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Meet Donna F. Walker and Lisa M. Vella of South Bark

Today we’d like to introduce you to Donna F. Walker and Lisa M. Vella of South Bark.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
It is exciting to dream about the possibility of having your own business. It is even more exhilarating to combine the different passions and interests that you have into one package. Most of all, it is extremely satisfying to actually bring your daydreams into tangible reality. When you meet someone who has similar ideas to your own, it sparks a double creativity and resourcefulness. My longtime friend, Lisa Vella, and I decided that we should combine forces and synergize our efforts to open an animal-related business together. Man, were we crazy! Our saving grace was that we did not even realize it yet!

We jumped into the pet industry full of hope, ideas, and passion. The idea of continuing our previously solid contributions to a quality dog and cat lifestyle issues, being our own bosses, and creating a neighborhood social gathering place appealed to both of us. South Bark was born from a shared vision of optimism and energy. Once the idea was laid out, we then had to build the platform. Making a solid business platform is not an easy task, yet absolutely necessary to grow a successful business. This book will pass on information that proved useful to us. We hope you find it helpful.

Lisa and I spent almost two years planning the business we wanted to open in our own neighborhood of South Park, in San Diego, and another eight months designing and setting up what is now known as South Bark Dog Wash, LLC. Our dog wash adventure officially began in October 2000.

Lisa comes from a business background, as her family owns grocery stores in upstate New York. She also teaches photography at the college level and has a bachelor’s degree in Photography and a master’s degree in Educational Technology. Her degrees and artistic talent, combined with her love of and experience with animal rescue and training, created a good platform for this type of business.

I am retired Navy. I spent twenty years in the service doing photography, making films and videos, and traveling all over the United States and Asia with Fleet Combat Camera Pacific. I also have degrees in Film and Video, Radio and Television, Liberal Arts, and Animal Health Technology. I am a Registered Veterinary Technician and use my knowledge of animal behavior, medical conditions, breed specifics, and dog handling, along with my overall love of animals, to contribute to the business. Lisa and I have created a formula that is based on clear processes and modalities that can be easily followed and repeated. We love to contribute, and we love what we do.

Opening and maintaining a business was a challenge from the very beginning. The building that Lisa purchased to house South Bark Dog Wash was in a great location, just “a bark from the park”, as we like to say, yet space needed quite a bit of renovation from over 50 years of neglect. It had been home to many different laundries owned by a myriad of different owners, so we had to gut the whole interior and make exterior changes that brought the place back to its original coolness. We completely transformed the building and were recognized for our efforts with a local architectural award.

Back when we first opened, I thought that the Grape Street Dog Park or restaurants that were in close proximity to our business location would bring us the clients we needed.

After all, the location is by far one of the most important considerations when opening up a business, yet the emphasis that is put on the importance of the location can mislead the novice entrepreneur. It was later after the business had been open for nearly six months, that I realized that the contributions and experiences we created were what was of top importance. The location and products will get the client to your business, but it is you and your team that will keep them coming back.

Opening a self- service dog wash is the type of business venture decision that is as much a lifestyle as a business. My business partner and I have spent years refining our business model. We are passionate about our business and about the whole pet industry genre. We are now proud to say that South Bark Dog Wash, LLC is an award-winning business that does thousands of washes a year, sells our own branded products, trains hundreds of dogs in obedience classes, welcomes dog and cat centered clients to shop for the best products, hires locally, and has become a fixture in our community and the pet industry.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
South Bark has had its share of Blueberry Facial dreams and bullies stick realities. There are so many stories that I could tell and the lessons that we have learned. Business is hard, despite the sheer amount of love and dog kisses that you get on the regular.

Keeping your commitment to canine culture and becoming an alpha dog within the pet industry will take as much from you as it gives. Maintaining your health and a good sense of humor will help you dramatically. Working while in pain or feeling sick will add a dismal energy to your business that will not be of any help. Being in a bad mood, even if deserved, will slowly squeeze bad vibes out of you and create negative energy. No one needs or wants what comes along with a negative energy burst. Always remember to maintain your passion. It’s a motivating force that will sustain you as you grow your business. Keep your clients coming back. Find out what they need and want, and remember that you would not have a successful business without them.

Other challenges are, Growing a business whose concept was not really known 18 years ago when we opened (A self-service dog wash). Staying innovative, hiring a great team, keeping energy at the forefront, educating ourselves and our clients, keeping the store stocked, researching items and practices, maintaining positivity as some of our canine and feline clients pass-away, building up the South Bark Community that was a transitional area when we first opened and is now a bustling area.

