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Dream Store

Family creates exactly what they want in a pet business with Bark Life.

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Bark Life, Seminole, FL

OWNERS: Tammy and Mike Vasquez; Website: barklife.com; FOUNDED: 2011; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2019; EMPLOYEES: 20 full-time, 4 part-time; AREA: 14,000 square feet; FACEBOOK: barklife; INSTAGRAM: barklifeinc


IN SPRING 2011, a plan came to Tammy Vasquez in a dream.

“I woke up Mike, my husband, and told him we were going to open a pet food and cage-free grooming store called Bark Life,” she recalls. “He loved the idea.”

They did exactly that just a few months later in Seminole, FL. The business moved and grew in 2019 to a 14,000-square-foot pet center with day care and boarding.

From left, Mike Vasquez, Tammy Vasquez and Mike Vasquez Jr. are all members of the Bark Life fishing team.

From left, Mike Vasquez, Tammy Vasquez and Mike Vasquez Jr. are all members of the Bark Life fishing team.

A Blank Slate

When looking to expand from 3,000 square feet, the couple found the perfect space two blocks away. They gutted the former music store and warehouse, working with EMPAD Architecture and Interior Design to create exactly what they wanted, structurally and visually.

“We’re a green facility,” Mike says. “LED with automatic dim and shut-off. Spray-foam insulation, 18 inches. State-of-the-art HVAC system with separate units for each department.

“When I was budgeting for the new location, I allocated $7,000 a month for electricity. We haven’t had a bill over $3,000.”

Tammy adds, ‘It pays to go green. It hurts in the beginning because it’s expensive, but it definitely pays off.”

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The multi-unit system also eliminates the chance of cross-contamination, one of many efforts to maintain the healthiest possible environment for pets and humans.

In the boarding area of Bark Life, 68 rooms range in size from 15 to 120 square feet and feature tropical colors and decor. All have waterproof vinyl-plank floors and noise-reducing walls and ceilings.

“It’s important that dogs can’t see each other and to reduce the noise. That way, there’s less stress and kennel aggression,” Mike explains.

Noise-reduction materials also can be found in the two day care rooms, which have orthopedic flooring and island-inspired murals. Dogs rotate between there and four outdoor yards – complete with artificial turf, sail shades and misters — every 30 to 45 minutes, staying outside for shorter periods during the summer.

The resort-style vibe carries into the retail area with turquoise walls, but integrates with an exposed ceiling and ductwork, and industrial lighting and shelving. Tammy worked with Handy Store Fixtures to make her vision of durable, all-white units a reality.

“We had never seen white-powder coating,” she says. Mike adds, “Everyone else has black shelving.” Tammy finalized a sample with the company, and “I told him, just trust me.” He did, and “As soon as the first shelving went up, “I thought, ‘Wow! This looks so good.’ It’s so bright.”

A large four-sided checkout desk sits in the center of the space, well merchandised with treats and chews and other items, but still with plenty of countertop on which customers can place large bags of food. Picture windows allow views into the day care and grooming areas.

Bark Life Market Daycare

Groomer’s Delight

Tammy grew up in her family’s pet grooming salon, starting her own mobile grooming business in 2002, which Mike left a corporate career to join in 2009. Needless to say, they had a long list of must-haves when building out this department.

“I had the idea of doing grooming suites, like for human hair stylists,” Tammy says. “Because we’re cage free, at our old place there would be dogs running around, pooping and peeing, and groomers fighting over who did what, and generally in each other’s hair, pardon the pun.”

The four gated suites have solved 90 percent of the issues, they say. Each has a table, tub and plenty of room for equipment, supplies and for everyone to be comfortable.

“It eats up a bit more room than we’d like, but grooming is a big part of our revenue,” Tammy explains.

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Mike adds, “It gives us the advantage to say, ‘I’m going to give you the best and most efficient work environment. There is nothing else like this in the area. This is what we expect. It’s beneficial for everybody.”

