A Smooth Start for Ruff Club

IMG_8689Laura Gurfein A four-legged friend gets his first look at Ruff Club.

“Come on in the back, where the magic happens!”

Alexia Simon Frost, a co-owner of Ruff Club, led a small group of people and their dogs into the large playroom with walls dotted with decals that look like supersized nail polish art, where more pets and humans were already congregating. For the first time on Saturday, Alexia and her husband, co-owner Danny Frost, along with six staff members donning matching dark gray zip-up hoodies with the company’s orange crossbones logo, welcomed the public into their East Village “dog-friendly social club” for an open house to recruit membership.

Though the doggy daycare and boarding center with its lounge for owners to work or socialize while enjoying complimentary coffee and WiFi doesn’t officially open until January 2, the newlywed couple greeted neighborhood pet enthusiasts this weekend for a tour of their 3,300 square-foot, two level space and invited them to fill out applications. The first-time business owners, both 29, were keen to present themselves to the neighborhood as an innovative enterprise that fills a void in the East Village. So intent, in fact, that Danny stood outside for a time to entice anyone walking a dog to step inside.

It’s easy to tell why they see an opportunity here. A stroll through the East Village is teeming with four-legged friends, and the Frosts figured it was only natural that dogs and humans alike were looking for a place to congregate. In fact, the New York City Economic Development Corporation estimated in September that there are approximately 600,000 dogs in New York City, and up to 55,000 dogs in the area that Ruff Club hopes to serve. Few stores and cafes in the neighborhood allow pets (The Bean, a small franchise with two neighborhood outposts, is an exception). As Danny puts it, the East Village community is “very eager for, essentially, urban living rooms, like a place to hang out, particularly with your dog.”

IMG_8690Laura Gurfein

Alexia and Danny inherited their attitudes towards dogs from their parents. The Simon family got a Keeshond, a large gray German spitz with a curlicue tail that looks like an oversized version of its Pomeranian cousin, when Alexia was eight years old. They named him Astro. “My dad had one when he was growing up. That’s how we ended up with one,” she explained of her first dog at her childhood home in Roseland, New Jersey. Danny’s parents, meanwhile, resorted to lying to keep furry nuisances out of their household.

“What was the story she told you?”

“I think my mom told us there was an allergy-type problem,” he replied. “It was just never even really a remote possibility, and probably as a kid, I just, you know…“

“You pick your battles,” Alexia chimed in.

“My mom, my parents, they hate animals. And my sister and I, therefore, always wanted pets,” Danny said of his childhood, split between Queen’s Bayside and Long Island’s Plainview. “Um, we ended up with fish.”

On graduating in 2005 they moved to New York City and became urban nomads, switching apartments and neighborhoods every year or so, until Alexia’s patience for a dog of their own began to wear thin. “You kind of started the process of breaking me down,” Danny recalled, after Alexia’s parents got an American Eskimo puppy named Oscar in 2007.

“It kind of started not that seriously,” she remembered. “I was looking on Petfinder, looking to foster a dog. I wanted him to get a sense of what it was like. And then…“

“Arlo,” Danny interrupted. They took Oscar to the dog run at Tompkins Square Park while dog-sitting one weekend and encountered the miniature Australian shepherd named Arlo. It was the first time that either had seen the breed that “forever changed our lives because Danny just fell in love,” Alexia reminisced.

They adopted the red, black, and white-furred Leo from a Maryland breeder at seven weeks old in January 2010. It was shortly after that they first confronted trouble with pet care services in the city.

“We had a friend that watched him for the first year or so” when they felt he was too young to be handled by a dog walker or daycare center, Alexia said. She would also occasionally take him to her job. Leo enrolled in daycare later on. “I would drop him off, because it was right on the way to work. He only went for about a year,” she said. “And we would use a dog walker sometimes, but he needs more exercise than just an hour.”

ruff club 4Dana Varinsky Alexia Simon, Danny Frost, and Leo.

Daycare businesses seemed impersonal and profit-driven, they quickly realized. “We had a friend compare their traditional daycare experience to dropping off their clothes at the dry cleaner,” Danny lamented, the smile for once sliding off his face. Most dog daycares in the city crowd their entrances with merchandise, making the experience of “essentially turning over a family member,” as he described it, into a business transaction.

“The traditional daycare model doesn’t offer any conduit for socializing, meeting the other dog people,” he added. “Basically, dogs provide love and provide humility, and people can channel that love and humility into relationships with each other.” He admitted that it sounded cheesy, but that seed of an idea would eventually sprout into Ruff Club’s business model.

It was the spring of 2011, and Alexia was ready for a career change. “It started maybe kind of joking,” she recalled of the two of them talking this over with Danny. “Like, what would we love to do?” Though starting a doggy daycare seemed far-fetched, “we kind of looked at each other and were like, well, why not?”

34 Avenue A had been Mo Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction starting in 2005, and then the bar Aces and Eights until it closed in September 2010. Community Board 3, the city government office that oversees land use and zoning in the neighborhood, was hesitant to allow another watering hole to open at the location. Ruff Club nevertheless plans to make some noise of its own by hosting events for the dog community. They’ve been in contact with Mighty Mutts, an East Village pet shelter, and the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals about hosting adoption and fundraising events in their space.

Garret Rosso, the training director of Village DogWorks, will offer his training services at Ruff Club. “I didn’t get it until I walked into the space, the whole social club angle,” said Rosso. “I didn’t get it, and the second I walked in and (Alexia) showed me how she was setting the space up, and that it’s been built now, I’ve got it. You walk in, and you just feel it right away.” He is also the founder of Friends of First Run, a nonprofit organization that works in conjunction with the New York City Parks Department to develop and preserve the Tompkins dog run.

Joanie Koveleskie, another friend from the dog run, will be working at Ruff Club as a dog handler. “She’s kind of an institution” at the dog run, Alexia said of Joanie. She and her dog, a Siberian husky named Augustus Gloop who has an affinity for jumping over the dog run’s fence into the small dog play area, were recently featured in the New York Times’ Local East Village blog on owners at the run.

On a recent December evening, the Frosts and Koveleskie are adding some final touches to the lounge. Koveleskie brought her husky, nicknamed Gus, for company (I brought my own dog, a four-year-old Beagle mix named Nugget, to evaluate the club). You can often find Gus curled up in a brown leather chair, While Danny and Joanie are unpacking Alexia’s old books from a beaten-up Staples box to build Ruff Club’s lending library, Alexia is on the floor with Nugget. Her black sweater is not enough to ward off the draft from the poorly insulated windows, which they plan to fix before opening day. “Can I hold you?” she asks Nugget? “I’m cold!” She scoops his long body off the floor and holds him tight. “And you smell good!”

With the open house upon them, the Frosts went into overdrive putting the final details in place. One speed bump the Frosts have incurred with Ruff Club is with their family planning–of the canine variety, that is. “I want a girl!” Alexia laughed, hoping that Leo isn’t developing an only-child complex. “Yeah, she wants to complete the set,” joked Danny. But he said that they’ve moved that idea off the table for now.

“We’re about to have a lot of dogs in our lives.”