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The Growing, Growling Industry of Animal Care in Alaska

Jul 25, 2022Magazine, Manufacturing, Retail, Small Business

AK BARK

Chelsea Coartney, owner of Unleashed Alaska, decided to open her dog daycare, boarding, and indoor dog park in 2021 as the result of her own experiences as a dog owner.

“I have six dogs, and I wasn’t hugely impressed with the places in town that offer boarding or the places where families can go with their pets,” she explains. “It can be very slushy at dog parks—not to mention cold—and I thought it would be cool to have an indoor dog park where people could come hang out in a temperature-controlled environment and socialize with their friends and their pets at the same time.”

At Unleashed Alaska, members have access to the dog park on weekdays after the doggie daycare closes at 6 pm and on weekends. A key card allows members to enter anytime the need arises. “If your dog likes to do ‘zoomies’ at 2 am, you can bring them here to burn some energy and socialize in a safe place,” Coartney says.

Even before her doggy daycare and boarding options opened last August, Coartney says interest was high. “We were pretty booked before we opened,” she says. “But we do require a temperament test, so not everyone makes it past that requirement.”

Enough do make it in, though. “We are almost at max capacity now,” she adds.

According to the American Pet Products Association’s 2021-2022 National Pet Owners Survey, approximately 70 percent of US households, or about 90.5 million families, own a pet. These must be very good boys and girls—in 2021 alone, Americans spent $123.6 billion on everything from pet food and treats to supplies and over-the-counter medications, veterinary visits, grooming, training, and more.

These expenditures have increased year after year, growing almost $7 billion from 2018 to 2019, $16 billion from 2019 to 2020, and $20 billion from 2020 to 2021.

Coartney charges between $350 and $500 per month, using a membership model instead of a drop-off service. “It’s like a gym membership for your dog and you,” she says. Unleashed Alaska has three membership levels, which include the Wag Plan, the Bark Plan, and the premier Peanut Butter Plan, which allows unlimited dog park access, twenty doggie daycare visits a month, and a percentage off boarding fees. The dog also gets his or her picture in the lobby.

Dogs that attend daycare are treated to training days, relaxed movie days where they can watch Animal Planet or videos on flat-screen TVs, and individualized lunches during early afternoon quiet time. “I’m crazy about dogs and I spoil them; they are treated like children who don’t talk,” Coartney says with a laugh. “My whole family is this way. Growing up, the dogs would eat at the dinner table with us.”

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Alaska Business August 2022 Cover

August 2022

Finding a Niche

Coartney and her family are hardly alone. With so many consumers looking to keep Fido or Fluffy happy and healthy, it’s no wonder that entrepreneurs want to break into this lucrative arena.

Mark Robokoff has been pampering pooches for morethan a decade. He ran the Paw Prince pet boutique from 2008 to 2011. He sold that business, and in 2016 he opened AK Bark. The name is a relic from the original location inside the Hotel Captain Cook, when it was HM Bark (referring to Cook’s ship, His Majesty’s Bark Endeavour). The shop relocated to the site of a previous pet boutique and dog massage parlor in west Anchorage.

AK BARK French Bulldog

The variety of items that AK Bark stocks, such as treats made from Kenai Peninsula salmon and Fairbanks reindeer, and the sheer size of some pet sportswear, could not all fit inside the West Dimond shop, which led owner Mark Robokoff to open a second store across Anchorage on Fireweed Lane.

AK BARK

“The pet industry has been going up for at least twenty years, with sales increasing year after year after year,” Robokoff says. “This is probably the single biggest factor in why small mom-and-pop shops are still successful, especially after the big box stores arrived.”

AK Bark just opened a second store in Midtown on Fireweed Lane, as it has outgrown its current space. “We originally opened intending to be a pet gift store, but as we responded to what customers were asking for, there was a lot more demand for gear and practical solutions to adventure problems,” says Robokoff. Usable equipment takes up more room than t-shirts, he says.

“We considered expanding our existing store, but the appeal was such that it made more sense to add a second store in Anchorage,” he adds. “We’ll also probably be expanding our initial store soon.”

All along, Robokoff’s goal has been to provide “intensely Alaskan” products.

“We are extremely Alaska-focused, providing Alaska-made and Alaska-needed products,” he explains. “For example, we carry outdoor gear that works well for our climate, as well as locally made collars, leashes, and booties. Almost all of our treats are made locally, including salmon treats from the Peninsula and reindeer treats from Fairbanks.”

Another popular product is the Coyote vest, which is an anti-predator vest for small dogs. “You’re not going to find this at Petco or PetSmart; we’ve got bald eagles and other toothy critters up here, and the vest gives nice peace of mind for people who have smaller animals,” Robokoff says.

While many businesses are considering starting online or warehouse-type stores, Robokoff says AK Bark is bucking retail industry trends. “For us to grow from nothing to Alaska’s favorite pet supply store [as voted by readers of the Anchorage Daily News] shows value in going against the trend, even as more and more new products that are coming out are featured almost exclusively online,” he says.

“But what we’ve seen is that customers have an unfilled need with those trends; they want to come into a store, try the products on the dog, and leave with their purchases that day,” he continues. “It’s both a challenge and our niche.”

