Our Meet the Merchant series features Q&As with real-world Clover merchants. Read our full catalog for innovative ideas and real-life stories of small businesses in action.
In this installment, we talk to Brian Taylor, the owner of Harlem Doggie Day Spa in New York City. Harlem Doggie Day Spa offers grooming, daycare, and cage-free boarding. He shares how he ended up in his dream job, how Clover keeps his business running smoothly, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected his work. He’s also the visionary behind the Pandemic Pup Relief Tour, bringing pet services to people across the country when they need it the most.
Clover: Good afternoon Brian. We’re so happy to talk to you today. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to own Harlem Doggie Day Spa?
Brian Taylor: Sure! I’ve always been a person that loves animals. But I’m from Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa, and it’s highly unusual in my culture to have dogs at home. I moved to the USA when I was 11 and the extreme culture shock and drastic change made me desperately want a dog for companionship, but of course I was never allowed to have one.. When I was 15, my brother and I rescued a dog and kept it in our basement until my mom found out. We found a home for that dog with one of our neighbors, and that feeling of joy inspired me that at some point in my life, I’d be able to have my own dog; I couldn’t wait.
Many years later, after graduating from college, I was working as a small business banker for JP Morgan Chase in Harlem. My job was to help small businesses set up their merchant account, payroll services, and address any other banking needs.
One day in 2008, a woman walked into the bank with five dogs. She told me she was a dog walker and I was fascinated! I had been looking into the dog industry, and was well aware that there were not a lot of services for dog owners in Harlem. I had a plan to open a pet retail store. She pointed out that if you focus on service, customers will always come back. I was inspired!
After about a year of getting to know each other, we opened Harlem Doggie Day Spa. I was trying to help her get her business off the ground as a silent partner that did the payroll, the credit cards, the booking services.
After two years, I went to school to learn grooming skills, and from there I also started taking courses to be a dog trainer. I wanted to be sure to go into this business knowing all of the roles and responsibilities.
In 2012, my co-founder and I went our separate ways, and I took over the business completely in 2013. I focused on excellent grooming skills and building relationships with my clients. I started to build a following on social media. Everything I did for the business I made into a big deal. I made it a celebration.
In 2014, people began asking me to watch their pets while they traveled. I did my research into this possibility. I went to some daycare and boarding expos, and I looked into starting cage-free boarding so that dogs would be in an environment that felt like home. I negotiated with my landlord to take over the second floor of the commercial space I use for my business. Almost immediately, I had about 15 dogs for boarding and daycare on top of the 20-30 dogs we groomed each day. I even started offering pick-up services with my dad’s old SUV.
Clover: That’s an impressive trajectory. What strategies did you use as you expanded your staff?
Taylor: We had employees who came and left, but I really wanted to invest in a team that would stick around. I needed to find dog people. One day I got a phone call from the New York City Department of Summer Youth. They offered to place participants who love animals to work for me. The city paid them a stipend and allowed me to focus on training and business operations. I used that opportunity to create a hands-on internship program. I taught them to be dog bathers and dog handlers. I began to hire my employees from that pool of participants, which was the best thing I could have done. They already had 100 hours of training under their belts, and had proven they could be very professional.
We’ve just kept growing since then. I’ve received grants to support my training initiatives and internships, and we now service about 400-500 dogs a month.
Clover: Congrats on winning third prize in the CloverAchievers contest last year. How did you use those funds?
Taylor: I gave $5,000 to a senior non-profit group that I work with a lot, named Paws New York. They help seniors who have pets but cannot leave their house. I also set aside $5,000 to open up a new business called the Pups Club—an interactive place where pet parents and owners can come hang out and also have coffee. Sadly, I had to delay that project for now because of the COVID pandemic. With the remaining $10,000, I am building my mobile app, where owners can book a service through us.
Clover: That’s wonderful. How did you come to use Clover in the first place?
Taylor: I did my research! We used Ginger payments processing, which was connected to First Data, and now Fiserv. Since Clover is also owned by Fiserv, that was my introduction. I love the Clover system, and I love all the different applications available to me. Since I’m a numbers guy, I love tracking how many people are coming, how much they’re spending, and where they’re located. Clover just works for my business.
Clover: We know that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on your business. How are you coping?
Taylor: As early as January, I started to see a decline in our bookings as people started to get nervous about what was coming. We offered packages of pre-paid services to counter the drop in bookings, which sold well. But when February came, we started to see a slowdown of people using their packages.
I happened to see an article about COVID in China, and I realized it was going to affect my business. In March, I got sick. I don’t know if I had COVID-19, but as soon as I started feeling symptoms, I shut down the whole operation. I had to let go of everybody on my staff except two people. I worked with them to make sure they could get unemployment, and I can’t wait to hire them all back.
I reached out to my clients and assured them we would extend the expiration of their prepaid packages. My clients are very, very supportive, and everyone took it in stride. In April, I offered grooming services on a one-on-one basis. I would groom a dog, text the owner, have the owner pay online, and then I would return their dog curbside. That really worked for me.
Many of my clients learned about the hardships I was facing and started giving me donations, requesting that I use it to provide a free service to a less fortunate pet parent. I used the donations I collected to start the Pandemic Pup Relief Fund. I raised about 2k and was able to help a lot of pups. My clients’ thoughtfulness really inspired me and I wanted to do more.
Ever since I purchased my mobile van, I’ve always wanted to travel across the country grooming pups and seeing what America has to offer. I realized that right now would be the best time to try it out since so many people are suffering from Covid-19. I’m part of a Black pet grooming group on Facebook called Black Groomers Association. We are a small group and pretty close knit. After reaching out and asking them for volunteers to help me groom dogs for free in their local cities, I got 57 groomers who were eager and interested to help. And that’s how the Pandemic Pup Relief Tour was founded. We’re going to DC, Wilmington (North Carolina), Atlanta, Dallas, and Los Angeles in July and August. At each stop, we’re going to have 10-15 groomers to help groom about 50 dogs a day for two days.
All of these individuals who offered to help are African-American pet business owners. I want to highlight them because in the $90 billion pet industry, we’re overlooked by brands that don’t support us. We’re overlooked as Black businesses. And most of the time, we’re struggling just trying to get a piece of the pie. I want to send a statement to the pet industry that we’re here and we’re the fastest growing segment of pet parents. That’s what this tour is about: helping American pups, making a statement, and giving back in a very unique way.