3RD PLACE

All Under One Roof

A Chicago couple builds a business to suit their own needs and (high) expectations.

 STORY BY PAMELA MITCHELL

Urban Pooch Canine Life Center
CHICAGO, IL
OWNERS: Ed Kaczmarek, Dan Gaughan
LOCATION: Chicago, IL
URL: urbanpooch.com
OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2009
AREA: 7,100 square feet
EMPLOYEES: 31 full-time, 6 part-time
FACEBOOK: /UrbanPoochChicago
INSTAGRAM: /urbanpooch

 
SCORE:

INTERIOR: 80%
EXTERIOR: 84%
STORY: 68%
MARKETING: 80%
ONLINE: 73%
INDIVIDUALITY: 78%
TOTAL: 78.2%

Like many couples, Ed Kaczmarek and Dan Gaughan decided to test the parenting waters by getting a puppy.

“Berwyn literally took over our lives,” Kaczmarek says of their Welsh Terrier, now 11. “He went to puppy daycare and for grooming, and we had to shop at three different pet-supply stores. We got so tired of running around and thought, wouldn’t it be nice to have everything under one roof?”

Such a place didn’t exist in Chicago, IL, in 2007, so the couple decided to build it themselves. They applied for nine Small Business Association loans — during the Great Recession — before a bank finally said yes. Urban Pooch Canine Life Center opened in 2009. It takes home third place in this year’s PETS+ America’s Coolest Stores Contest.

 

PRIMARY COLORS, INDUSTRIAL AESTHETIC

Because Kaczmarek and Gaughan considered Berwyn their baby during the design phase of Urban Pooch, it was only natural to incorporate primary colors. Blue floors run throughout the 90-plus-year-old building, with yellow and red paint coating walls in the daycare and boarding rooms.

Colors also pop in the 1,100-square-foot retail area, but there the couple built upon the space’s vintage urban industrial aesthetic. Brick walls rise to meet exposed beams and ductwork. Local artisan Harry Olson combined boiler piping and railroad-car floorboards for shelving, and local antique dealers helped put together pieces for fixtures.

“Our chew bar, a buffet of metal buckets filled with jerky treats, bones and deer antlers, was installed on a repurposed barn door that hangs from a pulley system connected to the ceiling,” Kaczmarek says. “It might be one of the most unique product displays of any specialty pet-supply store in all of Chicago!”

 

CLEAN AIR, CLEAN FLOORS

In addition to offering supplies, daycare, cage-free boarding and grooming — including self-wash and massage — Kaczmarek and Gaughan wanted to provide the healthiest, most pleasant environment possible for pets and their parents.

“We noticed that some of the places we took Berwyn to as a puppy smelled like urine and bleach,” Kaczmarek says. “We wanted Urban Pooch to be clean and smell good, for clients to feel comfortable leaving their child with us without worrying.”

They achieve exactly that thanks to advanced HVAC and air purification systems with triple HEPA filters and UV lighting to kill airborne bacteria and viruses. Florock, an antimicrobial and nonslip sealant, covers all of the floors.

“It’s made to withstand acid in an industrial environment. It’s expensive, but one of the best investments we made. Nothing can get into our floors.”

 

 
JUDGES' COMMENTS:

 

Phil Chang: I like the experiential moments that you’ve worked hard to incorporate into your business. The chew buckets are creative and lay out nicely — they add a great and unique design element to the store.
Ruth Mellergaard: This is a beautiful, original space. Way to go, guys, on changing up your merchandise regularly. You understand retail!
Tom Crossman: Warm but sleek store interior. Feels very clean and hip.
Jamie Migdal: Urban Pooch really gets it. They’re always improving on their services and making things better for their human and canine clients, and I love to see this kind of dedication in a pet business.

 

CLIENT FOCUS

While Kaczmarek and Gaughan quickly learned how to care for Berwyn, neither had experience in the pet industry. Kaczmarek worked as global director of innovation and emerging technology at snack maker Mondelez, and Gaughan was assignment editor at a local CBS station. They turned to consultant Linda Welch, owner of Dogs by Day and Night, for help.

“We flew our staff to Washington, DC, to work at her facility,” Kaczmarek says. “It saw 100 dogs a day. What better way for them to gain experience than to train there for a week? Two of her staffers came back with us and continued training.”

Today, owners and management teach pet care processes and customer service skills to new employees during trial periods. Above all, they instill the company philosophy that clients and pups are members of the Urban Pooch family.

“We greet everyone who comes in and introduce ourselves,” says retail and purchasing manager Brittany West. “We get to know them and learn about their lives. It’s important that our clients feel the love we have for them and their dogs.”

Among the many practices that exemplify this approach are grooming appointments that keep dogs with staff members at all times, not alone in a cage waiting for the next step. Pups whose owners are not ready to pick them up join a daycare pack, with clients able to pay by the hour.

“They can get their nails done or go grocery shopping and don’t have to pay for a full or half-day,” West says.

Owners and management also welcome feedback from clients, on products, services and even the staff themselves.

“They feel comfortable coming to us because they are part of our family and we are part of theirs,” she says.

As to whether raising Berwyn has led to any human kids, Kaczmarek says not yet.

“Our Urban Pooch facilities became our children!”

The couple opened Urban Pooch Training & Fitness Center nearby in 2015.

 


PHOTO GALLERY (12 IMAGES) 

 

Five Cool Things About Urban Pooch Canine Life Center    

1. DOG TV: One-way windows look into the daycare and boarding rooms, allowing clients to watch their pups at play without being spotted. “We want to be transparent about how we care for their kids,” Kaczmarek says, “and we want them to see all of the love and fun that they experience.”

2. TEARRIBLES: The owners love introducing innovative new toys. So much so that they bought 160 Tearribles during its Kickstarter campaign, making Urban Pooch clients first in the world to get them. They were gone in just weeks!

3. PICK-A-DISCOUNT: Clients literally pick their own discount from a box, 5 to 30 percent, on an entire purchase. Held at various times during the year, the promotion brings a 40 percent revenue bump over two days.

4. HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Each employee gets a $100 bonus and a cake on their birthday.

5. PLAYTIME EXPRESS: Urban Pooch offers pickup and drop-off service seven days a week. The van features rubber-coated cages and soft blankets for a safe and comfy ride.


Online Extra: Q&A with Ed Kaczmarek

One book:

The Artist’s Way

One gadget:

My iPhone X

One plane ticket:

Paris — such an amazing experience!

Best advice ever received:

Don’t Lie, ever!

Advice for a new store owner:

Enjoy the experience of connecting with parents and their dogs, don’t worry so much, it doesn’t have to be perfect! Push for excellence, assess your progress each week, make any necessary changes and forge ahead with a smile on your face and in your heart!

If I’d known to live in the moment then, life would have been a whole lot easier.

What superpower would you like to have?

Teleportation

What’s the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do professionally?

Eliminate a position/person.

If your store were on fire, what’s the one thing you’d save?

My amazing employees.

When I meet people, the first thing I notice about them is...

If they make eye contact with me.

Current career goal:

To Grow Urban Pooch into additional units across multiple cities.

I am most frustrated when ...

People don’t work hard.

I am happiest when ...

I am connecting with dogs and their parents.

 


This article originally appeared in the July-August 2018 edition of PETS+.