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2ND Place: WAG CENTRAL | Stratford, CT

Wag On

A former schoolteacher went back to school to assemble the ultimate boarding, training and play experience.

OWNER: Angela Pantalone | WEBSITE: wagcentralct.com | OPENED FEATURED LOCATION : 2017 | AREA: 15,000 square feet | EMPLOYEES: 2 full-time, 25 part-time | INSTAGRAM: wagcentral


A FORMER TEACHER, Angela Pantalone knew exactly what to do first after deciding to open a doggie day care and boarding facility: Go back to school.

“I enrolled in a 350-hour training and kennel management program to learn how to speak dog,” she says of the Professional Trainers Course at Connecticut K-9 Education Center in Newington, CT.

Angela Pantalone

Pantalone didn’t stop her studies there. To understand other aspects of the business — from facility design and decor, to branding and layout, to hiring and training staff — she looked to her future peers.

“I traveled to see top day care and boarding facilities throughout the U.S. By understanding their inner workings and how dog safety is prioritized, I knew that the magic was the combination of these things.”

When it came time to graduate, Pantalone considered buying a franchise, but “I decided that Wag Central would start from scratch, fully utilizing the wealth of knowledge I’d just learned and loved.”

The 15,000-square-foot facility opened in 2017 and has since seen 50 percent growth year over year.

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Upscale Setting & Services

With help from Wiles Architects and Tripka Interiors, Pantalone transformed the former offices of an HVAC contractor into a facility that impresses both humans and dogs. Brand colors orange and gray flow throughout the interior, which features stained concrete floors, tile-wainscoted walls and wooden accents. Building columns double as birch trees, thanks to clever paint accents. Front windows allow for an abundance of natural light.

“I really wanted to bring the outdoors in, and I think we nailed it,” she says.

Day care and boarding make up 60 percent of revenue at Wag Central. Not surprising since Pantalone once taught kindergarten, dogs follow a school-like schedule that includes indoor and outdoor activities, with rest time in between. Weekday day care rates are $32 for half and $40 for full; the five-hour weekend rate is $40. Discounts apply to additional family dogs and multi-day packages.

Overnight boarding rates range from $58 to $88 per night across a variety of accommodations. The highest price gets guests a Canis Major or Canis Minor Luxury Suite, a large quiet room separate from the main boarding area, decorated in stellar themes.

Pet parents can add pickup and drop-off services, swim lessons and grooming to their dog’s day care or boarding stay. Appointments with partner veterinarian Erin Fleming also are available.

“We can even include owners via FaceTime,” Pantalone says, adding that all employees have CPR and first-aid training, and that Wag Central has a veterinary technician on-site who also interns at Fleming’s clinic in nearby Fairfield. “If a dog isn’t eating or their pee is a funny color, she can take a first look.” The vet tech can also administer medications and certain vaccines.

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Stay & Play & Shop

Wag Central offers pet parents plenty of opportunities to join in on the fun. Wagaloo Cafe welcomes people and pre-approved leashed pups with its comfy seating and treats for both. The Lounge hosts parties for any reason, with staff handling everything from sending invites and confirming guest vet records to playing with partygoers and taking pics.

The indoor Play Park remains open seven days a week to help dogs get exercise no matter the weather. And Wag University provides positive-reinforcement obedience training for all ages and skill levels, plus agility and nosework. One-on-one and board-and-train options also are available.

The facility’s retail area carries products that support its services and align with its high standards.

“What we sell, we use,” Pantalone says. “So Kongs and treat puzzles, anything that keeps dogs busy and not just sitting in a kennel. We sell a lot of swim vests, and the collars and leashes our trainer uses in class. If it works here, we recommend it to our clients.”

Class of 2019 & Beyond

New hires get on-the-job training by shadowing staff members for a minimum of 20 shifts. Continuing education happens through monthly meetings and quarterly, topic-based training sessions. The next generation of Pantalones are among the students.

“My oldest daughter, Ellie, is heading to college in the fall, and we don’t know what we’ll do without her. She has a strong head for business and an uncanny ability to see the whole picture, yet still manages good relationships with everyone, even though her mom is the boss. Annie is learning to speak dog very well. At just 16 years old, she can control a pack of pups, give love and affection, and discipline them like a seasoned dog trainer. My son, Gus, is learning to love cleaning, which is a never-ending task!”

Judges’ Comments

Beth Miller: Clean, engaging and thoughtful. Wag Central looks professional and comforting for those leaving furry kids in their care.

Jane Harrell: Chic and modern, Wag Central’s cohesive brand touches everything and everyone they come into contact with. There’s no way a pet parent could doubt this team’s professionalism and doggy-spoiling expertise as soon as they walk in the door.

Beke Lubeach: I like the look of the bakery and cafe. It looks like they’ve invested heavily in the services side of the business.

