Tonawanda News

July 7, 2013

Area businesses cater to four-legged family members

By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News

— A recent Western New York festival featured an array of businesses vying for the favor of its attendees: Luscious cupcakes and cookies, organic fare, information on athletic facilities, private resorts and photography sessions, even special transportation services.

While the target clientele frequently expressed interest in the services (especially when there were free samples), they remained mostly silent while perusing the stands, relying on their companions to ask questions and speak with the proprietors.

Except, of course, for the occasional “Woof.”

At the Dog Days of Kenmore festival, dozens of pet-oriented businesses — many from throughout the Niagara Region — pitched their wares to Western New Yorkers and their four-legged friends. Jennifer Berryman, coordinator for the event, said she’s definitely seen an uptick in pet-related businesses, which has also resulted in the steady growth of Dog Days. 

“Pet businesses have been growing and we have to go ahead and try to accommodate everybody,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be a fad. I don’t think so, I think the need is there. ... The more we learn about dogs and cats and what their needs are, there’s more and more out there for them. I think it’s great.”

Beyond dog biscuits

“These can’t be for dogs!”

“They sure are!” Canine Cupcakes co-founder Taina Kozell responded to a festival-goer who was peering into the cooler at the business’ Dog Days table. It’s a comment she deals with often. 

The 8-month-old businesses features six flavors of frosting-swirled treats, including Apollo’s Amazing Apple Tart and Clifford’s Carrot Cake. It started after Kozell, who has two dogs of her own, left her job of 13 years and “just started baking.”

“We did one event to see how it was going to go. It just took off,” she said. “It’s amazing what people will do for their pets. And I thought I was the crazy dog lady!”

Canine Cupcakes does birthday parties with Fetch N’ Catch canine recreation center in Bowmansville and also offers personalized birthday, graduation (for puppy- and obedience-school graduates), holiday and get-well packages.

Kozell said the cupcakes are also for sale at select establishments such as Honey Hill Pet Center in the Eastern Hills Malls, and side-by-side with treats for humans at Firefly Cupcakes in East Aurora and Buffalo — in fact, those locations are their biggest sellers.

At the other end of Dog Days, Denise Tedesco and Janelle Harris, owners of K9 Krunchers of Niagara Falls, presided over a popular table laden with meaty beefy mutt balls, chicken twists and “French fries” (made from corn meal, chicken broth, sweet potato baby food and other natural ingredients).

They started their business about four years ago after leaving office jobs, and now sell their treats online, at local festivals and every weekend at the North Tonawanda Farmers Market. A portion of all their proceeds goes to area dog rescue groups.

Tedesco said that part of the impetus behind the business was a desire to make things as safe as possible for their own dogs.

“We own dogs,” she said. “We have our rottweilers and German shepherds and labs, so to keep them healthy, we decided to go this route, especially with all the recalls. We know what we’re feeding our dogs.”

A desire for natural ingredients and healthy food for their own pets was cited as a reason by several pet-based business owners, including Adam D’Ambrosio, owner of Sunny’s Natural Pet Market of Lockport.

Sunny’s sells its wares, all American- and Canadian-made pet items, online and at local farmers markets, including North Tonawanda’s. At Dog Day, his tables were laden with such fare as Dogsbutter, a peanut-butter snack formulated for dogs, Clear Conscience Pet’s Cruncherz humanely sourced gluten- and grain-free dog treats and Sunny’s own line of all-natural treats, including apple-pie and peanut-butter-and-jelly flavors.

The business’ story started after Hurricane Katrina, with D’Ambrosio’s experiences caring for abandoned pets in Mississippi and New Orleans. In 2006, he adopted the business’ namesake, a miniature American Eskimo dog, who was rescued from a shelter in the nick of time.

Then, in 2007, wide recalls of contaminated pet food touched off the next step.

“We started researching what we were feeding, and we weren’t happy with what we found,” D’Ambrosio said. “We started digging into it ... and now it’s full time for me.

“We are dog people. We compete in agility. We live the life.”

Places to play & to stay

For pet owners, after you’ve plied your dogs with goodies, it’s always good to have a place to run off that energy — or swim it off.

Canine Splash in the Town of Tonawanda opened in October 2011, offering three different swimming pools for water sports of the dog-paddle variety. Co-owner Jill C. Bernstein said the response has been appreciative.

“People have wanted a place to swim their dog that’s clean, safe, well-controlled,” she said. “We’re seeing a wide range of dogs, from puppies to senior dogs.”