Including customers, who appreciate being able to see into the suites through picture windows — though not get close, as a 20-foot concierge desk sits in front.

Pet Food Rethought

Just as Tammy and Mike put much consideration into their facility and its operations, they do the same with product offerings.

“We have always been a pet health food store, carried the healthiest brands of foods and treats,” Tammy says. “We still are the go-to for that. However, we are a business.”

Two factors have significantly impacted their food sales over the past year: the FDA’s investigation into an alleged connection between grain-free pet foods and DCM, and the resulting surge in vets recommending certain brands as alternatives.

“Over the last eight to 12 months, the natural food market has either leveled off or declined a bit, with the exception of frozen raw. What has upticked are what we’re going to call ‘science brands.’ It’s a different way of feeding, one that many vets recommend,” Tammy explains.

To counter this trend, the couple began talking and listening to customers who were not buying their food at Bark Life.

“I asked, ‘You bring your dogs to day care. You board here. You groom here. Why aren’t you buying your food from us,” Mike says.

More often than not, they learned that these customers were feeding “science brands” the store did not carry, and that even when presented with a higher-quality alternative at the same price, would not switch.

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After much research and discussion, they decided to bring in a select number of these “science brands.”

“Our customer base has expanded. To service our customers, we have to bring in these foods,” Mike says. Tammy adds, ‘As long as you’re not selling something that’s going to hurt the pets, and you can sell it with a clean conscience. You have to service your customers.”

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • SPENCER WILLIAMS: This business appears to thrive on meeting customers’ needs with ease. The layout is simple and clean. The marketing is clear and engaging. The ability to book services online is great, as are the timely updates about COVID-19. This is a really well-run family business that appears poised for exciting growth!
  • TRACE MENCHACA: What a jaw-dropping place — absolutely beautiful and so perfectly merchandised. I love the use of space and the displays on top of sthe helving. The inspiration wall is awesome. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better came the photos of the boarding and day care.
  • LEIB DODELL: I like the tropical resort branding. Company culture definitely comes through. I would take my own dogs here.
  • MATT ALDRICH: I love how “Florida” it feels. Website is beautiful and fits the store.
  • MELISSA KAUFFMAN: They have worked hard to create a cheerful environment and an impressive number of services, which are all revenue lines. Of course I love the Toucan, but that’s just me — a huge bird fan.
 
VIDEO TOUR: INSIDE BARK LIFE

PHOTO GALLERY (10 IMAGES)

Five Cool Things About Bark Life

1. MULTI-GENERATIONAL FAMILY BUSINESS: Mike Vasquez Jr. graduated with a finance degree in 2019 and joined the family business. He serves as operations manager alongside general manager Erika Grant.

2. IF LIFE GIVES YOU LIMES: A focal point of the store features quotes to inspire as well as maintain a mom-and-pop feel in the larger space. “It’s easy to become impersonal,” Mike says. “We have purposely worked for that not to happen, and the inspiration wall was the base of it.” Tammy adds, “I’ve also been accused of being annoyingly positive.”

3. STORE AMBASSADOR: Adding to the island vibe at Bark Life is Buffett, a Keel-Billed Toucan named after, you guessed it, singer Jimmy Buffett. Tammy says, “He is super tame and is featured in so many group selfies his ego has become huge!”

4. A VOTE FOR TAMMY VASQUEZ: Unhappy with how the Pinellas County Commission responded to COVID-19, Tammy will be on the ballot come November with the goal of representing her community and its businesses. “The state said grooming was essential, the county commissioners said it was not,” she says. “Our grooming was shut down for three weeks because of that.”

5. SCORE!: How was Bark Life able to create a 3,500-square-foot outdoor playpark in a strip center? Turns out, the alley behind had become an unsafe cut-through for cars, and the landlord was more than happy to have Tammy and Mike block it for a green space.

Since launching in 2017, PETS+ has won 16 major international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact PETS+'s editors at editor@petsplusmag.com.

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