Being so targeted on the local market can be an advantage, he says, as their products are tailored to a specific locale.

“We don’t order products based on a national agenda or calendar; we’re still selling dog coats in March because there’s still snow on the ground,” he says. “We’ve got full-body snowsuits for when it’s -20°F to -30°F and really nice quality goggles for dogs that like to run behind snow machines. We’ve got eight different styles of booties. We stock the store for the needs of the Alaskan dog and wants of the Alaskan dog owner.”

Treats to Drool For

Group of dogs at doggy daycare

DROOL CENTRAL

AK Bark makes a point of staying abreast of the newest developments in the pet care industry. For example, the shop was the first in Alaska to introduce CBD products to the pet market about five years ago. Robokoff said that current trends include treats that aid in nutrition, specifically freeze-dried organ meats and freeze-dried whole animal treats like sardines.

“We are also seeing more human-grade ingredients in dog treats and higher quality ingredients overall,” he says. “People are now paying much more attention to what goes into their dogs.”

Pets with a taste for gourmet treats can get them from Drool Central Mum & Pup Barkery in Anchorage. Founder and owner Daisy Nicolas trained at the California Culinary Academy and Tante Marie’s Cooking School and spent twenty-five years cooking in premiere hotels and resorts before turning her attention to a different audience.

“I used to cook in remote lodges, and while I made good money, I realized at the same time that I wanted to do something for me. I didn’t want to be in the Bush anymore,” Nicolas explains. “I had a yellow Lab, Dallas, who was my inspiration. I was always cooking for her, and after doing some research on what type of business to start, I decided that I’d cook for dogs.”

“I was going to make kibble, but I didn’t like the ingredients,” she adds. “The more I talked to people concerned about their dogs’ diets, the more I saw the possibilities.”

Nicolas began working out of her home in 2013, selling products to friends and family and occasionally attending retail events. It was not until she joined the South Anchorage Farmers’ Market that she realized she could make Drool Central a viable business.

“The first day, I made $400 in five hours,” she says with a laugh. “That was it! I was in business!”

Every Saturday, her sales grew, and she established a loyal clientele for her products made with wild Alaska salmon, cod and seasonal fish, and Alaska-grown vegetables.

“When I was researching the products out there for dogs, I realized it was a lot of crap,” she says. “When I was cooking at the lodge, I fed my dog fish and she loved it. So I called one of the lodge’s guests, who owned a fish processing business, and I said, ‘I have an idea.’”

Nicolas began working with fish and later added other menu offerings. She now carries more than forty products which she makes on her own and sells at the farmer’s market and online.

“I added more products because some dogs hate fish; they’re just like people in what they like and don’t like,” she says. “When I was cooking for my dog, I added Alaska-grown carrots because our carrots are the best—they are crunchy, sweet, and fresh, unlike what we get from the Lower 48.”

Taking advantage of her spot at the farmers’ market, Nicolas buys the fresh produce that’s “not pretty”, and now her menus include carrots, potatoes, and beets year-round, as well as spinach and kale in the summer. She also uses Alaska-grown barley flour and other Made in the USA organic, non-grain produce as binding agents.

“It’s all about the trends; I have to ride the trend to please a wide range of customers and breeds,” she says. “That means having different kinds of products.”

According to Nicolas, her products have caught on for a number of reasons. “People love the name Drool Central Mum and Pup Barkery; it makes them laugh,” she says. “Also, a lot of people in Alaska are dedicated pet owners who want to try products closer to home—that are homemade in Alaska.

“Because I am using wild Alaska fish and Alaska-grown veggies, with none of the stuff that you and I eat—like salt, sugar, artificial preservatives, processed fats, and artificial colors and flavorings—the food is healthy and it works.”

She adds that Dallas, who inspired Drool Central, lived to the ripe old age of fifteen before passing away. “She had no allergies or digestive issues and no lumps or bumps,” Nicolas says, adding that she is now feeding her new puppy, a Lab/husky mix, the same recipes.

Happily Fur-ever After

Group of dogs at doggy daycare

Daisy Nicolas and her dog, Dallas, who inspired the creation of Drool Central.

DROOL CENTRAL

Nicolas is currently looking for a brick-and-mortar site where she can expand the business, though it is not easy in the current real estate market. “Not to mention that some landlords don’t like fish, and some don’t even like dogs,” she says of her need for an adequately ventilated space.

If she finds a spot, she hopes to expand her production capabilities, turning products over more quickly and elevating her online shop. “It’s my biggest challenge and my biggest disappointment,” she says of her continued success.

Unleashed Alaska is also ready to expand in its second year. Coartney is considering opening a second location, possibly in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough or in Fairbanks. She is also open to franchising opportunities. “We’re growing a lot faster than expected,” she says.

One obstacle to expansion is finding the right employees, especially during the current workforce shortage.

“Dogs are not fools—they can sense your energy,” Coartney says. “While a lot of people may apply, one of the biggest struggles in this industry is finding the right people and keeping them.”

The same love of animals that drives the pet care industry also makes the jobs seem appealing, but Coartney says it takes a special breed of worker. “People think that you just get to play with dogs all day, but that’s not how it is,” she explains. “You have to find people who genuinely care.”

Alaska Business Magazine August 2022 cover

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