My wife and I started out as aquarium hobbyists. At first Cichlids Are Special was a part time venture. A year or so later the company that I was working for full time began to have problems. I saw the handwriting on the wall and started looking for something I could do from home. That something turned out to be going into the fish business full time.
Tony Rizzuto from Tony’s Tropical Fish in North York got us interested in African Cichlid's. We bought fish from Tony for about 10 years until his store closed. We also bought African Cichlids from Cichlids Are Us, which Darrell Sawyers was running from his basement in Lancaster County. Darrell sold off his business because he could not handle working full time plus do the fish business at the same time. Shortly after that, Tony closed his store and he was selling off aquariums, racks, and equipment. Realizing it was going to be hard to get the quality African Cichlids we had been used to purchasing, I decided to buy a rack of forty, twenty gallon high aquariums and a sump system from Tony and decided to give the fish business a try. I added two ninety gallon drilled tanks from That Fish Place to my rack of forty aquariums and Cichlids Are Special was born.
I set up the aquariums from Tony’s on the same type drip to drain system Tony used in his store. This was a continuous drip of freshwater into the aquariums with an overflow drain going into a sump. Once the sump reached a certain level, a sump pump kicked on and pumped the waste water away. All of Tony’s aquariums were drilled and his racks were built for this purpose, so it was the logical choice to use the same system.
I soon realized I needed more aquariums and I realized the mistake I made by not purchasing more of Tony’s used drilled ones. The cost to buy newly drilled aquariums was way too expensive. As an alternative, I used some plastic tubs from Lowe's, drilled them with a regular drill bit, added bulk head units from JEHMCO and used them instead of fifteen-gallon tanks. This worked well until the manufacturer discontinued the tub size I was using and I could not find a replacement for them. Recently they came back on the market, however, I was able to get more of them.
When Darrell liquidated his business, I purchased fifteen-gallon aquariums and a few forty gallon breeders. I also bought some twenty-nine-gallon tanks from Amazon Basement when they downsizing and thirty-six more fifteen-gallon aquariums from Lonny. None of these aquariums were drilled.
I obtained instructions from JEHMCO on how to drill aquariums. I purchased a diamond bit and along with my neighbor's help, we drilled about 50 aquariums. I did not have a steady enough hand for the drilling. It takes a constant somewhat slow drill speed. Instead, I fed the cold water over the drill bit as my neighbor drilled. By the time we finished, we wore out the fifty dollar drill bit. These drilled tanks were then added to my fish room.
As the business grew I found I needed even more aquariums. Lucky for me another local pet shop was downsizing and I was able to buy most of his fifteen, twenty-nine, and thirty-gallon aquariums. These aquariums were drilled and I was not about to make the mistake of not buying enough like I had with Tony’s tanks. I also discovered smaller plastic containers from Lowe's and Home Depot that I could drill with a normal drill bit, add bulk head kits, and use them for fry containers. T
I set up my aquariums with a mixture of stones including cichlid stones and crush coral to help keep the PH up. I use sponge filters in each tank and several air pumps from JEHMCO to run the filters. About the time of my first expansion, I began to run into a big problem. All of the sudden, I was getting full tank crashes for no apparent reason. It took some time, but I finally figured out what the problem was. My municipal water company was adding chloramines to the water. Unlike chlorine which is easier to remove, chloramines can accumulate and cause aquarium crashes if not removed properly. This lead to a major change in how I do water changes and a whole lot more work. I cannot run my drip to drain system like it was designed. Instead, I must stir my aquarium stones, set up drain extensions to the bottom of each tank, and continue to still each tank so that the dirt goes out the drain line while the fresh water comes into each tank. In addition, I add New Pond Water Conditioner from JEHMCO to each aquarium before I can add fresh water.
Currently, I have over two hundred and twenty-five aquariums in my main room to service weekly. When I have fish in quarantine, I have twenty-three more. This means three to four mornings a week are set aside just to do water changes. Plus every third week, the sponges need to be cleaned. I clean sponges by removing a large cup of water from the aquarium and putting it in a bucket and then squeezing the sponges in that water. The dirty water is thrown out between each aquarium and the process is repeated until all the tank sponges are serviced. This process takes at least an extra morning every third week.
