It’s a quaint and familiar scene — the school bus pulls up and a waiting parent greets their excited little one. Except in this case the little one has four legs and fur.
Hayley Efird, owner of The Doghouse dog daycare, said she bought the bus — which was retrofitted with seat harnesses for safe travel — only a week after their July 15 opening. It was somewhat of a whim, but it turned out to be a great decision. It allows for pick ups and drop offs that ease their clients’ busy schedules and is a favorite activity for their pups.
“The dogs love the bus,” said office manager, Judith Currin, who often doubles as bus driver.
Located at 3710 Summer Avenue, The Doghouse is the area’s first dog daycare. It represents a new wave of investment and amenities on the thoroughfare like the area’s only commercial gym, a 20,000 square-foot Planet Fitness, and a new Aldi grocer, the land for which was purchased in July for $1.5 million.
“It’s a neat, new, fresh idea and we’re excited to have it on Summer,” said Meghan Medford, president of the Summer Avenue Merchants Association.
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“This used to be the place where everyone wanted to go to, where everyone hung out when they were in high school or college; it was the fun area where they would go skating or bowling. We’re trying to bring that energy back to Summer.”
The Doghouse is the first business venue for Efird and her core team which includes Currin and creative director Brianna Kraus. The three worked previously at VLM, an advertising and marketing firm in Downtown Memphis, and decided to start the business without any professional dog care experience and after having known each other only nine months.
“We made it very clear day one, we aren’t anyone else,” said Efird. We’re a new business, we’re a new brand, and we’re going to do things differently … a lot of it’s just coming from what feels right.”
And it seems what feels right to The Doghouse staff, also feels right for their clients. In three months they’ve gone from one to 205 families — almost entirely by word of mouth.
“I don’t know any other place in Memphis that offers the amenities they do and the care they would,” said client Michael Hill. “Everything here is just over the top.”
Golden Retriever, Margo, is almost six months old has been coming to The Doghouse since August. Her dads, Hill and Miguel Mateo, said it’s the five star experience — art and music lessons, birthday portraits, merit badges, and a “dog log” of Margo’s day written from her perspective — that combine with the range of formal services like daycare and at-home care to attract the family from Downtown to The Heights.
“It’s basically school for dogs,” said Kraus.
The team was inspired to start the business after working on the Navy Partnership, a multi-agency advertising and recruiting effort for the United States Navy. After interviewing hundreds of soldiers, many of whom were entrepreneurs in addition to their Navy careers, they decided to take a leap of faith into their own business.
“As we were getting to know each other, working together, we started talking about our dreams and what we wanted to do with our lives and Hayley [Efird] talked about this dream, specifically,” said Kraus. “It just felt like the right timing.”
On July 15 they had a soft launch of their off-site, home pick-up services like neighborhood walks and trips to the park. On July 31 they opened their remaining on-site services — grooming, daycare, and long and short-term boarding.
The daycare, which maxes out at 25 dogs per day, includes playing in the yard, movie time, art and music class lessons, and field trips to the park. Margo especially loves watching The Bachelorette, Hill said. The house’s second and third floors have comfy couches and beds for the dogs and the first floor has a block of kennels for naps that Efird describes as a “slumber party.”
“We just want the experience to be like visiting a friend’s house, not going to a facility,” said Currin.
Kraus said that music and art lessons may seem silly for dogs, but she’s seen positive effects. Dogs are highly emotional and intelligent animals and they thrive on learning new things and engaging in new experiences in safe environments.
“You can’t just write off music class because it’s a dog. Some dogs will sit there the whole time, it’s really cool,” she said.
And just like parents of human children, it means something to their clients too.
“I’ll never forget the day I picked up Margo and they said, ‘Oh, she painted this plant, the little pot,’ said Hill. “It had a little paw on it. It spilled in my car everywhere on the way home, and I [couldn’t] be mad because it’s her little plant.”
Efird and the team said they originally wanted a building at Hollywood Street and Broad Avenue but are now glad they got their Summer Avenue location. The feedback and support from neighbors has been overwhelming.
“When we moved into this space, within the first couple weeks, there were multiple people just walking in the door, asking us, ‘What’s coming next? What are you guys doing here?,’” said Kraus.
“To me, that was really revealing of what this community … that they really cared about the people who lived here, who worked here on Summer Avenue,” she continued. “They were just invested in the businesses that surround this neighborhood.”
Those early introductions are now beginning to grow into genuine relationships with their neighbors. Most of their clients live in the surrounding communities, though some come as far away as DeSoto County.
Doghouse staff frequent Arepas Deliciosas, a Colombian restaurant two doors down at 3698 Summer Avenue, and have formed a friendship with the owner. Part of the restaurant’s profits fund a school, job training, and housing for women living in poverty in Colombia. As part of the program, Colombian women who benefit from those programs make bracelets that are sold at the Memphis restaurant.
The Doghouse now employs the owner’s granddaughter, and they’ve discussed a new venture with the Colombian woman making handmade dog collars to be sold at The Doghouse in support of the school.
These new connections and activity is something the merchants association hopes will continue and spread.
“It’s a great business for Summer Avenue because we’re trying to attract families and some people consider their dogs their children,” said Medford. It’s [also] a young professional crowd that we’re looking to attract. And the surrounding neighborhoods really love their animals.”
The merchants association has been working to attract new amenities like The Doghouse, Planet Fitness, and the Aldi’s expansion. They’ve done cleanups and worked to get problem properties rehabbed or removed, and they recently earned a grant for beautification efforts.
Early in October, Cloverleaf Shopping Center announced that the Cash Saver at White Station Road and Summer Avenue would be closing, but the merchants association said they have no doubt the 17,100 square-foot space will be leased again soon.
“Cloverleaf was recently renovated,” said Medford. “They’ve got new parking, new lights, new paint job, new signage, and they’re pretty much at capacity, so it shouldn’t be long before they find a new tenant.”
As for The Doghouse’s own growth, Currin, Efird, and Kraus have some big ideas. They’re planning a biannual yearbook of all their furry clients, and they recently added a new at-home, puppy playdate service for dogs too young for walks and park time.
They held a Summer Dog Fest on September 13. During Cooper-Young Festival while their owners ate and shopped, the dogs were treated to nail painting, colored hair spray, portraits, corn dogs, and magic tricks — all dog safe and human approved, of course. Their next step is a Halloween party, but Efird said that’s only the beginning.
“We have big plan, lots of plans for the future. Not just the dog side, but the creative side,” she said.
They want to turn the top floors of the business — originally constructed as private residence in the 1950s — into a sort of creative incubator space for dog and non-dog related projects, including pro bono and freelance design work for the community. The dogs would still have access to comfy beds and couches and be an integral part of the workplace, which could have serious benefits for the staff like improved mental and physical health.
“There’s different levels [to the house], and we want to have different levels to this partnership,” said Efird. “This house has a lot of space with a lot of opportunity, and we've only been calling it home for less than three months. We're excited to see what the future has in store.”
In the meantime, the team hopes to watch their client list grow alongside puppy Margo, whom they’ve immortalized as part of a mural on the outside wall.
“I never thought I’d actually bring a dog to a dog daycare,” said Hill. “[Now] I feel like she has to go, it’s her hang out spot ... She learned how to fetch here,” he said, like any proud papa.