The Story Behind Just for Parrots at Plaza Towers Center
Spending their days with colorful parrots ranging from conures and cockatiels to macaws and African greys, three generations of a family are building a business on their shared fascination with birds.
By Susan Atteberry Smith
In late 2016, Jennifer Spencer was a burned-out paralegal working at a Springfield supermarket. When her mother, Sharon Roberts, phoned with a business idea, she said “yes.”
“I said: ‘Jennifer, you want to open a bird store?’” Roberts recalls. “‘You have to quit your job and start a bird store.’”
Spencer knew the idea wasn’t a flight of fancy. Roberts had been breeding and raising parrots—even selling her handmade bird toys at fairs—for years. Still, they laugh about what inspired them to open Just For Parrots in early 2017. “Insanity!” Roberts insists.
Today, the Plaza Towers Center store houses nearly 200 hand-fed birds, along with food, toys and supplies. It’s also become even more of a family enterprise, with Spencer’s son, Evan Roberts, serving as customer service guru and Sharon’s retiree husband fetching supplies or transporting sick or injured birds to the veterinarian. “He’s our gofer,” Roberts quips.
Given the squawks of cockatiels and macaws, the decibel levels at Just For Parrots can get pretty high, but the family is accustomed to it, having raised birds for decades. Spencer, 46, was about 10 when the family had Dude, a ruckus-raising Nanday conure who began mimicking what Spencer said on the phone. Roberts, now 68, was running a home daycare at the time, and the noise was a problem.
“The bird learned [to mimic] every baby’s cry,” she says. “So at naptime all the kids would be sleeping, and this bird would be crying.”
Still, the family loved birds. Dude went to a new home, yet Roberts adopted more birds, like Charlie, a Congo African grey parrot who now lives at the store. They also gained knowledge, learning to hand-feed and breed birds. Later, Roberts began breeding her own birds and selling them to pet stores.
Now, sharing knowledge about caring for feathered companions is one of the family’s many tasks at Just For Parrots. For example, while parrots can be playful and sweet—even snuggly—they can also be destructive, especially when they start clawing and pecking at furniture and woodwork. “Cockatiels are the most re-homed birds, and macaws are second,” Roberts says, “because they can give you a kitchen remodel in 20 minutes if you’re not watching them.”
Birds also bite—it’s a matter of when, not if, Roberts adds, and she and Spencer have the scars to prove it. What’s more, while some can be trained to take walks in harnesses, birds are toddlers forever—unlike puppies, who often grow out of undesirable behavior.
Consideration for their winged inventory’s welfare sets Just For Parrots apart as a retailer. The family won’t sell a macaw to someone who has never taken care of a larger bird, and birds with 60- to 80-year lifespans don’t leave with older customers. “We put these birds in cages and made them pets,” Roberts says. “These birds didn’t ask to do this, so we have to be responsible.” They don’t want them to end up like Bella, a Harlequin macaw living at the store along with a few other rescued birds. Four years ago, frustrated and lonely in her original home, she plucked out her chest feathers. “She had been very mistreated and wouldn’t allow herself to be touched for almost two years,” Spencer says, stroking Bella’s beak.
Their animal-centered approach has worked so far, drawing about 300 customers a month for revenues of at least $525,000 in 2021. Contrast that with 2017, when Roberts had time to make bird toys at the counter and sales totaled about $50,000—enough for expenses, but not paychecks. Thanks to Facebook and word-of-mouth advertising, the business soon had a growth spurt. And the family did it without a plan or even a loan; Roberts’ husband—“the gofer”—financed it with his 401(k) from AT&T. The second year, Evan, 26, joined them; then, two part-time employees came on board. Finally, Spencer hired an accountant because the birds kept them so busy, she couldn’t keep up with the bookkeeping.
Spencer advises new businesses not to expand too quickly, yet quickly resolving conflicts is a good idea when family members work 12-hour shifts together. “It is not a business for the weak at heart because I can tell you, there are days as a family, there are arguments,” Sharon says. “If Jennifer and I are in the office and we’re having a discussion, we’re loud.”
Nevertheless, they all say they get along well. Evan often lightens the mood, teasing his mother and grandmother with threats of quitting.
“Yeah, I give them a hard time all the time,” he says.
Quitting isn’t the plan for his grandmother, at least not anytime soon. Someday, though, Sharon hopes Jennifer and Evan will take over Just For Parrots, something they say they also hope happens.
When it’s his turn, Evan says his family’s entrepreneurial spirit will inspire him. As he says: “It’s just kind of like it runs in the blood.”
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