New Business Wants Canines to Look Their Best

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Darlene Donatiello is not going to the dogs. She’s going after their owners.

Donatiello just opened Dar’s Dirty Dogs on Canfield Road in Cornersburg. There she offers four stalls with self-serve tubs that allow owners to wash and dry their dogs that weigh up to 200 pounds. And she has a “groom room” where she’ll shampoo their dogs, shear or shave their fur as requested, clean their ears, the pads of dogs’ feet and clip their toenails. Included is “a spritz of cologne” at the end, she says, and “TLC” throughout.

Even before Donatiello opened May 3, passers-by saw the logo in her window and stopped in to inquire about when she would open. As she was being interviewed for this story the day before, a woman entered to ask about bringing in her dog and took a tour of the 1,500-square-foot store.

Just before the woman left, she informed the entrepreneur, “I think you have a wonderful idea – the shampoos, the towels. And you clean up the mess.”

“My first customer was a walk-in off the street,” Donatiello says, a woman from two weeks before who couldn’t wait for the soft opening and brought in her 150-pound dog.

Word of Dar’s Dirty Dogs has been mostly through the Internet and social media, the owner reports, and the word is out. While customers who want only to wash their dogs can walk in, at least 24 hours’ notice is needed for the groom room.

To further attract customers, Donatiello is working with the Mahoning County Dog Pound and encouraging dog adoption. “One of my missions is to get dogs adopted,” she says. To this end, she will offer one free wash to anyone who adopts a dog from the pound or humane society as well as a free sample of Blackwood dog food, made in Lisbon, and a dog toy.

Bags of Blackwood dog food – “I wanted to offer quality dog food,” she volunteers – and dog toys are prominently displayed in the entry of Dar’s.

Opening her salon for dogs “is a dream come true,” Donatiello says, “something I’ve always wanted to do.”

As she grew up on the west side of Youngstown, she can’t remember her family not having a pet, “mostly dogs, mostly mixed-breeds.” Today she owns two boxers, Rocky, 9 years old, and Rachel, 7. They are the dogs portrayed in the logo in her window, that logo designed by Ashley Vaughn, a recent graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

“People keep coming in since the sign went up in the window,” Donatiello relates.

She says she got the idea to open a self-service dog wash shop “more than a year ago from being on Facebook.”  There she learned of a shop in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, Woody’s Dog Wash & Boutique, and called the owner, Ann Cipriani, to inquire whether a franchise was available. Cipriani informed Donatiello that Woody’s was unique and she hadn’t thought about franchising.

No matter. Donatiello asked if she could visit and learn what was needed to set up her own business here.

Donatiello was interested because she had graduated from a pet grooming school in Austintown in 1985 and spent three years in the trade. From there she graduated from ITT Technical Institute worked the next 25 years for a health insurance company.

Soon after she left the health insurance company, Donatiello drove by the former Giant Eagle on Canfield Road, saw the “For Lease” sign and that Cocco Development would “build to suit.” The location was ideal, she says, because of the ample parking and it was close to home on the West Side and a short drive from Boardman, Austintown and much of Youngstown.

The real estate agent, Jim Shipley, “had me sit down with an architect” and lay out what she had in mind. At that point, all Donatiello could see were more than sufficient parking out front and more than enough space to build her canine salon inside. ”There wasn’t even a front door,” she recalls. “We had to enter from the back. The walls had to be built.”

In April 2013, she visited Score, formerly the Service Corps of Retired Executives, on the campus of Youngstown State University where she met David Penner. Penner remembers her as organized and methodical. More important, she had access to the funds she needed to set up her business and stay in business until she could turn a profit.

“It’s nice to work with someone who knows what they want to do and has financing,” he comments.

At the outset, Donatiello developed an agenda. “I wrote it down and checked things off as they were accomplished,” she says.

Asked how she is financing Dar’s, Donatiello would say only, “I’ve been blessed.” Penner recalls that she has a friend willing to lend her the money she needed at no interest.

Donatiello wanted her shop to stand out. The colors she chose for the 18-foot-high walls, purple, orange and an intense lime green, capture one’s attention upon entering. As David Ritchie IV, owner of The Home Works in Girard, says, “She wanted it bright and vibrant.” Only the linoleum floor he and his six employees installed, a dull steel gray, is subdued.

Donatiello’s father, Fred, 87 years old, painted all the paw prints on the walls by hand. She was going to develop a stencil but he insisted on drawing and painting the more than 150 black images throughout the store.

The tubs were built in Utah, ordered from the same company Cipriani used.

She anticipates the majority of her business will come from the owners of designer dogs and purebreds, especially poodles, but she expects the owners of mixed-breed, also known as mutts, will also avail themselves of Dar’s.

In the back of the shop are a brand-new washer and dryer for the towels. Donatiello’s office is just feet away.

In her office is a sign on her desk, “Dogs Welcome, People Tolerated.” It reflects her love of dogs and appreciation that their owners pay the bills. She accepts major debit and credit cards, checks and cash.

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the MidMay edition of The Business Journal.

Copyright 2014 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
CLICK HERE to subscribe to our twice-monthly print edition and to our free daily email headlines.