Detroit Is THIS Podcast: Liz Blondy Gets Candid About the Challenges of Being a Business Owner at this Time
In Episode #2, Detroitisit Founder and Host Ivana Kalafatic is Joined by Liz Blondy, owner of Canine to Five. They get into what it means to keep the workforce and pivot.
Detroit Is THIS is hosted by Ivana Kalafatic, founder of Detroitisit. The show sees thought leaders, community change agents, makers, innovators, and entrepreneurs share their personal and professional stories.
Through these conversations, we’ll explore opportunities and solutions for the times we find ourselves in.
In Episode 2, Ivana talks to Liz Blondy of Canine to Five, Metro Detroit’s finest in dog service, about deciding to open a dog daycare, Canine to Five’s journey as a small business, and moving the move to Downtown Detroit. The two small business owners discuss how Detroit has changed over the years for small business owners, and how 2020 has made a major impact on local businesses in the city. See how this Detroit native has dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic impacting her business and how she is approaching the year with a strong back and a soft heart.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR CONNECTION TO DETROIT
I spent my first six years in Huntington woods and then we moved from downtown Detroit to the Detroit towers when I was about six years old. So I kind of bounced back and forth between the downtown Indian village area and Grosse Pointe. I graduated from high school in 1992, from Grosse Pointe south, went to college for two weeks decided it wasn’t for me. I stepped back and looked at myself and told myself to go get a full-time job. So I went, I got myself a full-time job and I was really lucky because somebody saw potential in me and I was able to get a sales position at AT&T. Basically, I went to AT&T school and learned how to be a salesperson and it served me really well until I was about 30. I was living downtown in Lafayette Park at the time, and I thought to myself, Is this it? I don’t have any passion for this.
For most entrepreneurs, if you’re not excited about the product that you’re selling in a “truly just you feel like you can’t live without it” and it doesn’t bring you joy, it might not be for you. I wasn’t it wasn’t something that brought me joy. So, fast forward to Thanksgiving 2003. I went to the bar with my friends in Midtown. My husband and I were meeting another couple and the other couple was late. They showed up telling us, “oh, we’re so sorry. We’re late. We had to pick up our dog from dog daycare.” And I thought to myself “What is even that? What are you talking about? What is dog daycare?” That’s how Canine to Five first brewed.
TELL US HOW YOU OPENED CANINE TO FIVE AND ABOUT ITS JOURNEY THUS FAR?
I opened canine to five Detroit in May of 2005. The first couple of years were pretty slow going and then we have kind of kept getting busier and busier. In 2011, when Quicken Loans moved downtown it was really transformative for our business. I had purchased the adjacent property and was going to build a building at that time and expand my Detroit location. And in 2011, nobody really wanted to loan me money to build a building in downtown Detroit, obviously. So I have been working with a friend who’d been advising me and he said, Hey, why don’t you think about Ferndale? And I thought you know why that’s only 12 miles away. That would work. There’s already a dog daycare there. And I’m really glad that he pushed me because we opened in January of 2013. We outgrew the space by October of 2013. So it was a good sign that is going to be successful in Ferndale. When I purchased a building. I was looking for a 12,000 square foot building in Ferndale. I ended up with this 22,000 square foot monstrosity and then in 2016, the SBA lender who had lent me the money to purchase this building in Ferndale said, “Yeah, you know what, we’ll loan me money to build a building in Detroit if that’s what you want.” So we embarked upon a large construction project, we added about 10,000 square feet to the Detroit location and spent just over a million and a half on that project, we increased our capacity by quite a bit. That takes us to kind of now, business was great!
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO OPEN IN DETROIT?
So, when my parents moved downtown in 2006, my mom opened a store in downtown Detroit and she had had a store in pleasant Ridge, she relocated it to downtown Detroit. I think that’s probably when I fell in love with Detroit and I guess I didn’t even realize it but maybe that’s when I fell in love with small business too.
I remember being downtown. My mom let me run around downtown and maybe even get a pop and go up on the roof to watch the Grand Prix and just go over to McDonald’s to get some fries and it was just so amazing. So, you know, as soon as I graduated from high school, I was like, Okay, I’m back to Detroit. There’s something about it. There’s something about the spirit, there’s something about the resilience. There’s something about honesty. I feel like with Detroit, similar to with Liz Bondi similar to Canine to Five. What you see is what you get, if you don’t like it, it’s not for you. It’s not the cleanest place. It’s not the prettiest place. It’s not the nicest place, we don’t have the best climate. But it’s just, it’s home. I know, it sounds like such a cliche, people are always the best thing about Detroit are the people, but it’s pretty true.
