For Independence Day 2020, we are telling the stories of the America that we love—resilient, ambitious, empathetic, and passionate about helping dogs and people. We spoke with Brian Taylor, aka the “Dogfather of Harlem,” a dog groomer and owner of Harlem Doggie Day Spa in New York City. He is currently raising funds and awareness for the first Pandemic Pup Relief Tour, a road trip across the nation in his mobile grooming van that is partnering with local Black-owned grooming salons and offering free grooming services to pets affected by the pandemic. Brian is originally from Sierra Leone in West Africa, and though he did not grow up in a family in which dogs were culturally accepted as pets, he always knew he loved animals. You can donate to the Pandemic Pup Relief Tour’s GoFundMe to support free grooming services for pets in need.
How did you getting into the pet care business?
Honestly, it found me by mistake. I was a business banker for a financial company, and my job at that time was to help small businesses in Harlem set up anything related to their business, like payroll services, credit cards, and lines of credit. I had a pretty good salary, but I knew I wanted to own my own business.
“I just want to drive across the country, meet people, and tell their stories.”
I’ve always been a dog lover. I love animals, but I never really had animals growing up, because my family didn’t approve of them. Dogs weren’t a thing. It was a cultural thing. I’m from Sierra Leone, and most Africans don’t have pet dogs.
At first, I had a partner for the dog grooming spa, but eventually I went to dog grooming school and took over the business. I actually ended up losing my job because I was spending so much time at the business. I started doing research on becoming a dog trainer, and I wanted to be a master groomer. I began offering overnight boarding, but I didn’t want to put the dogs in a kennel. If they’re leaving the dogs with us, the dogs are going cage-free so it’s like leaving the dogs with a friend. So, I renovated the second floor and opened up daycare and cage-free boarding.
I also began offering an internship program for kids who want to get into the industry, which is how I started working with kids from an at-risk community in a summer youth employment program. These kids have had issues with the law, and most of them are Black. I’m an African American man, and I knew this was a great opportunity for me to mentor kids and teach them the importance of being on time and learning a new skill set. Every year, I have about five or six kids through the internship program, and after eight weeks, I hire one or two of them. For example, Mike is the “Puppy Dogfather of Harlem,” and he was an at-risk intern who became an employee.
I didn’t get into the business just for the dogs. I had a dream of creating a business and supporting the community. But I became one of the best groomers in Harlem because I have a strong passion for certain things. I treat every single dog as a blank canvas, and I make sure that the client is happy.
I can relate to not growing up in a family where dogs were culturally accepted. I’m Chinese American, and we didn’t grow up with dogs as pets as a concept, either. How did the pandemic affect your business?
I gave up my apartment. I’m the type of person who makes decisions when something goes wrong. I’m African. We can live off almost nothing. I lost about 80 percent of my income because we used to have about 40 dogs in daycare and 15 to 20 dogs being boarded. I also had 12 employees. When the city shut down, I lost all my business. Everyone was working from home, and didn’t need to bring their dog to daycare anymore. I spent the entire month of March figuring out how I can be open for business and still be somewhat successful. I’ve always played by the book, so luckily all my staff members were on payroll and received unemployment.
In April, I opened as a one-man operation, which you are allowed to do. I booked appointments one at a time, and I did curbside drop-off and pick-up. Clients paid me online so I didn’t have to do financial transactions in the shop. I started getting donations for my services, and I had close to $2,000 in donations. I had clients who couldn’t pay me because their unemployment checks hadn’t arrived yet, so I covered for them using the donations balance.
How did the tour across America come about?
The one thing I’ve always wanted to do is travel across America. I’ve always said that if my business dies, I’m just going to jump into my mobile grooming van and and ride off into the sunset. I realized that this was the perfect time to go across the country to do a Pandemic Pup Relief Tour. I posted the information in this Facebook group of about 400 Black dog groomers around the country—we go to expos together. It’s called the Black Groomer Association Group. I said, “Hey, I’m planning to go on a trip across the country. I want to stop by a couple of your places, and help you guys out and groom some dogs.”
I’m paying off my minimum bills by grooming every day, but my business is upside down. Luckily, I have newfound energy to do something different. When September comes around, I’m going to reevaluate everything, and see where I want to be in this industry and what works for me.
What are some of your favorite Black-owned pet care businesses?
Little L’s Artisan Dog Treats, The Bark Shoppe, Lick You Silly Pet Products, Grooming by Juanita, The Paw Shop, and NYCitySlab for custom furniture.
I love that this space is growing so much. One of the purposes of this tour is to put out a big statement to the big brands. We buy equipment from them, and we want them to know that businesses owned by African Americans service all kinds of people. We don’t care what color the owner is. We care about the dog.
You have $83,000 to raise. How is the tour going to work?
We’ve been sourcing groomers for each location, and that cuts back on costs because we’re working locally. We’re going to book appointments online using Groomer.io, where you can fill in the vaccinations beforehand, and we’ll set up an outdoor area for check-ins. Once check-in is done, we’ll take the dog inside the van for grooming at the various stations. And there will be a station for owners to shop Black-owned pet care products. We’ll collect donations and sell merch on the Clover platform. We’ll also be doing before-and-after photos. We start in New York City, and on [July] 26th, we’ll head out in my mobile van to Black-owned salons across the country, offering free services to people in the community. I just want to drive across the country, meet people, and tell their stories.
I took some film classes. I’m very creative and I’m looking for a film crew to join me on the road right now. I just know a good story, and I just really want people to tell us what’s going on. Everyone has a story. I have a story. We’re going through a pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. There’s a financial crisis about to happen. I want to help people understand each other through their dogs.
What do you love about the Harlem dog community?
We’re the premier dog community in New York City. Everyone out here has a dog, and it’s going to be one of the biggest dog communities in a few years. It’s so unique and special. It’s an everyone-knows-everybody community.
Tell us about the artwork on your storefront.
My building is a landmark building. When it’s a landmark building, you’re not allowed to put a sign up without getting approval. They wanted to charge me an arm and a leg for a sign. So. I found a local artist, Joel Blenz, to put my sign on the gate instead. I love it.
We love that you found a creative loophole. How do you recommend we support our local dog groomers like yours in tough times?
We’re in the social sharing economy. I get my appointments when you share my before-and-after pictures, when you leave comments, or when you share our story on your Instagram story. I get more business that way than one person calling me and asking for services. Don’t refer me to your sister. Take that picture and share it with your 500 followers. Because I’ll get six appointments from that!
Thanks for letting us know how to best support dog groomers like you! We hope your tour goes smoothly, and that the van doesn’t break down…
I hope the van breaks down! I love a little drama.
Photography by Tayler Smith