By Ellen Lee, CNBC.com
"People are willing to spend money on their dog and their dog's care because they're as close to a member of your family [as you can get]." - Mitch Marrow, Owner, Spot Experience
Mitch Marrow walks his dog in front of Spot Experience.Drafted by the Carolina Panthers after an Ivy League education, Mitch Marrow had planned on a career playing in the National Football League.
But a serious back injury cut short his dream. Now, after more than a decade on Wall Street managing hedge funds, Marrow is hoping to score big in an unlikely enterprise, an high-end doggy day care business in New York.
Marrow, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, opened the Spot Experience earlier this year, offering a combination of day care, overnight boarding, training, grooming, retail and even dental care for the city's many dog lovers.
With dogs substituting as children in many families, Spot taps into an industry that is growing despite the flailing economy. Owners spent an estimated $51 billion this year on their pets, up from $48 billion last year, according to the American Pet Products Association. That includes $3.65 billion on services such as boarding and grooming.
Dog owners are especially known to pamper their pooch, willingly springing for $295 plush monogrammed beds, or rhinestone sweaters and organic, all-natural treats.
Yet when it came to doggy day care, Marrow said he found it hard to find the kind he wanted for his two dogs, a 220-pound St. Bernard and a 165-pound bullmastiff.
Marrow, who was frequently on the road as a hedge fund manager, recalled touring care centers and finding the staff poorly trained to manage a group of dogs. It felt like pandemonium, and he worried about dogfights.
"I tried almost every doggy day care you could imagine," he said. "I was not comfortable for a minute leaving my dogs with any of them."
Marrow saw an opportunity after another doggy day care owner decided to sell his centers. Marrow has plunked about $4 million so far into renovating and opening six locations in the New York area, with five others expected next year. They range in size, with smaller 5,000-square-foot stores that offer a limited number of services to its larger flagship centers with more than 10,000 square feet of play space.
The amenities are plentiful. Inside its Upper West Side location, dogs roam free around a private outdoor dog park, splash in a small therapy pool or cuddle up for a nap on a cot. The facilities are cleaned using green products, and a high-end filtration system keeps the air fresh.
Marrow also hired Brewster Smith, a dog trainer who has developed a proprietary method used at Spot. To help keep the mood calm, for instance, there's a no barking rule. Its staff, recruited out of veterinary technician schools, receive at least 50 hours in training in the method.
For busy dog owners who don't have time to pick up or drop off their pet, staffers can do it for them, transporting the dogs in a custom van.
Christina Polk enrolled Pickle, her 6-month-old French bulldog, at Spot in October. A manager at an advertising agency, Polk drops off her puppy every morning and checks in via webcam at least once a day. Sometimes Polk will even catch one of the dog handlers picking up a guitar to play music for the dogs. Pickle, who is prone to allergies, hasn't had any trouble there.
"They were very patient with us getting used to being puppy parents," said Polk, who adopted her dog in September and had worried about sending such a young puppy to day care. "We know they're taking care of her as their own." Spot Experience
Through a partnership with veterinary dental services provider Houndstooth, Spot offers anesthetic-free dental service. Another partnership with Kris Seiter, Spot's director of training and owner of Noordelijk Enterprises, allows dog owners going away for an extended period of time to send their dog to a private 13-acre farm home in Putnam County, where a trainer can also provide intensive doggy boot-camp training.
The cost for day care is about the same as hiring a regular dog walker, Marrow said. Spot operates like a gym, charging a $200 annual membership fee for regulars, which allows them to receive a discount on services. Nonmembers, such as those who just need to board their dog for a few nights, pay more. Packages include $675 a month for unlimited day care for members, $120 per day for overnights in the country for members and $1,800 for a week of intensive dog training in the country.
Marrow said he has raised about $5 million from private investors as he looks to expand beyond Manhattan next year. If all goes as planned, Spot will be replicated in more than 50 locations in the region in the next two years, a combination of smaller storefronts and a few large centers.
"People are willing to spend money on their dog and their dog's care because they're as close to a member of your family [as you can get]," Marrow said. "It gives them peace of mind and a clear conscience that they're in the best possible care possible."