POST GAZETTE : Dog Stop founders aim to expand pet care concept

By Teresa F. Lindeman / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A row of hooks filled with leashes at The Dog Stop on Smallman Street in the Strip District last week signaled that numerous owners had dropped off pets to hang out. A white board listed the names of the spaniels, terriers, mixed breeds and more on site and all barking to welcome visitors — names like Maya, Bela, Tucker, Otto, Wyatt and Charles.

One fellow — kept separate from the others because he’s not exactly a joiner — was so excited that he made a flying leap that ended in an ignominious slide down the wooden wall.

America loves its dogs and feels guilty about leaving them home alone all day, bored and sedentary.

That is why the co-founders of The Dog Stop decided a couple of years ago that franchising might be in the future for the business they started on Washington Boulevard in August 2009.

The franchise idea didn’t come immediately. At first, Jesse Coslov, 32, and Chris Kane, 37 — who had been students together at Shady Side Academy — had enough to do just learning about dogs and pet parents.

Dogs in packs act differently than those alone at home on the couch. Confident body language is critical for those working with them. It’s helpful to take note of each pooch’s favored style of play. Some play fetch; some are wrestlers.

As for owners, they worry about what happens to their dogs during the day and the dogs can’t exactly report back. “We have people that cry,” recalled Mr. Kane, who estimated as many as 6,000 different canines were registered at the Washington Boulevard site and he and Mr. Coslov knew at least half of those by name.

In 2011, they opened a second location on Banksville Road in the South Hills and decided they had a business model that others might buy into. The Dog Stop has a store up front selling food and accessories, in addition to offering boarding, grooming and daily animal care services.

“Not many other dog businesses offer all the services that we do,” said Mr. Coslov.

There are lots of other dog businesses out there, including those that sell franchises for people who want to offer doggie day care.

Camp Bow Wow, a Colorado-based franchisor that has several locations in Pittsburgh, claims to have more than 100 sites in North America. Camp Run-A-Mutt has California locations and says on its website that it’s expanding nationwide, while Dogtopia launched in Virginia in 2002 and, according to an August press release about a new franchise deal in California, wants to get to more than 400 locations in the next several years.

Spending on pets in the U.S. has risen from $41 billion in 2007 to an estimated $59 billion this year, according to data pulled together by the American Pet Products Association.

Specifically, spending on pet services such as grooming and boarding rose from $4.4 billion in 2013 to a projected $4.73 billion this year.

Mr. Kane and Mr. Coslov have started on the legal steps and paperwork required for the franchising process.

Friends and even a landlord suggested they talk with Mark Lando, a franchise consultant from Pittsburgh who was part of the rise of sneaker retailer Athlete’s Foot years ago and then the candy store chain Sweets From Heaven. Mr. Lando, 63, had also been hearing from people who thought he should meet the Dog Stop team.

Now he’s come on board as chief operating officer of Dog Stop Franchising LLC. Mr. Lando’s job is mainly to refine the franchising push — from advising on the basic model to working on the required documentation to share with potential franchisees and to helping identify prospects.

The first franchises opened this year, with one in Emsworth and a second in Monroeville, both operated by former customers.

The first fliers offering franchises were posted in the company’s locations.

Among Mr. Lando’s suggestions were to offer discounts to veterans, as well as to reduce some fees and the costs of equipping new locations.

At this point, he said, potential operators should be able to get a location open for somewhere in the range of $140,000 to $280,000, depending on location and size.

“We’re not trying to be the Ritz-Carlton,” he said. “We want the inside to be clean, safe and fun.”

Interiors that are too fancy can embarrass owners whose pooches have an accident on the floor.

The pet care business may look like an easy thing to get into, but it’s also a hands-on industry that involves fur, smelly dogs and cleaning up poop.

Hiring can be a challenge, Mr. Kane and Mr. Coslov said, because it takes a certain personality and it can be the kind of job that people don’t keep for the long term.

Some dogs board with the service, so that means keeping staff members around every day of the week, every day of the year.

They’re hoping that going the franchise route will help get involved owners who can build their own relationships with customers. Although the two founders cite awards that the business has won, they’re also aware of disgruntled comments from some users on Yelp who say some of the personal touch has been lost as the business has grown.

“I think people do miss Jesse and I,” Mr. Kane said.

Mr. Lando said the emphasis in talking to potential franchisors so far has been on people who plan to start with a single location, rather than those interested in buying a territory and hiring others to run franchises. Eventually, people may have several locations in one market.

“Our goals are to eventually become a national franchise company,” Mr. Lando said.

They’re also chewing on ideas for add-on services that could generate additional revenue and fill a need. One specifically targets the Strip District store, which draws heavily on Downtown residents. The plan is to set up a sort of school bus/​van pickup service.

They’re also tossing around an idea for a fitness device that could be attached to the dogs and give their owners data on how much activity the canines are getting.

Staff members exhausted from playing fetch and grooming dogs might embrace a proposition for another add-on service: a cuddle time option that would give a dog some personal time on the couch with an employee.

All part of the job.

Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.

 

Original article can be found here.