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Making It | Evelyn McCue of Doggie Dearest - The Local East Village Blog - NYTimes.com


Making It | Evelyn McCue of Doggie Dearest


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doggie dearestMelvin Felix Evelyn McCue.

For every East Village business that’s opening or closing, dozens are quietly making it. Here’s one of them: Doggie Dearest.

Back in college Evelyn McCue’s career plan was to be a veterinarian. When she became pregnant with her son, her career took a different turn. “Instead of becoming a veterinarian, I made one myself,” Ms. McCue joked about about her son’s career as a neurological veterinarian. But after years teaching English as a second language and bartending, she revisited her love of animals and opened Doggie Dearest at 543 East Fifth Street. Ms. McCue said her boutique dog grooming business was the first of its kind in the neighborhood, and for nearly 19 years she’s groomed roughly eight dogs a day, three days a week. The Local spoke with Ms. McCue about the popularity of the pet industry, the weirdest creature she’s ever brushed, and why poodle owners can be so strange.

Q.

How did you end up in the dog grooming business?

A.

I was on the phone, sitting on hold and flipping through the Yellow Pages when I saw an ad for a grooming school. I called them and somehow it turned out perfectly. At first it would just going to be a cool hobby. But lo and behold, it turned out I am really good at it!

Q.

Since you do good doggie-dos, does that mean you have a gift for human hairdos, as well?

A.

It doesn’t translate at all. You will sit in a crazy position for a half an hour if your stylist tells you to. A dog just won’t. Also, a person’s head-shape only varies a little bit. Dog shapes are wildly different with different angles. Just because you can do one definitely does not mean you can do the other!

Q.

How do you survive being open only three days a week?

A.

I have been bartending at Teneleven on Avenue C for years and years.

Q.

Now that you have competition on the grooming scene, how do you stand out?

A.

I don’t mind competition since I don’t do it full time. It’s a really hard job. You might not think it is, but it is really physical. Lots of times the animals don’t want to have it done so it takes a lot of patience. I know a lot of burnt out groomers because it’s just too much to do it six or seven days a week. From the beginning I knew I was never going to do it full time. That’s why I never advertise. It’s all word-of-mouth for me. My customers are very loyal.

Q.

How is business lately?

A.

Business is down a lot lately. There is a lot of turnover in this neighborhood since lots of students live here and rents keep going up.

Q.

Is most of your business local?

A.

It starts out that way. People are loyal like they are to their own hairdresser. I have one couple that moved to Queens and still comes here. The guy’s mother in Atlantic City drives up every few months to get her dog groomed, too.

Q.

You don’t use a computer. How do you keep track of your customers?

A.

I write everything down on cards and have a whole system. Right now I think I have about 1,000 customers. Some people come religiously every five or six weeks. Others come once a year.

Q.

What are the kinds of cuts you give?

A.

Most people just get a puppy cut. It basically means a same-length haircut. It makes them look like puppies again. I do very little of the fancier poodle cuts. The most specialized cuts I do are on terriers. I do the Schnauzer cut often, which is very specific. It’s good for dogs that are really shaped weird. For example, we’ll give a Schnauzer cut to an overweight Yorkie. It’s very flattering. People get really crazy about how they want their dogs to look. Poodle owners most of all.

Q.

How so?

A.

They say, “Here is my poodle, but I don’t want it to look like a poodle.” It’s like, well why didn’t you just buy a pug? It’s still going to look like poodle no matter what the cut. Dog people are crazy. Some people have dogs because they can’t have friends.

Q.

Do you have overbearing pet parents hanging around while their dogs gets a trim?

A.

No, I don’t let them stay. I say, “See you in an hour!” If they ask if they can stay, I say it would be better if they didn’t. I really need the dog to focus on me and what I am doing. I have scissors in my hand right by their eyes! For the nervous people, I tell them to come by another time to see how we work with someone else’s dog so they can see that everything is safe.

Q.

This place is tiny too. What is the square footage?

A.

The landlord says 250 square feet but it’s about 200, not counting the bathroom.

Q.

How has your rent changed?

A.

It was $600 when I moved in and now it is $2,200.

Q.

Have you had to raise your rates because of this?

A.

I haven’t raised them in a while because I know the economy is so bad for everyone. I also don’t think anyone gets into this business to be rich. The only way to do that is to open 10 salons, have everyone working for you and then just take your cut. I charge $65, which is really competitive. I started years ago at $35. It’s been tough, but I’m getting by. I have an assistant and a former assistant who help when I need them.

Q.

I imagine many people see dog grooming as a luxury they can live without in tough times.

A.

Grooming shouldn’t be seen as a luxury. It’s something the dogs really need. So I try to keep my prices down so people can afford to come and come often.

Q.

Why do dogs need it?

A.

It’s the first line of defense. I will notice something the owner might not have noticed, or even the veterinarian won’t have noticed. Over the years I’ve identified thyroid problems a lot. There are hair loss patterns that are indicative of that. I can identify neurological problems based on how dogs wear out their nails in a certain way. There are skin problems that show Cushing’s disease. With that blow dryer, I can see every square inch of the dog in a way a vet doesn’t.

Q.

It’s pretty quiet here for a dog business.

A.

I schedule one dog at a time unless the owner has two dogs. We don’t have cages. Most groomers have the dogs come in the morning and stay all afternoon in cages with the cage dryers. I like being really hands-on and doing the dog myself. It’s calmer. There isn’t a lot of barking around here. There isn’t much waiting. When you have too many dogs there is so much barking and then one pees and then they all pee. There goes a half-hour cleaning up pee. The down side is that when I’m done with a dog I am just sitting around for 20 minutes doing nothing. When someone is late it throws it all off, same if someone cancels at the last minute. That’s an hour I’m sitting around not making money. But the peace of mind for me and the peace of mind for the dogs balance it all out.

Q.

The pet business has become a lucrative industry, are you benefiting from it?

A.

I definitely could, but I guess I feel a bit too ethical about it. There are so many expensive specialty things I could add on but lot of the stuff is bull. I can brush your dog’s teeth for you and charge you $15, but the truth is if your dog has bad teeth, he has bad teeth. Teeth have to be done regularly. I would rather show you how to brush your dog’s teeth, than me brushing your dog’s teeth for $15 and rip you off.

Q.

Do you do any celebrity dogs?

A.

I do Miranda Kerr’s dog, Frankie, and Alan Cummings dog, Honey. I had to turn away John Leguizamo’s cats because of my asthma. I used to do his cousin’s chows. I haven’t met Miranda but I recognize her dog because I recognize my work.

Q.

What’s the most exotic animal you’ve groomed?

A.

I groomed a potbelly pig once. He came in to have his hooves done. He was so good that we decided to give him a bath. We fed him a family size bag of pretzels to keep him calm.

Doggie Dearest, 543 East Fifth Street (near Avenue B), (212) 254-3204.