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Ben and Renee Roush have surprised a lot of people.
The Fort Wayne couple started their Wild Birds Unlimited franchise here in March 1984 in a cramped storefront in the 2900 block of East State Boulevard.
“It was kind of funny,” Ben recalled. “A lot of people would come in and wish us good luck and not be sure we were going to make it selling only bird seeds.”
Thirty years later, the business still soars, though since 1989 in a much larger space in the southeast corner of the Northcrest shopping center parking lot.
Along with offering a wider selection of bird seeds and feeders, the store — now known as Wild Birds Unlimited Nature Shop — also sells optical equipment for birding, jewelry, garden items and nature-themed gifts.
Roush became involved with Wild Birds Unlimited through marriage: His brother-in-law, Jim Carpenter, started the business in Indianapolis. It since has grown through franchising to about 290 stores nationwide.
Carpenter asked Roush to run the Indianapolis store while Carpenter and Roush's sister went on a two-week honeymoon. Roush, then still a student at Indiana University in Bloomington, enjoyed it and worked at the store again that summer.
“When Jim started franchising, I thought, 'You know, I could do that,'” Roush said.
He'd had his own businesses while growing up in Indianapolis, starting with a newspaper delivery route and lawn service and moving up to selling Fuller Brush items door-to-door in high school.
He thought Fort Wayne would be a good location for a Wild Birds store, so he and Renee moved here to open their business. The local store consistently ranks in the Top 10 nationwide in sales.
“It has been a really, really good ride for us,” Roush said.
They operated a second store from 1987-1992 at West Jefferson Boulevard and Covington Road, but closed it when they had the opportunity to expand the Northcrest store.
He credits his wife and staff for the store's success.
Renee manages the finances and staff scheduling. Several staff members have worked at the store for more than 20 years.
That allows him to focus on everything from working with staff and customers to promoting the store and unloading deliveries.
Ben Roush also attributes the store's success to Wild Birds Unlimited regularly developing new or improved, quality, bird-feeding products. The company's bird feeders, for example, carry a lifetime guarantee.
•Seed cylinders are cylinders made of compressed birdseed that have a hole in the middle for setting on a pole.
•No-Mess Blend birdseed mixes contain only shelled seeds, so birds leave no mess under the feeder and any seeds that fall to the ground won't sprout, Roush said.
•Bark Butter is a peanut butter-like blend that can be spread on any surface to attract a wide range of birds. “It actually is the mostly highly attractive bird food, over anything else,” Roush said.
Wild Birds Unlimited also has tried to keep pace with the technology needs and interests of customers.
People can shop at http://fortwayne.wbu.com. The company also is exploring having online purchases delivered by a national delivery service, Roush said.
The store's email newsletter offers up-to-date details on where to see migrating and other birds, as well as other information. The store also is active on Facebook.
In the store, large-screen TVs and video monitors show live feeds from nature cameras or high-definition nature videos. Two touch-screen stations play a selection of 2-minute videos offering tips on various aspects of bird watching or bird feeding.