One very successful aspect of the business has been the availability of a swim trainer, who offers sessions to help dogs get used to the water, Bernstein said.

“We have a lot of people appreciate it because it’s a outlet of energy for their dogs ... and for the people who have always wanted their dogs to swim, there’s the swim trainer. We’ve sort of recruited that whole new category of dogs.”

A number of facilities offer training in agility and other dog “sports” — including Canine Sports Complex, with facilities in Buffalo and Wilson, and Western Lakes Training Club of Buffalo in the Town of Tonawanda. One local facility tries to tie even more elements together. Fetch N’ Catch, located in Bowmansville, opened in October and includes dog daycare, boarding, agility and training, grooming, play groups and canine aquatics.

Co-owner Mallory Poirier started the business with her cousin, Dan Poirier, after they both returned to the Buffalo area after years away for work and school.

“We just wanted to do something and we were into dogs and he was into the business side of it, and we thought, what could we do to bring in an element Buffalo doesn’t have?” she said. “And that was a canine recreation center, everything dog, things for them to do.”

People have responded to their top priorities of safety and cleanliness, Mallory Poirier said, as well as the wide variety of services. 

“They appreciate the pool and the very large play space,” she said. “With the facility is as big as it is ... a lot of dogs just really appreciate the opportunity to run.”

Jeff Williamson has owned All Dawgs Academy and Paws at Play Dog Daycare in North Tonawanda for 13 and three years respectively, providing training, boarding, daycare and grooming services to countless Western New York canines.

“We started All Dawgs as a hobby,” he said. “We both had full-time jobs. We just ran it at night and it just kept growing. Paws at Play, we just fell into.” 

Over the years, Williamson has seen businesses such as his own grow and take off as people become more and more focused on their pets and the care thereof.

“The pet industry has grown, it’s gotten huge,” he said. “You can make almost any idea work for people’s dogs ... well, they’re not really dogs. I consider them children with fur. 

“Ten years ago, you never would have sent a dog to daycare. It’s just evolved. People take better care of their pets, they do more with their pets. It’s just huge.”

In Ransomville, Epic Blue Acres bills itself as “private pet resort,” offering cage- and kennel-free boarding on a 35-acre farm, dog day care and even a shuttle service. Dogs will have access to off-road nature trails (for leashed walks) and options include the run of the house or their own room.

And there’s a bonus for animal-lovers: Proceeds from the facility help fund Epic Blue Acres Siberian Husky Rescue.

And beyond

While treats and food, activities and day care might be the biggest niches out there for the burgeoning pet industry, it doesn’t stop there.

Bada-Bing Pet Products of Orchard Park offers a range of pet products including pet dental solution and pet cologne. (Billed as “Strong enough for a man. But made for a chihuahua.”) Wild Eye Photos, a mobile pet photography studio based out of Hamburg, offers pet photo shoots, pet photo parties, private photo sessions and more. And Pet Heaven Funeral Home in Orchard Park offers services, viewing parlors, headstones, caskets and dedicated crematories for beloved critters who have passed away. 

One of those unique businesses is Bark-and-Ride Pet Taxi, started in October by Jackie Blachowski, who retired in 2009 as Erie County deputy county clerk with the auto bureau.

“I wanted to retire and get into something that had dogs barking at me, not humans,” she said. Their plans had originally called for her and her husband to open a kennel or dog daycare, but when her husband passed away, that dream faded.

Blachowski still wanted to do something with animals, however. And one day, the idea hit.

“So many people I had met over the years working for the county, they had issues where they couldn’t get around very well,” she said. “I wondered if there was the same need for animals.”

After checking around, Blachowski purchased a van and had the inside retro-fitted specifically to transport up to five animals at a time, complete with crates and climate-control. Then she visited vets and groomers, dog daycares and kennels, and called senior centers and retirement homes.

“Now most of my business is based from referrals and a lot of my clients are those folks who just don’t drive for some reason,” she said. “So they call me.”

Blachowski escorts pets — dogs, cats and some exotics — to vets, groomers or even dog parks. While she started out focusing on Erie County, demand has drawn her into Niagara County as well.

The reaction has been very positive. One woman, reluctant to adopt a pet while living at a senior home, was thrilled to realize that she now had a way to make that easier, Blachowski said.

“That’s what makes it all worth it,” she said. “And the pets, too. They’re so excited.”