Leel Michelle: This business is the bees’ knees! So many amazing things to experience!

Kristen Levine: Impressive story and build-from-scratch vision, not to mention strong growth after only two years. I want to visit Wag Central!

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5 Cool Things About Wag Central

1 EASY-PEASY BOOKING. Once clients register for an account through the Wag Central portal, they can upload forms and files, schedule services and purchase packages — all online.

2 GOLDEN BOARDERS. At no extra charge, dogs ages 8 and older get orthopedic bedding, extra trips outside, medications administered, and a choice of 10-minute cuddle time, canine massage or gentle grooming session during their stay. A Therapeutic Boarding program is also available for dogs with special medical needs.

3 GLAM SQUAD. In addition to the usual menu items, Wag Central groomers provide hair dye, stencil design and nail polish for It Pups.

4 FACETIME AT BEDTIME. Pet parents can schedule a FaceTime call with their dog and the staff member tucking them in.

5 STATE OF THE ART. Among the many high-tech cleaning systems at Wag Central is PetAirapy. It uses short-wavelength ultraviolet light to kill or neutralize viruses, bacteria, mold and other germs.

Pamela Mitchell is the senior editor at PETS+. She works from her home office in Houston, TX, with Spot the senior Boston Terrier as her assistant.

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America's Coolest

Splitting the Ps: How One Couple Shares the Load to Create a Cool Store

How Deborah and Mark Vitt use their corporate experiences to rock their micro economy.

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Mutts and Co., Dublin, OH

OWNERS: Mark and Deborah Vitt; URL:muttsandco.com ; FOUNDED: 2007; OPENED FEATURE STORE: 2007; EMPLOYEES: 6 full-time, 7 part-time ; AREA: 5,000 square feet; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/muttsandco; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/muttsandco


Mark and Deborah Vitt have hit upon the magic sauce of management by splitting duties based on their skills and interests.

DEBORAH AND MARK VITT OPENED Mutts & Co. in Dublin, OH, as an 1,800-square-foot-store, half services, half retail. Right away, they realized the footprint was off.

“We were cramped in there with just enough room for a few products, some cookies and a few treats,” says Mark. “It was like going to the dentist’s office, where you can buy a couple of toothbrushes.”

They didn’t want to be like the dentist’s office, so they took over the space next door, expanded to nearly 5,000 square feet and doubled the grooming area. Many remodels later, they’ve got a ratio that works. “There are only so many dogs you can groom or bathe in a day,” Mark says, “but every dog has to eat.”

The Science of Shopping

The Vitts brought complementary marketing and retail skills to their first pet store, and as a team they’ve learned how to draw in traffic, stock the right products and staff a good team — all by splitting up the Ps. Deborah fields purchasing, product assortment, procurement and pricing, and Mark handles personnel, new store placement and promotion.

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Deborah’s executive training and keen insight about what makes people buy is what sets this store apart. “She’s parlayed that into owning a business that takes advantage of her retail knowledge and keen sense of merchandising,” Mark says. The store’s floor plan keeps customers crossing paths with bones, treats and toys on the trek for the items they came in for. It’s not a forced journey, but a thoughtful layout.

“We’re trying to make it so people see the full breadth of the products that are available,” he says. “It gives us an opportunity to talk about them, cross-sell and up-sell. ”

A Design to Match the Mission

Head to tail, this store has an old barn feel. Antique barn wood covers the walls and cash wraps, and wooden bins hold the bulk items. Chalkboard headers, held in handmade wooden frames, identify each product section. Out front, original artwork promotes the day’s sales.

“It’s become something of a badge of honor to be one of our elite chalkboard graphic artists,” Mark says. All these human touches give the store a natural appearance, which aligns with natural products and a homemade line of specialty items by

The Pet Foundry: candles and clothing that support the area’s foster and adoption community.

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This store is known as the go-to place for natural pet nutrition, and they take their product selection seriously. Mutts & Co. recently stepped away from a few larger pet food brands that went into big-box stores, mostly through mergers and acquisitions.

“We knew the quality of the product was going to degrade so we went out and found alternatives, knowing that we’ll have to convince customers to trust this lesser-known brand,” he says. “When you can start to find it in Kroger or Target or other big-box stores — not even pet retail stores — that’s not special anymore.”

Standout Staff

The Vitts ask a lot of commitment from their staff, a mix of full- and part-time workers. They train almost exclusively in-store, and in addition to manufacturer training, they do bimonthly training sessions to focus on particular products, general industry trends, categories, and best practices when talking about nutrition.

That’s why they focus on getting the right people, getting them the right training and offering the right products to address all of these potential concerns.

“People come to us because they know we’re there for their pets’ well-being and not just the sale,” Mark says. “We have to give folks a reason to come to us and that’s why we focus on health and wellness for the pets, and that starts with having good products and good people.”

