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The ‘South Park blueberry girls’

Posted: August 18th, 2017 | Features, News, Top Story | 1 Comment

By Morgan M. Hurley | Editor

Despite recent break-ins, they’re still building community one shampoo at a time

On July 3, South Bark Dog Wash, home of the “blueberry facial” and more than 128,000 dog baths, was broken into for the second time in six months after more than 16 years incident-free.

(l to r) Donna Walker and Lisa Vella have owned and operated South Bark Dog Wash for nearly 17 years. (Photo by Big Mike)

Its owners, Donna Walker and Lisa Vella, who have grown the small business leaps and bounds in its nearly 17 years as a member of the South Park neighborhood, aren’t angry, they’re sad. But they have been buoyed and inspired by the local community that has always had their back.

“The community has come together over this and it is providing much talk and interest,” Walker said. “We are hopeful that they are caught, but right now are happy that the impact on the community is one of pulling together rather than fear.”

The first break-in happened in December when someone used a “break stick” to gain access to the retail area through the thick glass front door. Their computer and auxiliary equipment were stolen but thanks to their own detective work, they were able to buy their equipment back but no arrests were made.

During the second break-in, a man used a rock to break the glass door and three individuals — who just hours earlier had wandered around the inside of the store — made off with thousands of dollars worth of flea repellent products.

The front door to South Bark Dog Wash awaits replacement after a recent break-in. (Photo by Big Mike)

In both incidences, the “smash and grab” took less than 8 seconds. The total combined loss of the two break-ins is nearly $10,000.

“[The cameras and alarms] are a deterrent, but there is no way to stop them,” Walker said, adding that Cafe Madeline, a small French bistro on the opposite end of 30th Street in South Park, had also recently experienced a break-in.

“It was a crime of opportunity, and those are all over, not just here,” Vella said. “It happens in North Park, Hillcrest, anywhere. But times are different; it is instant gratification with regards to how easily you can sell something online.”

Eighteen years ago, South Park was a sleepy little enclave without a name; many still referred to it as Golden Hill and it didn’t have much of a business center. But what connected people were the dogs, Walker said.

“Back then it was the dogs that made the neighborhood come together,” she said. “You’d come together at the park or while you were walking. The dogs make the neighborhood more inclusive, ‘we’re all in this together, type of thing.’”

As South Park residents in 1995, Walker and Vella were involved with dog rescues, helped start the “dog owners of Grape Street” (DOGS) group and were instrumental in getting the Grape Street dog park certified. It was this dog-centric aspect of the South Park community that made them realize they could start a viable business.

In 1999, Walker had just retired from the Navy as a senior chief petty officer, and Vella was working in a photo lab and teaching photography classes at Grossmont and City colleges. Vella bought the building at 2037 30th St. — which since being built in 1951 had housed a laundromat — and the two partners began a yearlong process to convert it to a dog wash. They opened on Oct. 3, 2000.

“At the time, the whole ‘self-service’ concept was just starting and business models were just being developed,” Walker said. “We wanted a more spa-like feel in a more casual, fun, educational and inclusive atmosphere. Over the years, people have joked that they use to wash their clothes here and now they wash their pets.”

While they weren’t the first — Walker claims Ocean Beach Dog Wash and My Beautiful Dog O Mat on Park Boulevard were in business before South Bark — what has set Walker and Vella apart from the beginning are their unique approaches to the trade.

For starters, their “island tub system,” with the plumbing in the ceiling rather than integrated below, was the first difference new customers experienced. Vella said their tub systems have seen a few design changes over the years but remain visually the same.

Their extensive outside patio is another difference, which was initially used as a waiting area and is now used for grooming, blow drying, teeth cleaning, various obedience and other training classes, and even fundraising events. Finally, their extensive retail business also distinguishes them.

