In the 1994 comedy Dumb and Dumber, Jeff Daniels’s character Harry Dunne spends his life savings converting a utility van into a mobile dog-grooming business—called Mutt Cutts and made up to look like a sheepdog—then ditches the business to go goofballing across the country with Jim Carrey. That is to say, Dunne is a classic case of an entrepreneur who gives up on a good idea too soon.
In the two decades between the first movie and the sequel,Dumb and Dumber To,which opens Friday, what Americans spend on pets exploded to$56 billionlast year, from $17 billion in 1994, according to the American Pet Products Association. Meanwhile, the number of pet-care businesses—groomers, trainers, kennels, and doggy day-care centers—more than doubled to 14,000 from 1998 to 2012.
That includes thousands of entrepreneurs like Shaffia Galis-Menendez, who runs a West Orange (N.J.) grooming business in a tricked-out 2014 Dodge Promaster, equipped with stainless steel bathtub, adjustable grooming tables, and storage for all manner of shears, detanglers, shampoos, and canine colognes. With her poodle Hamlet riding shotgun, Galis-Menendez usually makes five stops a day. She has about 200 clients. Appointments have to be booked three months in advance. “There’s a little saying in this industry,” she says. “It’s not about finding dogs to groom, it’s about finding groomers to groom them.”
Galis-Menendez, 44, would know. She owned a stationary grooming business in Belleville, N.J., for 19 years, employing as many as seven workers. Ten years ago, she bought her first converted van and hired a manager to run the brick-and-mortar business. Going mobile lets her get to know her canine clients better, she says. She can also command higher prices: $110 for an hour-long session with a small pooch to more than twice as much for larger dogs with more hair to wash, dry, and cut.
Business is good enough that she trades in her van for a new model every two years, financing the purchases with auto loans so she can take advantage of tax benefits from owning a work vehicle. “A girl needs something new every couple of years,” she says.
There are two things responsible for the growth of the mobile grooming business, and neither is the impact of Jim Carrey’sseventh-best-grossingmovie.
The first is the increasing popularity of designer dogs. “Golden-doodles, Labra-doodles, and all those other poodle mixes are popular now, and almost all of them require maintenance,” says Amy Lewett, the owner of a 60-employee grooming business in Fairfax, Va., that booked $2.5 million in revenue last year. And baby boomers have sought to fill their empty nests with furry friends. “People treat their dogs like kids,” Lewett says.
Courtesy Wag’n TailsWag’n Tails mobile conversion
The second factor behind the grooming van business is a Granger (Ind.) company called Wag’n Tails that was an early adopter. In its first incarnation, Wag’n Tails was a brick-and-mortar pet-care operation in St. Paul, Minn. In the mid-1970s it put its first grooming vans on the road and eventually expanded to more than 20 vehicles. In 1996, the company shifted gears and retooled to sell converted vans to other enterprising dog groomers, says national sales manager John Stockman.
Courtesy Wag’n TailsInside a Wag’n Tails mobile conversion
The company has since sold more than 2,100 of its conversions. That includes a pull-behind tractor set-up that goes for $32,000 and a converted Ford E450 that sells for $89,000—before adding luxury sound systems and TV screens. The monthly overhead, including vehicle payments, fuel, insurance, and supplies, should cost about $2,000 a month, as Wag’n Tailsexplainson its website—about the amount a groomer can expect to make from servicing 31 dogs.
The dog-grooming business held up through the recession, Stockman says. “People who had a mobile groomer didn’t sacrifice anything,” he says. “They would cut back in other ways so they could do what they needed to keep Fluffy or Scruffy happy.” Now Wag’n Tails is branching out into mobile veterinary services that come equipped with X-ray machines, teeth-cleaning equipment, and anesthesia. Stockman says in-home euthanasia is also becoming a thing.
In other words, there’s probably room for Harry Dunne’s Mutt Cutts in today’s pet-care market, even if pros such as Galis-Menendez sneer at its silly sheepdog get-up. “When you tell people you do mobile grooming,” she says, “everyone thinks of that stupid truck.”