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Ultimately, you’re talking to a pet parent whose dog or cat is part of their family and you’re making a health recommendation for the wellbeing of one of their family members, he says. “We take that very seriously.”

Their staff members are prepared to point customers in the right direction on whatever health concerns come in. “That can be the toughest but most rewarding part, customers who come back and say, ‘My dog had a terrible condition and your recommendations have really helped turn it around.’ But that takes a lot of time and training.”

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Five Cool Things About Mutts and Co.

1. Adopt Don’t Shop: Mutts & Co. just sponsored its fourth adoption event called Fetch A Friend, where hundreds of animals are befriended at the Columbus Fairgrounds Expo Center in a one-day adoption extravaganza. Deborah Vitt coordinates the event through a local advocacy group.

2. Efficient Grooming: Baths and trims are modeled after hair salons for people, with a centralized booker who keeps the door rotating. Dogs are in and out quickly, no kennels necessary. “We felt it would be a better approach to reduce the stress if we keep them there for the minimum amount of time,” Mark Vitt says.

3. It’s Always Social Hour: Instead of hiring a trainer in-house, they bring in professional trainers for in-store pet training, and invite cats and dogs to come into the store to hang out.

4. Cats and Dogs Exclusively: Two years ago, they eliminated fish, small animal and birds because the market just wasn’t there. “There’s just a smaller pool of customers, and it was harder for us to stay on top of those trends when it was such a small portion of our business,” Mark says. “We felt like it was almost doing a disservice by letting small animals just kind of exist, so we cut it out.”

5. Generous Delivery Options: Customers can order curbside pickup or home delivery. “Online sales are going to be the most critical part of business going forward, because it is becoming just a staple in the pet shoppers’ mentality,” Mark says. “We knew we had to have it, so we created that channel for customers to shop with us in that convenient way.”

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America's Coolest

America’s Coolest Pet Stores 2019 Winners Announced!

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We’re reporting live from PETS+ HQ to bring you results from the 2019 America’s Coolest Stores Contest. It was a tight race this year, with some of the most impressive campaigns we’ve seen yet. We wish every business could win!

To narrow the field to first, second and third place, plus nine honorable mentions, a team of editorial staff and independent pet industry judges evaluated the entries, which included mini-essays on a variety of topics, photography and media.

The top three winners impressed judges with their ability to transform a traditional pet business model into something truly special in their communities.

Let’s get to it!

First place — Bar K in Kansas City, MO. Dogs and humans alike love going to this activity-packed dog park and restaurant that spans 2 acres on the Missouri River’s south bank.

Second place — Wag Central in Stratford, CT. This doggie day care and boarding facility also invites pet parents to join in on the fun, with an indoor dog park, training classes and cafe.

Third place — Barker’s Lane in Davie, FL. Not only do dogs get the spa experience at this upscale grooming salon, every square foot of space serves as a stylish backdrop for Insta-worthy pet portraits.

We hope their stories — as well as the nine Honorable Mentions appearing in upcoming issues — will inspire you to break with tradition yourself. What better way to compete with big-box stores and the internet than to offer what they can’t in new and exciting ways. Bonus: If you do, we just might be reporting about you on these pages next year!

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America's Coolest

A Salon So Upscale, It Attracts People Without Dogs

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3RD Place: BARKER’S LANE | Davie, Fl

Strike a Pose

 

A salon so upscale, it attracts people without dogs.

OWNER: Juliana Reese | WEBSITE: barkerslane.com | OPENED FEATURED LOCATION : 2007 | AREA: 1,173 square feet | EMPLOYEES: 2 | FACEBOOK: barkerslane | INSTAGRAM: barkerslane


IT’S THE ULTIMATE before and after story. In 2006, Julianna Reese was reconsidering her career path as a special education teacher. She looked to her rescue dog, Zeta, for guidance and inspiration.

“I thought, ‘I would love to be with her all day, every day. That would be so cool,’“ Reese recalls.

She began searching for pet businesses for sale in South Florida and found a grooming salon in Davie.

“I went and looked at it. The location was bad. It was dirty, just gross. Also, I knew nothing about grooming or running a salon.”

She saw the potential, though, within those walls and herself.

“Everything in my gut told me to go for it.”

Reese bought the business in 2007 and has since transformed it into the glamorous and profitable pet spa Barker’s Lane.

Pups awaiting pickup can relax in a private suite at Barker’s Lane. They also are available for overnight boarding for existing grooming clients.

Changes, Slowly Then Quickly

After taking over, Reese immersed herself in all aspects of the salon.

“The first two years, I had a perpetual headache from all of the learning,” she says.

Reese trained with her staff and enrolled in online courses. As her knowledge and confidence grew, she began making changes.

