Dan Miller and his wife Anita shared a love of fishing, but they found their hobby inconvenient at times due to the lack of a bait and tackle shop in Waterloo.
So, despite Dan working in the labor industry and Anita driving a school bus, they started one of their own.
“Now we’re here all the time and we can’t fish,” Dan said with a laugh.
The couple opened Dan & Neat’s Live Bait & Tackle in 2001. They received help from Dan’s grandparents, who once owned a bait shop of their own, but they worked the 10-foot-by-10-foot store by themselves.
When it first opened, the selection was not what it is now, with the store selling only live bait and a few hooks, floats, lures and metal buckets.
“We carried just basically bait and the bare essentials,” Dan noted. “Now we carry even boating supplies, from gas tanks to seats.”
As the customer base grew, however, so did the inventory. Now the store boasts an enormous variety of lures, hooks floats, plus new items like boating supplies and more than 100 rod and reel combinations.
To accommodate all that inventory, with most of those products coming after customers requested them, Dan & Neat’s has more than doubled in size since its genesis.
“In the last 17 years, there’s probably been three or four (bait shops) that have closed up,” Anita, who is nicknamed “Neat,” said. “It’s a hard business. It got bigger than we thought it’d be.”
Throughout that growth, the couple said they have kept their customers first.
“We try to keep the customers happy,” Anita said. “It’s hard to get everything. We try to do the best we can and we’ve got loyal customers. They’re awesome and we appreciate every single one of them.”
Sometimes, keeping the customers happy involves Dan hectically searching for a place to buy more bait after the store gets a bad batch or an unexpected influx of customers clears out the inventory.
“It is a real business,” Dan said. “We spend 360 days a year here.”
The customer service also always entails making sure the customer is happy with their bait purchase before they leave.
To facilitate this, Dan & Neat’s always shows customers the bait before they buy it.
“We try not to send anyone out the door with something that’s not supposed to be dead,” Anita said.
The Millers said that kind of customer service is one reason people should come to their store over the chain stores. They extend that kindness to the community by donating to worthy causes like fishing derbies.
“It’s all about local stuff,” Dan said.
The main way they show their friendliness, though, is to their customers.
“We try to keep it like family,” Anita explained. “Especially if they’ve been coming in here for 17 years. They’re like family.”
“We know a lot of people by first name,” Dan added. “They (come here for) the camaraderie and better quality stuff. We try to have the best we can — the best bait we can and the best prices we can.”
Dan & Neat’s customers seem to appreciate that. The couple saw evidence of that in 2013, when they had to close the store for a week after Dan had a heart attack.
“People got concerned,” Anita remembered. “But that’s good because that means you’ve got good clientele. They actually care about you.”
The Millers said they feel the same way about their customers, with the best part of their job being how they have seen kids grow up and start bringing their kids into the store.
“That makes it all worthwhile,” Dan said. “It’s all about the kids as far as I’m concerned. We’ll never make any money. Our grandkids might make some money, but we will never make too much money because in order to compete we have to keep our prices low. So we do all this just to get the kids out of the house.”