It’s the classic reason for starting a venture. You see a potentially profitable service that isn’t meeting demand, then set out to do just that. It’s also a pretty good idea to enjoy what you’re about to tackle.
That was the case with Samanntha Stout, who launched Personal Paws, a pet grooming business in 2011 at the post exchange on Fort Benning. A couple of years ago, she took a significant turn in the road, hitching her pet salon to a mobile wagon.
Since then, the Phenix City resident has been on the road consistently, serving the pet family members of residents in the Columbus, Fort Benning and Phenix City areas. Services include trimming nails, giving haircuts, bathing the animals and drying them.
The best part for the pets’ owners is they didn’t have to lift a finger. Stout hauls her customized pet salon right to customers’ doors if possible, then invites the dogs and cats inside the air-conditioned trailer salon to get the work done.
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Stout, a former Troy University volleyball player, now is looking to ramp up her company somewhat. She is having a new Mercedes Sprint van outfitted as a second mobile unit, and her brother, Bryan Page, is training with her and working toward certification to make it a two-person operation.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Stout, 41, recently to discuss her job, what it takes to keep pets pampered and happy, and the challenges that she faces on occasion. She and her U.S. Army retired-husband own a small farm where they are raising their family and a few pets of their own. He also helps her with maintaining the mobile unit and with lifting heavy dogs on occasion. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
Q. So this is your mobile salon trailer?
A. It’s gotten it’s bumps and bruises over the last two years, that’s for sure.
Q. What’s the dog on the side?
A. The dog is a Papillon (a toy Spaniel). It’s the Mauro dog. I exclusively use Mauro products. That’s a holistic line of pet care products. You have to go to Atlanta to find the line. It’s shampoos and conditioners, a skin care line for dogs.
Q. The trailer’s look is attractive. This is not a franchise?
A. Everybody asks me that. But when I started Personal Paws, I did not want that. Every time you see something pet-related, it’s either cartoon or it’s a joke. I’m not a joke. My business is not a joke. I mean, I take it very seriously. So when I started Personal Paws, it was a pet boutique to begin with. The trailer colors couldn’t be red or blue because Petco and PetSmart use that. I wanted a neutral color, so the royal purple color is what we came up with to use.
Q. You’ve been doing the mobile unit for a couple of years?
A. We’ve been mobile for two years. The pet boutique we started it in 2011. It was on Fort Benning in the PX. Last September, I closed the boutique because I just couldn’t do it all.
Q. So this is a self-contained unit?
A. It’s a full-service salon. Our generator runs everything. I use a special system called a Prima Encore bathing system. It’s a very expensive system. When you go to most (brick-and-mortar) shops, they either use a ton of water and they don’t really get the dog good and clean because they’re washing by hand, or they use a water recirculating system, which I don’t like. What that is is they use the same water, the dirty water, to clean the dog with. They say it’s fine. Me, I don’t do that. I use Prima, which means I don’t recirculate any water, and I use about 60 percent less than what you’re going to use if you wash them any other way. So I’m not only holistic, but I’m a green salon.
We’ve also got air conditioning in it. Also, in the back is where all of our equipment is as far as the loud stuff. When you’re in there with my generator running, it’s quiet. The only thing you might hear are the clippers, which make a soft humming sound, or the AC a little bit. But all of the loud stuff, including the generator, is outside.
Q. What sizes of dogs can you handle?
A. I can do any size dog, everything from Great Danes and St. Bernards, which can be 250 pounds (to smaller animals).
Q. Do you groom cats?
A. I do cats. The thing about cats, I always explain this when they call me. I ask them if they’ve ever had their cat groomed before.
Q. How long does it take on average to groom a dog?
A. The average is about an hour or hour and a half.
Q. How many can you do each day usually?
A. It’s summertime and because my children aren’t in school, I can work late like we’ve been doing. I like to do about six animals a day. But we’ve doing about 15 a day. There’s two of us right now. Bryan and I both are grooming.
Q. So just how did you come up with this idea?
A. Mobile groomers have been around for a long time. I’m not reinventing as far as that. There’s lot of them in Atlanta and if you go to bigger cities … California and Florida probably have the largest number of them. There was a need for it at Fort Benning because of not having grooming there … I said, ‘you know what, we could have a trailer built.’
Q. This is your busy season?
A. To be honest, I don’t think we have a slow season. If you had to say slow, you might say January. But by the time February hits, you’re busy again.
Q. Dogs are like humans, they need their hair cleaned and cut?
A. They need it all the time. A haircut for a dog is no different than a haircut for a human. As a matter of fact, most of the dogs we do are on a schedule, and that allows me to schedule my day. For example, we go to Pine Mountain once a month. We don’t go up there every other day. It wouldn’t be worth it. I would spend half my day in drive time and not working on a dog.
Q. So scheduling is a big part of it?
A. It’s huge. It’s totally different from a regular salon.
Q. How many dogs have you done at one location or house?
A. I think the most we have done … (one owner) he’s got 11, and I usually can do seven of them at a time, and that’s usually because physically, they take time. That’s an all-day grooming, unless he lets me do a couple here, a couple there.