Their outside patio houses training classes and other events. (Photo by Big Mike)

Their retail inventory has grown exponentially and also birthed their “blueberry facial” line, which they distribute internationally through their South Bark Professional Pet Products, shipping to every state in the U.S. and 14 countries.

Having their own product line has also allowed them to join the pet industry seminar circuit and travel all over the country. Earlier this year they even went to Canada.

“We are known as the South Bark ‘blueberry girls,’” Walker said. “We are trusted within the industry for fun and educational seminars. Our topics run the gamut between business centered, skin and coat issues, shampoo use and ingredients, to aromatherapy and now CBD  [hemp/cannabinoid for pets].”

In 2015, the pair faced an even more difficult time. The city was tearing up 30th Street to replace the underground pipe system. Sidewalks were closed and access to their business was hindered greatly.

“It was a scary time for us; we lost over $150,000,” Vella said. “That was a lot of money for a small business but we didn’t let anyone go. I’m grateful for my employees and I’m grateful for Molly Chase [from Todd Gloria’s office at the time] who helped me through it.”

Though South Bark’s front door was replaced immediately after the first break-in, today it is still boarded up while they research alternative options. One thing is certain; they don’t want to change the inclusive look or feel of their business.

“We want to continue onward with our usual style of using artists, metal workers, or craftspeople to implement a solution,” Walker said. “We are also researching some innovative glass and design options.”

(l to r) Walker and Vella have a number of different approached to the dog was and retail trade, one being their “island tub system,” shown here. (Photo by Big Mike)

The South Park community and the extensive network of friends that Walker and Vella enjoy attempted to come to the rescue and start a GoFundMe page, but the women decided against it.

“Lisa and I did not turn it down because we are not grateful, we were extremely touched by people wanting to donate money because of our two [break-ins],” Walker said. “After a few days of pondering, we decided not to do it. What would really help us is for people to come and shop with us or wash their pets. Everyday we work hard to capture new customers and we are so grateful for our returning customers.”

Having the internet as your biggest competitor can be a challenge, they said. Sometimes random customers will say they can get one of the products they see in South Bark’s pet market online at a lower price, which causes them to wince.

“Small business is so hard. I joke that you can’t wash your dog on Amazon yet,” Vella said. “We generally don’t sell the same things as [the big box stores] but we can get anything you need. If we don’t have something you want, buy a treat. If you don’t have a dog or cat, buy a gift certificate for someone who does.”

Today the blueberry girls shuffle between the retail business and their distribution outlet, traveling to seminars, being involved in the local business community, and their busy personal lives.

South Bark’s whimsical logo also adorns their product line. This stained glass version hangs at the dog wash. (Photo by Big Mike)

Walker, the former vice president of the South Park Business Group (SPBG), lives with her wife Lorna in Burlingame with their four dogs and a cat. Vella, the current treasurer of the SPBG, lives in Golden Hill with her wife Allie and their 4-year-old son, Rocky. She also still teaches photography at City College.

After all these years, the two lifelong friends can’t say enough about the community that has embraced them and their business. They plan to celebrate their upcoming anniversary during the fall South Park Walkabout and do a fundraiser for a local pet rescue. But keeping their community safe for all is at the forefront of their minds.

“I want to express to everyone that if you see something that is not right, say something,” Lisa said. “Times are so different. I sound like my father, but it is true. Looking at our [phones] and not paying attention to the world around us is commonplace. We all need to look out for each other. It is so important.”

To learn more about South Bark Dog Wash and the Blueberry Facial line of pet products, visit southbark.com.

—Morgan M. Hurley can be reached at morgan@sdcnn.com.

One Comments

  1. kat baldwin says:

    we live across the street from this amazing mecca of puppy love…moved here a year ago after 22 years in ob and a long friendship with the wonderful activists of ob dog wash….our little chiweenie loves the folks of south bark, and so do we…we keep our eyes open for sketchy folks and wish our wonderful doggie neighbors safety and prosperity….go blueberriygirls

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