The resilience, the willingness to help other people, just over the last 15 years in business, the number of people who I didn’t even know that I could just reach out to and say, Hi, can you help me? Jackie Victor and Scott Lowell and Joel Landy and Sue Mozi and Brian Boyle, and just the dozens of people that just helped me. That’s why Detroit because of this helpful, generous spirit that exists in almost everyone.
HOW DO YOU IN REAL-TIME, PIVOT AND SHIFT TO FIGURE OUT THE BUSINESS SIDE OF MAKING MONEY, WHILE ALSO STAYING PERSONAL AND PROTECTING YOUR EMPLOYEES?
That has been the biggest struggle of COVID-19. We actually never closed, we laid off about 90% of our team in March and we maintain a very skeleton crew, we take care of a lot of dogs of medical workers of police and fire and of the city of Detroit employees. There are people out there that think of us as an essential service.
This kind of reminded us all how to downsize. But, over the last few weeks have started bringing employees back. I think we have about 25 to 30 employees back now. I did it, receive the PPP loan as a small business owner, you know, there’s this incredible amount of pressure now for the loan forgiveness.
I didn’t actually want to get a loan, I wanted to find a way to cover my employees. So for the last few weeks, we’ve been trying to schedule employees thoughtfully but also trying to schedule them to support the business, to support the employee’s lifestyle, and their whole feelings about all of this. Then to support this, these loan repayment requirements, it’s been a big challenge. But I feel really, really grateful and lucky to be able to say that our customers are coming back like big time, we saw our numbers go up, maybe 40 dogs a day last week. We are in the 60s today on May 26 and so I imagine that for the next few months, we’ll be at maybe 40% of capacity.
We have the best clients ever, we survey our clients a lot, and they are very, with their opinions. About 70% of them said that they would still use daycare or a dog daycare, even if they’re working from home through the end of the year, but about 25% of them said that they intend to board their dogs this summer. For a business, I can accommodate 200 dogs a night, I think this weekend, we should have had maybe 150 dogs, and I think we had maybe 20 so we’re going to see a huge contraction in our boarding business and that’s really scary to me.
We’re going to hang on and our employees know that they need to hang on to we’re working really, really hard to provide them with PPE and to check all the boxes and cross all the T’s and dot all the i’s do all the things that we’re supposed to do to keep employees safe.
WHAT DO YOU THINK FOR YOU, AS A BUSINESS OWNER, WERE THE HARDEST COMPONENTS OF THE PPP?
One of the major challenges has been around getting employees to feel safe coming back and physically in the space to work. More so emotionally. I mean, we spent a fair amount of time, energy and money just thinking about and planning for employees. But I think that America is terrified right now and I think that my employees are also pretty scared about it.
It’s very hard to balance being a humanitarian and a capitalist because I know exactly what’s right for my business. I know exactly what’s right for my budget for my bank account and sometimes those things do not align with what my employees might feel is best for them. It’s a common story now. I want them to know that I don’t see somebody who’s choosing to collect unemployment as something wrong with them. Because you know, what, we all paid into this system for the last many years.
WHO DO YOU WANT TO WORK FOR YOU DOWNTOWN DETROIT?
I need the people who work at Canine to Five to love Detroit. They’re going to look at Detroit as you know, maybe I should move down here. That when they get out of work, they’re not going to hop on the freeway and flee home, they’re going to walk around the corner and go to Detroit Shipping Company for dinner. They’re going to buy a bottle of wine from a local store. They’re going to do business in the city that they care about.
Liz Body’s key takeaways as a small business owner in Detroit and insight on the conversation with Detroitisit:
- Be patient. It is really for customers of small businesses in metro Detroit. None of us know what we are doing, everything changed, we all had the wind knocked out of us a couple of months ago. We want to be efficient but we can’t be as efficient while being safe. We are truly trying out best
- Work harder than ever right now. Businesses that work harder than ever right now will be the ones standing at the end of the year. No matter what you decide for your business, you have to work harder than you ever imagined
- If you have the money to support small businesses right now, please do it. Don’t forget that there are husbands, wives and kids are at home, thinking about how they are going to pay their bills. Small businesses need your businesses. If you can, get out there and shop, spend and donate to charities/non-profits as well.
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