Quarantine aquariums when in use, have their water changed once a week and one teaspoon of plain table salt added along with Ultimate Water Conditioner. Sponges for these tanks are cleaned at the end of a quarantine cycle. Fish are moved to their regular aquariums and the quarantine aquariums are emptied, then refilled with fresh water until the next time they are needed. When a fish order is coming, I do a 90% water change on the tanks in this area that I will need for that order. When these tanks are not in use, the overhead lights are turned off to conserve electric.
In August of 2011, I started a project with a friend’s help to put cement block under the stands and to rebuild the stands. Our main focus was on the area of aquariums I used most. We decided that is was easier to put the heavy larger aquariums on the bottom rows, the medium size ones in the middle, and the small fry containers on a top row. This change made such a difference, that I decided to go ahead and redo my entire set up into this type of set-up. It took me three weeks of twelve hour days to complete the change. During this time I closed the business. While this wasn't good for cash flow at the time, I began to immediately see an increase in spawning and new born fry after the changes.
Not enough heat from my electric heaters was getting to the bigger tanks near the floor, especially on the tanks in the middle of the room. I had Lloyd Emory, a local plumber to set up a way to heat this area using natural gas rather than electric. Hot water lines run through the tanks. These lines are supplied by water from a gas hot water heater. This is a much more cost effective way to heat a large group of tanks than by electric.
With Lonny’s help, I was able to add two new suppliers, giving me up to four farms to work with and a much wider variety of fish to stock. After about two years of using one of these suppliers, I received a phone call one day from another supplier. This supplier is the primary source for a lot of other fish farms in Florida. He has since become my main source for these fish. Over the years this man's stock has become as large as my other suppliers combined and his prices are better. I now use him for almost all wholesale fish. I still use one of my other sources occasionally, but that is rapidly ending.
In addition to getting fish from the farms, I grow out fry from my own spawns. I currently have over fifty small fry containers which are almost always filled with either fry or mothers holding. I have been refining stock to what sells the best and what I can spawn. This has reduced the need for orders from my wholesalers to constantly restock.
I feed my fish Xtreme Cichlid Peewee once a day in the evening. I feed my fry baby brine shrimp which are hatched daily.
Shipping has been a learning curve. When I first started I was using large bags and bagged more fish per bag. I have since learned that I can bag one fish in a smaller bag, put more bags in a shipping box, and have a better live arrival rate. I rarely lose fish in shipping,: however, even with the best preparation, it can occasionally happen. I ship mostly one day ground by Fed Ex. Recently I added a discounted service for Fed EX Air or UPS Air. I now offer four sizes of boxes for Shipping making it less expensive to ship smaller orders, especially over longer distances by Fed Ex Overnight and Two Day Services. Air cargo shipments are also available using South West Air Cargo. I only use my larger boxes for SWA Cargo. In summer, I ship up to two days in transit. In cold weather when heat packs are needed, I only ship up to one day in transit.
I do not just sell fish; I try to encourage the hobby. My bags are always marked in order for the customer to properly identify their fish. Most of the advice previously on my web site is now available on my new forum. Customers can comment on it and we can learn from each other's experiences using this format. Keeping these fish requires constant learning. Something new or a better way to do things often comes along and I try to adapt my business to these changes.
Everything is done to provide the customer with the highest quality fish for a reasonable price. My customers are what keep my business going. I reward them with discounts for returning to buy more fish. I also give extra discounts for large orders of $100 or more and offer discounts on group orders as well. I work with the Capital Cichlid Association delivering fish to members at club meetings.
My mission is to carry, maintain, and sell high-quality African Cichlids mostly in the Mid-Atlantic Region. I always offer excellent customer service and promotion of the fish keeping hobby so that African Cichlid’s, particularly those in the C.A.R.E.S. program, can be enjoyed for generations to come.
Cichlids Are Special
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