THE ENTREPRENEURS

Belle Vernon dog grooming business pops up virtually overnight


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Nobody can say that Candy Hepple is afraid to make a big decision quickly and stick to it.

After all, she married her husband Gene exactly 29 days after they met in 1989 at Naval Base San Diego. This February, they will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.

For those who know her, then, it's unsurprising that once Mrs. Hepple had decided to open a dog grooming business, she quickly found a prime downtown Belle Vernon location, did some remodeling, ordered necessary equipment and was welcoming her first customers less than two months later.

Others were notably impressed.

Gina Lynn, executive director for the Greater Rostraver Chamber of Commerce, remembers Mrs. Hepple stopping by the second floor chamber office in late September. "She said, 'I want to open a dog grooming business and I'm looking for some real estate. What can you help me with?' "

A vacancy had recently become available on Broad Avenue, Belle Vernon's main drag, and Ms. Lynn gave her the landlord's phone number.

"I think that was a Wednesday or Thursday," she recalled. "I happened to be driving by the next week and she already had a 'Coming soon' sign up. She had worked it out with the landlord that weekend."

In no time, Doggie Spa was establishing itself in the heart of Belle Vernon's business district.

"It is rare for businesses to get up that quickly, speaking from experience and other businesses we have helped," said Carl Knoblock, district director for the Western Pennsylvania office of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

"When starting a business, depending on type, [you] can be delayed for a number of reasons: Permitting, construction delays, financing delays, Mother Nature, logistics. ... The two most common are regulatory requirements and financing."

Mrs. Hepple had run a dog grooming business for five years when the family lived in Arizona "so I knew certain things had to get done," from getting zoning approval to working with the bank for financing. "The biggest thing is getting your name out there so people know you exist."

Doggie Spa opened Nov. 1, about six weeks after her first Chamber of Commerce visit.

By mid-month, 35 dog owners had brought their pets in for grooming. That number had doubled by Dec. 1 and, going into Christmas week, she had given the spa treatment to more than 100 dogs. Now, after several inquiries from the public, she's making plans to use part of the business, a former pharmacy, for doggie day care.

She said she launched Doggie Spa with an investment of only about $1,000 that covered her essential equipment -- a bathtub, brushes, soaps, clippers, blades, flea and tick dip, a dryer and some cages. "I don't have a lot of overhead. That's another reason why I love this. My rent is the biggest thing."

Getting the doors opened quickly was a big step, obviously, but attracting business is what will determine if those doors will stay open.

Based on Doggie Spa's Facebook postings -- Mrs. Hepple's primary marketing strategy -- the spa's secret weapon is a blueberry facial, done with soaps she gets from a Midwest vendor whose name and exact location she will not divulge.

One of Doggie Spa's new customers, Denise Huntoon of Monongahela, said she brought Charlie, her 75-pound, 8-year-old Goldendoodle -- a cross-breed of golden retriever and poodle -- in on a friend's recommendation.

"I've been getting him groomed since he was a puppy and everyone wants to groom him like a poodle," Ms. Huntoon said. "I took him to Doggie Spa for the first time and he looked fabulous. She's got that look down to a tee."

Mrs. Hepple would be the first to say she has had help getting Doggie Spa started, most notably from her husband, a retired Navy senior chief boatswain's mate now working as a general manager for a fast-food restaurant in Belle Vernon.

The three Hepple children help out, too: Son Chris is at the shop full-time, husband Gene and their other son Jesse work there part-time, and daughter Ashley "comes to the shop every day to keep me company," Mrs. Hepple said. "So we work as a team."

She's also invited a woman who specializes in gourmet dog treats to set up shop in her store ("I'm looking to help a fellow female business owner") and she's thinking about trying to organize a Belle Vernon dog parade down Broad Avenue to raise money for local dog shelters.

She's been back to the chamber, too, to line up referrals for sign companies, window graphics and business care printers, leveraging a growing network of fellow business owners who help each other. From the chamber's perspective, Mrs. Hepple might represent the prototype for how to successfully launch a new business.

"She just has so many good ideas for community events and her enthusiasm is contagious," Ms. Lynn said. "She's even given me ideas and suggestions on how to take our chamber to the next level. I've told her, 'I want you on my board.' "

Steve Twedt: stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.


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