“Grooming was matter of fact when I got here. Dogs got a bath, blow-dry, haircut, their nails clipped, anal glands expressed and ears cleaned.” The former owner “used chicken coops as cages.”

Now clients can choose from an extensive menu of services for their pets. Blueberry facials and hand-drying come standard with every level of groom. Among the many add-ons are exfoliating mud baths, pawdicures, and hair coloring and feathering. She also offers hot towel treatments for senior dogs.

“We take the towel and put it over areas where they have arthritis.”

Classical music and aromatherapy fill the air at Barker’s Lane, helping to lessen any stress pets might feel. Zephyrhills spring water fills the bowls. Depending on their size and temperament, dogs can relax in a kennel or private suite while they await their appointment or pickup. Some even chill on one of the vintage settees that contribute to the salon’s glamorous decor.

“Every time I saved a little money, I would put it into the business. I would paint a wall or add a piece of furniture. Eventually I was able to make it completely my own.”

That happened with a remodel in 2016. The result: a setting that could easily be mistaken for an upscale home, one worthy of a feature in an interior design magazine.

“This is my place,” Reese explains. “I come here every day, and I want to be surrounded by beauty.” She adds, “The pet industry has changed. People see their dogs as children now and like to take them to places where they are comfortable and surrounded by pretty things.”

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Contributing to the aesthetic are features not commonly seen in a pet business. In the bathing area, marble tile surrounds two sleek white tubs, with an elegant chandelier hanging in between. Leopard-print wallpaper covers the grooming room walls, and gilded vanities provide storage. Porcelain tile floors that resemble wooden planks run throughout the salon. Orchid plants and small decor items complete the look.

In the lobby, faux boxwood frames a large bookcase that holds dog books, figurines and home accessories. Business licenses and other information display as if they are treasured mementos. A teal vintage settee sits in front, atop a patterned area rug.

The fireplace with a menu of services framed above anchors another wall, with an adjacent gallery wall looking straight out of Pinterest. Fresh flowers add additional pops of color, as do the rich pink shelves that hold a small selection of grooming products and treats.

Building the Brand

The interior design serves an additional purpose for Reese.

“Every wall is set up for pet photos that can be used for advertising and social media, and also sent as personal photos to clients,” she says.

A closer look at the mirror above the lobby’s pink settee reveals #strikeapose and the Barker Lane Facebook and Instagram handles.

“People are obsessed. We even have some who come in without a dog to take pictures.”

Reese also holds special client events such as wine tastings and tours, plus casting auditions for their dogs with a local talent agency.

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“It really makes for a fun, interactive and trust-invoking relationship. The ability to make both pet and pet parent comfortable opens up so many doors to solid friendships, referrals, true loyalty and overall good vibes.”

She looks back on the past 12 years, the previous two in particular, with pride.

“The remodel was the best thing I have ever done. Our business has skyrocketed. We currently have an estimated 320 percentage growth for 2019.

“I never stopped believing in this journey of mine. My journey became a passion, it became an experience of personal growth, and a true commitment.”

And an amazing pet business.

Judges’ Comments

Beth Miller: The exterior aligns with their merchandising style and gives a sneak peek to passersby.

Jane Harrell: Their use of classy, feminine decor, combined with a glam/Hollywood aesthetic makes them instantly recognizable and alluring without having to stick their logo on everything.

Beke Lubeach: I love the consistency of high-end design with high-end services.

Leel Michelle: I love the clean and glamorous look of this store! There are so many individual, creative, unique and beautiful touches!

Kristen Levine: Spectacular design inside and out. Branding is fantastic and their passion for dogs shows in the environment they’ve created to care for them.

 

PHOTO GALLERY (5 IMAGES)
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5 Cool Things About Barker’s Lane

1 STOREFRONT APPEAL. The location — inside a shopping center, not visible from the road — leaves a lot to be desired. Reese more than makes up for it with window decals. Brown “curtains” with pink trim frame the salon logo and view into her lobby. Furniture for people and pets, plus a cocktail cart, move into the breezeway for special events.

2 SUPER WOMAN. Two years ago, Reese decided to be the sole groomer at Barker’s Lane. Her staff consists of two assistants who bathe, dry and otherwise handle dogs, but she does the 10 to 15 cuts scheduled per day.

3 TEXT ME. Reese moved from a landline to a salon cell phone. Clients message her appointment requests, photos of desired cuts and cute notes about their pets. “It works so much better. I can keep it as a log and go back at the end of the day to fill in my book, and it creates a family-type atmosphere.”

4 WAIT, WHAT? On the menu of services is a “Doggy Brazilian.” You guessed it, the private parts get trimmed.

5 VERY IMPORTANT PUPS. Only grooming clients can board overnight in one of the glamorous private suites at Barker’s Lane. “This allows us to keep it fun and exclusive to our clients,” Reese says. “It’s more of a V.I.P. feel.”

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