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Local pet food bank dreaming of going mobile

Tom Wargo, founder and owner of Daffy's Pet Soup Kitchen, discusses future plans for his new business space in Lawrenceville. Wargo is moving his business from Lilburn to downtown Lawrenceville.

Tom Wargo, founder and owner of Daffy's Pet Soup Kitchen, discusses future plans for his new business space in Lawrenceville. Wargo is moving his business from Lilburn to downtown Lawrenceville.

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Tom Wargo, founder and owner of Daffy's Pet Soup Kitchen, gives a tour of a 20 foot container that is a large part of future business plans. Wargo plans on placing many similar container offices throughout Georgia as part of play so supply pet food to needy owners of pets.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- For Tom Wargo, the next step is 40 feet long and painted lime green. It's relatively small, but, then again, it could be huge.

Fifteen years ago, Wargo created Daffy's Pet Soup Kitchen, using his own truck to dish out free pet food to needy families in Gwinnett and at least 60 other Georgia counties. Since 2008, he's worked out of different warehouses in Lawrenceville.

A conclusive analysis of that business model is a tough one: True, it's both the first and largest in the state, and possibly the country, now handing out almost a million pounds of food per year. But it hasn't been easy.

"We're not doing it for the money," Wargo said this week.

Wargo has refinanced his pickup twice over the years to help keep Daffy's afloat, something he's been able to do mostly because of the generosity of warehouse owners. Daffy's was recently forced to move out of a warehouse on Oakland Industrial Court because a tenant came along that was able to pay what the space is worth.

Enter a single bright green trailer, Wargo's latest brainchild and, even after so many years of business, what he calls "the beginning."

The new strategy is relatively simple, but will likely be a massive undertaking. The idea is to have a number of mobile, smaller food banks -- 15 is the initial goal -- stationed in different counties across the metro area and the rest of Georgia. Funds from local advertisers posted on a billboard on the front of the trailers (think the sponsor boards at high school football stadiums) will, ideally, cover expenses.

"The concept of what we're trying to do is make things local," Wargo said. "For us to have one food bank in Lawrenceville, the problem is what about the people coming to us from (places like) Henry County? They're driving an hour-and-a-half to get food every month. It's great, but by the time you spend gas money and everything else, it kind of voids it out."

Each trailer will have room for approximately 96 12-inch-by-12-inch sponsor placards. The idea is for sponsors from each community to pay $250 up front and $45 a month to be included on the trailer, on Daffy's website and in its newsletter. A pretty good buy in the world of advertising.

The "down payment" by sponsors will account for most of the $25,000 Wargo estimates it will cost to buy and outfit each trailer. The small monthly payments will be enough to keep the trailers -- which will be plopped in the parking lots of businesses or churches, Wargo said -- operating.

Any additional donations will be pushed toward other operations like spay/neuter and shot programs, not toward food (which is collected and donated by Petco stores) and definitely not toward rent.

"It's going to help us improve things," Wargo said. "If we can get this set up ... we don't have to worry about rent and getting kicked out, because we own it. We don't need a big fancy office, we don't need fancy anything."

In the meantime, Daffy's has gotten a deal for a small storefront and warehouse at 134 S. Clayton St. in the shadow of Lawrenceville City Hall. They'll have a sale of non-pet related thrift store items Wednesday through Saturday. All of the proceeds which will go toward Daffy's next step.

That space will ultimately be converted into a discount pet supply and toy store, Wargo said.

The 15th year for Daffy's will be a big one.

"We should be able to put food banks all over the place," Wargo said. "Every state, whatever county wants one."