Please tell us about South Bark.
The award-winning South Bark Dog Wash, LLC, “Home of the Blueberry Facial”, offers luxurious self-service bathing amenities and superb goods and retail items, from every day, needs to one of a kind specialty items. The South Bark ideology focuses on creating quality bonding time between our human and dog companions. We have created a spa-like atmosphere, eccentric and whimsical, which is professional, friendly, affordable, and dog and cat centered.

South Bark transforms into a place that your dog will love to visit and you will love to be a part of. We provide everything you need for an excellent wash experience— except the dog. You will enjoy washing in luxury from start to finish. We clean up the mess, you enjoy the result. Experience the difference! Our mission is to provide a place where dog and cat lovers can congregate and share ideas about the quality care of our animal companions.

South Bark’s Mission Statement:
“South Bark Dog Wash provides a vibrant and educational place where people and their pets can come for quality products, essential services, outstanding customer service, and a sense of community”

As the South Bark Blueberry Girls, We originated the Blueberry Facial back in early 2000 and introduced it to the pet industry as the first one of any scent or flavor. Boy, where we laughed at! The laughing eventually stopped, and people saw South Bark’s Blueberry Facial’s value as a product, process, and marketing tool. Now, almost two decades later, there are many dog and cat facials on the market, and this process has become a part of the grooming process.

South Bark’s Blueberry Facial User Guide:
South Bark’s Blueberry Facial is a unique, sought after, client building product that is affordably priced, easy to use, luxurious, and of professional quality. The Blueberry Facial is aromatherapeutic, color enhancing, cleansing, tearless, and pH balanced for dogs and cats. Your clients will ask for it! Your business will grow. Economical gallon size for groomers and pet spas and convenient 12 oz. bottles for retailers are available.

South Bark is housed in a freestanding building with adjacent brick and wood training/brushing side patio area. It is located three blocks from the Grape Street Dog Park in the Historic South Park part of San Diego, CA. Within a mile of this location is the Laurel Street Dog Park and Morley Field Dog Park. Two dog beaches, one seven miles and the other 12 miles away, are also frequented by South Bark clients.

The location was chosen based on combined factors: the density of the dog and cat population nearby; located in close proximity to three dog parks, two dog beaches, and the downtown San Diego area; older houses with small bathrooms and easily clogged older pipes, and newer downtown loft housing with no yards were prohibitive to home washing and clean up lending the need for a dog wash at this location; the building came with water rights and plumbing as it once housed a laundromat.

 Wash Station Layout and Type:
South Barks’ architecture award-winning layout includes four porcelain-covered cast iron tubs covered with colored Italian glass tile and raised in an H-pattern configuration.

Other amenities include special anti-fatigue mats for dogs to stand on in our gorgeous glass tiled self-serve washtubs. The layout is well lit and open in South Barks’ exclusive island tub pattern. Products consist of luxurious organic shampoos, brighteners, highlighters, and conditioners.

Towels are complementary, also offering other drying options and stations, and complimentary use of a professional grooming spray at the end of the bath. South Bark is unique in the wash package offered to clients. The South Bark package contains a complementary “Blueberry Facial”, which is therapeutic, brightening, cleansing, and tearless.

Giving a dog a Blueberry Facial seems easy and straightforward. The product has been around for many years and the application is simple. South Bark created the concept, process, and product. Yet, if the application of this safe product is done wrong, the consequences can be unwanted, to say the least. A secondary but notable issue when too much of South Bark’s Blueberry Facial is used is the loss of bath profit. South Bark uses the product in its concentrated form but it was made to be diluted. Using a concentrated product may work better and quicker, but it adds an element of concern and possible damage to sensitive dogs/cats and alters the profit-margin ratio for the bath packages.

The Blueberry Facial helped South Bark find its voice. It became the product we are known for and helped build our reputation as a leader in the area’s pet industry.

If you had to go back in time and start over, would you have done anything differently?
If Lisa and I were starting over we would definitely get all of our college, education, and loose threads done before starting a business. It nearly killed us to finish those things while also running two, really three businesses: South Bark Dog Wash, South Bark Professional Pet Products (Wholesale) and Selling at Conventions, Consulting, and participating on the Lecture/Seminar series at shows and conventions.

We would have set up a more intensive hiring program early on. We would have hired a manager earlier, otherwise, we are grateful and happy in what we have accomplished and for the people who helped us accomplish it.

Contact Info:

  • Address: 2037 30th Street San Diego, Ca. 92104
  • Website: www.southbarkprofessionalpet.com
  • Phone: 619.232.7387
  • Email: dogwash.southbark@gmail.com
  • Facebook: South Bark Dog Wash@ SouthBark


Image Credit:

Hale Productions of South Park, Dave Dawson, Chris McClay, Lisa Vella

Getting in touch: SDVoyager is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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