Q. So this can be a physical job?
A. My wrists, I’ve got to go now and have it looked at. I’m a left-handed person, but actually scissor with my right one. I had a dog in a tub that was moving, and I felt like I tweaked it, it hurt a little bit. I can feel (discomfort) now and I don’t have full movement. And my back bothers me from bending over. It’s kind of like doggie yoga.
Q. To do this, you obviously have to be animal lover?
A. If you go to do this as a job, you’re in the wrong business, because you’re eating hair, you’re wearing hair, you’re doing that all day, every day. You can’t avoid it. We have special masks that we wear, so when it gets to blowing around really bad, we wear those. You also get hair splinters. It’s just like a (wood) splinter, but it’s actual hair that will stick in your skin.
Q. What’s the most challenging aspect of your work?
A. I think the most challenging thing is the people who are unrealistic about the expectations for their dog. The human aspect of it is by far the most challenging, because they expect you to do something to their dog that you can’t. A perfect example: We just had the first bad review we’ve ever had in business, period. It was because the lady was completely unrealistic about what’s going on with her dog. (I told her) your dog is extremely aggressive, is a biter, is terrified of everything, and you want me to put my hands on this dog? (She said) well, just put a muzzle on it. Just because it can’t bite me doesn’t mean a dog can’t be injured by what I have to do in order to restrain it long enough to do what you’re asking me to do.
Q. So what happened in the end?
A. We didn’t do the nails. Bryan did the rest of it. He did the bath, the ears, but we couldn’t do the nails. It was a little bitty Chihuahua and it was mean.
Q. What is your schedule like this time of the year?
A. We always start at 9. I don’t try to vary that. The finishing up part is what varies. On Saturdays I like to start early if I can, and get done earlier, but that didn’t happen last Saturday. We got to our first appointment at 8:30 and we didn’t get home until 8 o’clock that night. We’ve been working 12- and 14-hour days, and it’s non-stop.
Q. What will the second mobile unit do for you?
A. We are overbooked right now. If you call me today you can’t get an appointment for probably two to three weeks, and that’s at a minimum. So people who are regular customers who don’t want to book, I’ll finish their appointment and say, ‘do you want to go ahead and schedule the next one? It might be six weeks out, but do you want to schedule it now?’ That’s because when you call me the week that this dog is so bad and matted and you can’t do anything with it, and you want an appointment, I’m not going to have one.
Q. This will help alleviate that somewhat?
A. Yes. It’s going to help with that and help with services in general. Once the kids go back to school, I don’t work past 4 or 4:30 because I’ve got to pick the children up. That’s the whole point of being self-employed. That’s why in the summertime we’re working like this, but when school starts, no.
Q. Looking ahead, what’s the next five or so years like for you? Any major plans?
A. The next five years, honestly, it’s to try to stabilize where we’re at. We have grown and grown and grown. We have literally gone from two dogs a day to we did 17 dogs last Friday. That is a lot of dogs to put your hands on.
Q. You’re looking for steady, calm consistency?
A. Yeah. I don’t want to be working 13- or 14-hour days. That’s really not where I want to be.
Q. Finally, what’s the favorite, most rewarding part of your job?
A. I think it’s the diversity, for me, and I get the best of both worlds. I do enjoy people and I enjoy being out and being social and having interaction. However, I also like doing the dogs. My work is challenging. I think a hairdresser has a huge benefit because they can say: Would you sit still or I’m going to cut your ear off, or I’m going to stab you in the eye with these scissors because you’re shaking your head like a hooligan. For a dog, it’s no, I’m going to shake more. But I enjoy it. There’s always something different. Everyday is some new experience.
Hometown: Decatur, Ala., by way of her father’s military service
Current residence: Phenix City
Education: 1994 graduate of Austin High School in Decatur, Ala.; earned bachelor’s degree in biology and pre-veterinary medicine from Troy University in 1999
Previous jobs: Worked for a genetic research company on lung cancer gene-pool kits in Huntsville, Ala.; just out of college; after husband was ordered to Fort Benning, she worked at a jeweler on post; she taught a year of science at Beulah High School; started Personal Paws in 2011 as a boutique at Fort Benning, then took it mobile in May 2015
Family: Husband, Patrick Stout, a 20-year Army retiree who helps with the mobile pet grooming business, maintaining the unit and helping with extra large dogs when necessary; they have four children, ages 8, 13, 15 and 19
Leisure time: Her family lives on a small farm, so they spend a lot of time in their garden these days (her husband takes care of the cows, chickens, turkeys, peacocks, dogs, cats, etc.); she enjoys relaxing on the beach, visiting local eateries, traveling abroad, and she still loves playing volleyball occasionally after having been on the Troy University team
Of note: Her love for animals and passion for their well-being keeps her active with Animal Ark Rescue. Her family has been a foster home for several years and they also help with donation items that fund the organization