commence selling in early December in adjunct space to Zitomer Pharmacy and Department Store, the ne plus ultra pharmacy and emporium she and her husband, Howard Sternheim, own at 969 Madison Avenue.

Zitomer’s pet palace, featuring the first Manhattan outpost of Three Dog Bakery, a national chain based in Kansas City, Mo., will open in former gallery space two doors down from Zitomer’s at 965 Madison Avenue. Then, in about 18 months, when the lease is up on another gallery at 967 Madison, Mrs. Sternheim plans to bridge the two stores and merge her animal kingdom into Zitomer’s current, crowing marketplace. Her pet bakery and boutique will offer everything from yummy “$1.50 pet-it-fours” and “pawscriptions” for sick puppies to $4,800 mosaic animal beds.

As Mrs. Sternheim likes to say, “build it and they will come.” And her pet emporium is quite an investment considering the cost of rent on Madison Avenue. But about three years ago, The Wall Street Journal speculated that in the near future national sales of pet accouterments–not including pet food–might exceed the billion-dollar profits of the beauty business.

“I see the way people treat their dogs here,” said Mrs. Sternheim, whose father was a pharmacist in Brooklyn, where she grew up. “We started last year. We did quite a section of stocking presents for dogs and cats,” she said. “At the end of the season, normally you have something left … Not one thing. I said to my husband, ‘I don’t know where I’m going to put it, but this Christmas we’re going to do more.'”

A friend in Washington, Conn., where the Sternheims spend weekends, told her about the Three Dog Bakery in West Hartford. With her two Shih Tzus, Mrs. Sternheim visited the bakery last winter and saw Zitomer’s future. “‘Howie, this is it,”‘ she said she exclaimed to her husband, and a deal was struck with Three Dog.

Earlier this month, Mrs. Sternheim spent a week in Kansas City training at Three Dog’s headquarters. She learned how to make “pooch pretzels, rollovers, pup tarts … I learned how to do all these things. I’ll be able to direct if the cook should up and leave. At least, I could bake the cake.” The difference between the various Three Dog bakeries and the franchise here is that Mrs. Sternheim is allowed to have a boutique. “Other Three Dog vendors aren’t allowed this,” she said. “I explained to them that my rent will not pay for the front end. Their bakery is my draw.”

Already, Zitomer’s is Bergdorf Goodman in Mayberry. On a Monday afternoon in November, customers dripping in Gucci this and Prada that bellied up to the cosmetics counters for the latest blush and treatment. Early afternoon, you get the post-ops, the recovering cosmetic surgery patients under Hermès scarves who stop in the week before–so the nutritionist could suggest what natural elixir to take to reduce swelling. Midweek, after the nip and tuck, it is about pharmaceutical-strength pain relief and concealer–scented candles and sleeping aids. Later in the afternoon, it is the children in Zittles, the toy shop, being treated after trips to the pediatrician.

“It’s a little tight in here, but people like that,” said Mrs. Sternheim who does the buying for Zitomer. It was her idea to sell pashminas years before they became the rage. Her idea to sell cigars, videos, electronics, Halloween costumes, Godiva chocolates and Dr. Grip pens. Diptyque candles, cameras, ye olde Dr. Harris shaving products from London, homeopathic youth dews and other natural promises, foreign magazines, children’s clothing, ladies’ lingerie, $4,000 Baccarat makeup mirrors and men’s socks and underwear, including the 2xist line.

“All men leave their socks and underwear at home when they travel. That’s why we got into the men’s category. If you press a button on the phone in your room in the Carlyle, the Surrey or the Mark hotels, you get the store. We deliver. We’re here to serve the neighborhood. We’ll even wrap gum.”

The Zitomer family opened its drugstore, with soda fountain, in 1950 at 75th Street and Madison Avenue. The Sternheims bought the business in 1977. When the Givenchy boutique took over that space, the drugstore relocated in what is now the Mark Hotel at 76th Street and Madison Avenue. When the Mark wanted the space for its dining room, Zitomer moved to 969 Madison. In all that, the Sternheims never wanted to exchange the name Zitomer for theirs.

“Zitomer’s was known. I didn’t need the name Sternheim up there.”

Mrs. Sternheim wasn’t sure if she typified the Zitomer customer. “Some yes, some no, because I work for everything,” she said. She wakes up at 6:30, makes breakfast for her husband and son, 13, and does her makeup in “20 minutes, max.” She cuts and sets her own hair. She favors Cellcosmet treatment products and Chanel makeup, “for color.” She likes fashion, “but I’m not a label freak.” She lunches at her desk and works out with a trainer at the David Barton Gym before she goes home and does homework with her son. She used to work four days a week and went full time in 1991. “I did a 360 here the minute I took over. I knew my needs, the needs of the neighborhood, the pulse of what was going on. As the neighborhood grew, as the yuppies, me included, started having kids, there was a need for this range of product.”

Two new floors were added. Zitomer’s launched its own makeup line. Started selling designer children’s clothes and jeweled evening bags. Expanded the home fragrance category when perfume sales started to stall, as they have nationwide, with upscale consumers. “Perfume has gone down,” Mrs. Sternheim whispered. “Aroma, yes. Scents, yes, but not on you. In the room.” The boom in e-commerce beauty doesn’t worry her. “We have a Web site,” she said. “Our customers are into the computer, but they want to shop. They want to go to the store.

“Build it and they will come,” Mrs. Sternheim repeated as she passed the “H.B.A.” section–health and beauty aids–and headed toward her chic, small office behind the pharmacist’s counter.

“I’m never surprised by what people buy,” she said. “But I surprise my employees, I think. ‘Oh my God! What is she buying?’ I think they wonder sometimes.”

Like this fall when the mink bustiers were unpacked. Mrs. Sternheim kvelled. “Eight hundred dollars each. Gorgeous . They’re blowing out of the store.”

Billy’s List: Quiz time!

1. In what vehicle has model Marcus Schenkenberg landed a major part?

a. Martin Scorsese’s film of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

b. A character called “Mr. Bigger” in HBO’s series Sex and the City.

c. He’ll play the manager of a nightclub on As the World Turns.

2. According to a recent survey published in Italian newspapers, what do Italians think about when making love?

a. Soccer.

b. Naomi Campbell.

c. Gucci shoes.

3. Why did Tommy Hilfiger buy three pairs of Marilyn Monroe’s jeans for $37,000 at the Christie’s auction?

a. For Marilyn impersonators to wear at his New Year’s eve party in Mustique.

b. For Patricia Arquette to wear in his new ad campaign shot by Mario Sorrenti.

c. As inspiration for future collections.

Answers: (1) c; (2) a; (3) c.