This year (this month to be specific) marks the 15th anniversary of Canine to Five. It was also supposed to be Canine to Five’s best year ever.
I got the idea to start a doggie day care at the Bronx Bar. It was Thanksgiving 2003. At the time I was working in telecommunications and it wasn’t exactly fulfilling. Pat, my husband, and I were meeting our friend Kelli Kavanaugh. Our friends Steve and Sharon were also supposed to meet us but they were late.
When they arrived, they explained they were delayed because they were picking up their dog from day care in Farmington Hills, more than 20 miles away from their home in Detroit.
What does that even mean, I asked. After they told me what it was, I asked how them how much they paid. My mind was blown.
That’s when I turned to Pat and said, “I’m going to open up a dog day care in Detroit.” I had no business experience and I didn’t even have a dog (since then I have been the proud dog mom of several Newfies), but I just liked the idea.
I wrote up a business plan and about a year and a half later, I opened Canine to Five in the Cass Corridor on May 5, 2005.
The first couple of years were kind of slow. Detroit hadn’t rebounded yet and this was pre-Midtown days so the neighborhood was still on the sketchy side. I had two dogs on the first day, and I would look after five to seven dogs by myself for the first few months. I averaged about nine a day the rest of the year. Then the next year we took care about 18. The third year we were up to 30 dogs a day.
I initially opened the business as dog day care and boarding operation. The man next door to the warehouse I bought owned Birdtown Pet Shop and in 2006 he and his partner convinced me to buy it. That changed my relationship with the business and Detroit for the better.
Canine to Five grew steadily, even during the Great Recession. Quicken Loans’ move to downtown in 2011 was transformative. And over the past 15 years, America in general has become crazy obsessed with dogs. So cheap real estate plus my work ethic plus America’s dog obsession all added up to a thriving business.
In 2013 I branched out to Ferndale and the business grew so fast that I moved to a bigger space just two years later to the current location on Nine Mile. About three years ago we secured funding to start construction on a $1.5 million addition in Midtown to increase capacity. I spent all of 2017, 2018, and 2019 working to scale the business.
We started working with a director of finance who got us in good shape understanding the numbers and maintaining a budget. In January and February, we exceeded our sales goals. My managers and supervisors got bonuses. I was excited for them and excited for me as I planned to expand to a third location.
Recently I looked back on a text message conversation I had with my mentor. We were talking about what could stop my business? A global recession perhaps.
Since I opened Canine to Five 15 years ago, I’ve been programmed to grow the business. That’s what’s consumed me since 2005.
Then the coronavirus brought everything to a grinding halt.
The week of March 8 people were starting to talk about working from home, especially those who worked downtown. I started noticing: this customer worked at DTE, this one at Blue Cross. If they’re not going into the office, they don’t need dog day care. They stopped coming in around the 15th. Grooming stopped around the 20th.
The day care business is down 85%. We are caring for about 20 dogs a day, down from 140 to 170. On a typical Friday, a day when people are taking off for long weekends, we’d have over 200 and boarding was always busy. The grooming is down 100% (May is when business really starts to pick up for my groomers). If there’s a silver lining, people are starting to think that grooming is really essential so there is pent-up demand for this service when I can start doing that.
There have been other silver linings. We partnered with Detroit Dog Rescue to provide dog day care for first responders and people who are sick. I don’t want people to worry about what will happen to their dog if they have to go to the hospital. We’ve also built relationships with health care institutions that I didn’t have before.
But we are not even coming close to covering costs. Now the No. 1 challenge is how to manage a scaled-back business. I don’t know how to do that. How do I run my business, which is based on people going to work and going on vacation? This is not work we can do at home. Canine to Five is a very bricks-and-mortar business. You have to bring in your dog.
I’m at a standstill: What do I do now?
We just celebrated our 15th anniversary, the weirdest business birthday ever. We’re figuring out different things just to stay open. I’m learning a lot during this time. If anything it’s a great time to pivot in your small business. I’m not going to stay home and bake bread.
As told to Dorothy Hernandez.