Rhianne Chalmers, owner of Bark Of The Town, a dog grooming salon in Komoka, found herself dealing with a very unexpected two-month shutdown in her first year of business. It wasn’t easy, but she got through it by staying in touch with clients, adapting to stay on track, and finding the silver lining.
Opening up… and shutting down
After grooming for about seven years, Rhianne hadn’t planned on starting her own business. When her dog’s veterinary clinic moved locations, though, her vet mentioned that the space would be great for a grooming salon - plus, his clients often asked where to find one. So Rhianne decided to go for it and open up her own place.
Bark Of The Town started strong - as a small salon offering one-on-one grooming, it offered dogs a calm environment, and a lot of former clients followed Rhianne to her new business. “Even from the start, I was able to cover my overhead expenses,” she recalls.
In January 2020 she'd just started paying herself from the business instead of living off her savings as much as possible. Why not? Business was good - she’d be booked solid for a couple weeks at a time. In fact, Rhianne had even started thinking about paying off her start-up loan, since her goal was always to pay it off in the first year. “Thankfully I didn’t, because that ended up being my savings to cover the overhead costs and everything else while I was shut down,” she says.
For Rhianne, the shutdown “was a nerve-wracking time, for sure, not having any income.” She was able to collect CERB for herself, but until recently she didn’t have any financial support for her business. “Just last week I was finally able to qualify for the CEBA loan,” she says. “Until they opened the guidelines a bit, a lot of smaller, new businesses didn’t fit into any eligible categories. Now that I have it, though, CEBA will be a huge help.”
Staying in touch
Rhianne thinks the biggest challenge of the shutdown was the uncertainty - and not just for her as a business owner. “No one knew how long the shutdown would last,” she says. “I had clients asking constantly what they should do.” People still wanted to take care of their pets, but they didn’t know how.
To help her clients get by, Rhianne decided to make some how-to videos. “I went to the salon with my own dog and made videos showing me doing things like nail trimming.” Then, she posted the videos on Facebook and sent out an email to all her clients, letting them know where to find them - and the response was great. “I can’t adapt my business to being totally online, but this was a way to help my customers,” Rhianne says. It didn’t bring in money, but helping clients care for their dogs at home had other big benefits - like keeping them engaged in the business.
“I did have one client who bought the tools to groom his dog at home and asked me talk him through it over the phone,” Rhianne says, laughing a little. “He insisted on compensating me since I was providing a service, but I left in his hands, like a tip option. His wife is immunocompromised, so for him it was very valuable to be able to do this himself.”
Back in business
Coming back after shutdown was overwhelming. “I’m one groomer,” Rhianne says, “and I had 200 to 300 emails coming in, everyone asking about dog grooming. So, I booked clients with cancelled appointment first, then previous clients, then new clients – trying to be as fair as I could.”
Still, it was like condensing the two months of shutdown into one. Rhianne was working seven days a week to fit everyone in. “I think people appreciated that I was putting in extra time so that dogs weren’t waiting too long,” she says, finding the upside. Spring is usually a pretty busy time for grooming in general, and there were a lot of dogs who really needed a haircut before the temperature went up even more. “There were a lot of full shave-downs, dogs looking pretty naked afterwards – I call that one the ‘COVID cut,'” Rhianne laughs.
There was new business coming in, too. Once restrictions lifted, a lot of people were looking for a groomer who could fit them in and many found Bark Of The Town during their search. Plus, a lot of people got new dogs and puppies during the shutdown. The downside there is the lack of socialization. “The dogs are stuck in their own little bubble, and new places and people can be scary,” Rhianne says. So, some of the new puppies coming in had more anxiety than usual.
Adapting to COVID-19
Coming back after the shutdown was a little easier due to Bark Of The Town’s new addition. “I was able to find my first employee during COVID!” Rhianne exclaims. It happened by chance when Rhianne ordered some things from Hound + Hair, a business that sells dog bandanas and matching scrunchies for their humans. Jessica Perfect, the creative force behind Hound + Hair, made the delivery herself not long before the shutdown began, and she and Rhianne connected. “Anyway, after being closed for COVID I was going to be swamped coming back,” Rhianne says, “and she actually volunteered to come and help me!” As a bonus, Jessica has experience as a veterinary technician, so she’s worked with dogs before. At first, she was dealing with emails and bookings – everything Rhianne didn’t have time for with back-to-back grooming appointments. Now, she’s stayed on part-time as an apprentice groomer. ”We say it’s our silver lining,” Rhianne remarks. “She came on to help me, and now she’s stayed and is learning to groom.”
Of course, like all businesses, Bark Of The Town is also adapting to the new COVID-19 reality. Rhianne has different drop-off procedures to minimize contact with clients, plexiglass in the lobby, extra sanitizer everywhere. And of course, signs reminding everyone to wear a mask in the salon. It hasn’t been too hard to adapt, though. “I generally have a short interaction with clients – especially the regulars,” Rhianne says, “so I haven’t had to make as many changes as other industries.”
Staying on track
Even faced with all the uncertainty of COVID-19, Rhianne was still able to meet her goal of paying off her start-up loan in her first year. “I really didn’t think it’d be possible,” she says, “but coming back with new business, and a new employee bringing in business, I was able to do it.” The key was staying on a tight budget and working her butt off once shutdown was over. Working six to seven days a week for a month was very tiring, but it paid off: “I was able to get clients in within a decent time, so everybody was happy, and I collected enough money to pay off the loan and have a bit of a cushion in case we get a second lockdown. Even now, as much as things are going well, that’s always in the back of my mind – that it could happen again.”
In fact, having a cushion to fall back on is Rhianne’s biggest piece of advice to other business owners. For example, there are things that she’d like to renovate or fix up, but she’s holding off for the moment, to save the money. “Once things are a bit more certain, I have plans for expansion,” Rhianne states. “I do want to have another full-time groomer; I’ve thought about a franchise or another location… but it’s all a little further off now.”
Finding the silver lining
There have been some bad days, of course. “I remember one day during lockdown, I’d run out of toilet paper at my house, so I went to the salon to get some,” Rhianne recalls. “Driving away after, seeing the salon all closed up and empty – I started crying. It was emotional, especially the not knowing.” According to Rhianne, though, the key is to stay positive and re-adjust your goals. She has a great employee now, she’s paid off her loan, and she’s bringing in new clients and more income. With all these good things to focus on, the silver lining isn’t hard to find.