We had the good fortune of connecting with Roger Ma and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Roger, what do you attribute your success to?
Building a community! People come and go so quickly that it becomes hard to build a relationship between those simple hi and bye greetings and farewell words we tend to give on a daily basis. As a team. Pet Zone Tropical Fish and Hakkai are more than just your simple local fish store or aquascape shop. We are all family and we see one another as a cohesive team and will do outings with one another as relationships are key to any success of a company in the long-run.

Customers are the lifeblood to any business. They can shop just about anywhere these days and with the digital age upon us, there isn’t any need for them to go into a brick and mortar store as online shopping can be done with ease. With that being said, it’s crucial for the business to go above and beyond with customer service and giving everyone that walks into the doors the best experience. Covid-19 restrictions made things really tough for those in retail/service so it’s even more important to build upon those customer relationships. Over the course of these years, a lot of our long-term customers continue to come in to support us because we treat them as a fellow hobbyist and friend and as a result, we’ve built up a community here in Southern California.

We conduct a lot of talks and lectures about the fishkeeping and aquascaping hobby and this draws people to visit our store as an educational resource. Workshops and classes bring in a lot of new hobbyists and it brings a smile to our face to know that we’re contributing to the growth of this amazing hobby to the San Diego area. The majority of our customers are also very knowledgable so it’s a win-win as we as the business learn from our fellow hobbyist visitors and vice versa. This is something we cannot take for granted and we cherish this special community we’ve build over the years!

Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
Pet Zone Tropical Fish was started as a result of getting into the business of a hobby we’ve always loved. I’ve always had an aquarium within arms reach since a kid and even while I lived abroad for some time after growing up, I still kept a small tank while away from home. It was a dream come true when the time came for us to get into the business of fishkeeping! Fast forward over a decade later, we still continue to put in the same love and passion in sharing the love and knowledge of our hobby with anyone that walks into our shops. We had huge demand for a more centrally located storefront as the majority of our customers live quite a bit of a commute north of our first store. After scouting around for some time, we pulled the trigger on our second storefront in the Convoy District and it’s been constant growth year after year as we tried out a lot of new things during our expansion.

The team and I have done some traveling around for business conventions and hobbyist shows around the country and abroad and visited some stores during those trips. We saw some aquascape heavy shops and after making a visit to a famous aquascape gallery in Japan, we were inspired and this jumpstarted the idea of launching off a gallery dedicated to the art of aquascaping right here in San Diego. After a couple years of jumping back and forth between the idea, we finally found a few prospective gallery spaces. We had our eyes set on one but after a couple weeks of negotiation and a lot of back and forth with the landlord, it fell through and we set our sights elsewhere. We’ve always had a love for the Arts District of Liberty Station because of the creative energy it brings and when the opportunity for a ground level space popped up, we jumped right in, saw the space and signed the lease not long after! This is how Hakkai got started and we are San Diego’s very first aquascape gallery.

One of the challenges we’ve had over the years was pricing. It’s hard for an independent storefront to compete with the likes of Amazon or Wal-Mart and anyone can easily just order online without having to step foot into any retail shop. We found our niche in specializing in unique livestock species and brands that hobbyists wouldn’t find in a big box chain store and our team’s love and passion is passed along to each customer so that really goes a long way. While we can’t compete on price (worst thing to do in business by the way), we are able to give each customer a more personalized experience and building a long-term relationship with them along the way where we both learn from one another is the key to sustaining our business.

As a team full of hobbyists, we are constantly learning at both Pet Zone and Hakkai. Each day is like being in class as we are all open books and learn from our daily experiences from our interaction with our fellow hobbyist customers to figuring out how to treat a particular illness a fish in our store may have. We are proud to be a community resource within this fishkeeping hobby in the San Diego and Southern California area.

Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
San Diego’s food scene is on the rise! We finally got some Michelin starred restaurants in town these last couple years. For starters, tacos and burritos are a must-have when visiting SD! If you want to impress some friends with massive burritos that’ll put them into a food coma, Colima’s in North Park is the place. Their surf ‘n turf is most popular and is bigger than most people’s forearms (minus maybe Mike Tyson) and will put you into a food coma. Sushi is also great and with two Michelin-starred spots, a visit to either Tadokoro in Old Town or Soichi in University Heights for their omakase is almost mandatory for raw fish lovers! Don’t forget to get a round of drinks for the sushi chefs behind the counter.

For dinner and drinks, Fort Oak in Mission Hills is a great option. Not only do they serve some of the best pork-chops you can find but their cocktail selection is awesome, especially their whiskey drinks! Madison in University Heights is another great spot to have both dinner and drinks. Their cocktails are amazing and even barrel-age some of the mezcal or whiskey based drinks in-house.

San Diego is known to have a great food scene for those who are vegan. Donna Jeans is a must visit for those looking for herbivore-friendly soul food. The Hot Shrooms is a must try app for those into Nashville style ‘fried chicken’. Even meat-lovers will love this as it hits the spot! Plumeria is another great spot for vegan food. Though the menu is not entirely vegan (it’s a vegetarian Thai joint), there is something for everyone and my personal favorite there is their panang curry!

Coffee is huge in town too and with so many microroasteries in town, my top choice would be Bird Rock. They’ve got a few locations all over SD but my personal favorite is their Little Italy location. The nitro cold brew always hits the spot and if available during your visit, get a pour over of their Geisha beans! Chi Chocolate in Liberty Station is another great spot for coffee! Ask for Jesse to make you any espresso drink concoction and he will impress you each time.

The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
My mother and father are truly a source of inspiration. They’ve immigrated to this country with not a single penny and no knowledge of the culture here in the US, let alone speak any English. But they’ve built up a great upbringing for me and my younger brother. This is where I get my hard work ethic from. My wife Priscilla inspires me day to day and is my better half. She keeps me on my feet and truly drives me to be a better person in this world. Never settle for less and go for your dreams! Without my parents and my wife, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Website: www.petzonesd.com & www.hakkai.com

Instagram: @petzone & @hakkaisd

Linkedin: Pet Zone: https://www.linkedin.com/company/2734551 Hakkai: https://www.linkedin.com/company/71371090

Twitter: @petzonesandiego & @hakkaisd

Facebook: facebook.com/petzonesd & facebook.com/hakkaisd

Yelp: Pet Zone Convoy District: https://www.yelp.com/biz/pet-zone-tropical-fish-san-diego-2 Pet Zone Mid-City: https://www.yelp.com/biz/pet-zone-tropical-fish-san-diego Hakkai: https://www.yelp.com/biz/hakkai-aquascape-design-gallery-san-diego

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/petzone

Image Credits
Filbert Banh

Nominate Someone: ShoutoutSocal is built on recommendations and shoutouts from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you or someone you know deserves recognition please let us know here.