Getting a business through a disaster: The Salty Paw

By Barbara Quick | Small Business

Where we are, at any given time, has a huge influence on what we eventually become.

Amanda Byron Zink, owner of New York City’s most award-winning pet grooming spa, The Salty Paw, is a case in point. Hailing from a town near Portland, Maine, Amanda moved to the Big Apple in 1996 with the goal of making it as an on-air host and television reporter. By happenstance, she found digs in the picturesque South Street Seaport area of downtown Manhattan, at a time when not all that many people were living there.

“The cobblestone streets were filled with fishmongers, tourists and Wall Streeters during the day,” Amanda told Yahoo, “and pretty much desolate at night. In the winter, when I walked home, there would be light from maybe one street-lamp and a fire that late-night workers in the fish market lit for themselves in a garbage can cover.”

Amanda nurtured a dream of starting a small business that she could call her own. “But I had no idea how to make that dream a reality.”

And then a Great Dane named Tyras came into Amanda’s life, in 2003, the year she got married. “My TV career was idling along. But my obsession for my new Great Dane puppy was over the top! I wanted to be with this giant nugget all the time.”

The telegenic blond and her horse-size dog were constantly stopped during their neighborhood walks by new people wanting to meet Tyras and quiz Amanda about where to find all things canine. She and he were, she says, “a walking billboard”—or could be, if she happened to have a local doggy-based business to promote.

“That’s when the light-bulb went off,” says Amanda. “The dream turned from wanting to have a business of some kind in the Seaport to ‘Maybe I should open a dog biz in the Seaport!’”

Rents were high—and Amanda realized that she really didn’t know anything about starting a business. Like so many other would-be entrepreneurs, she had the good sense to seek the help of a mentor.

“I began to talk it over with my BFF, who also lived in the neighborhood, and was the businessperson whose brain I needed to pick.” Their talk—and Amanda’s dreaming—continued over the next three years.

New possibilities opened up in 2005, when the fishmongers of lower Manhattan vacated their historic buildings to move to the Bronx—and the South Street Seaport transitioned into a residential neighborhood. Amanda and Tyras were suddenly seeing a whole lot more doggies and people linked, as the two of them were, by love and a leash.

“Big city developers came in and gutted all the old buildings—and, before we knew it, the most quaint strip of cobblestone with tiny storefronts for rent began to emerge.” Amanda realized that the time had come to make a commitment.

“This was the hardest part,” she told us. “Not the business plan, not the investment, but finding the right location.”

All that hard work, planning and dreaming paid off. Amanda zeroed in on the perfect space, signed a lease in November 2006 and opened The Salty Paw the following March. “Thanks to my fabulous staff—and the best groomers anywhere,” the shop became a must-see, often daily destination for every dog-and-owner dyad strolling through South Seaport—and was voted the best groom spa and Indie NYC Shop by Time Out NY, AM NY and AOL.

Amanda’s dream had come true. And then the genie of location came into play again, this time with disastrous consequences.

On October 29, 2012, Super Storm Sandy slammed into Lower Manhattan, flooding the cobblestone streets of South Seaport with eleven feet of ocean water. Everything in the storm’s path was ruined, including The Salty Paw and hundreds of other businesses and homes.

The sense of community nurtured by Amanda over the years turned out to be a life saver during and after the storm. “So many of our clients, friends and family followed our journey on Facebook,” she told us. “People would leave messages from all over the world, with encouragement to keep going.

Amanda steeled herself for the heart-breaking process of starting all over again. The shop’s records and files were wrecked in the flood. But, thanks to social media, clients were able to find her when she opened a “pop up” Salty Paw in the basement of a local vet’s office. “When we began to overstay our welcome there, we moved and did another pop-up store, out in an old bar that had closed down in the Seaport, on Pier 17. We already sold ‘doggy beer’—so I thought, ‘This is perfect! We can have a doggie saloon and groom spa while we’re waiting to rebuild.’ We kept one paw in front of another—and I never gave up.”

Because of all the electrical and structural damage to their building, Amanda and her staff were unable to move back into the shop for almost a year. She had to throw out everything in the store—all the grooming equipment and all the stock in the Salty Paw’s boutique, all of it marinated in seawater and sewage.

Disaster can strike any business, wherever it’s located. We asked the veteran of Super Storm Sandy how other business owners can best prepare for (and/or deal with) a flood, fire, earthquake or other cataclysm.

Here’s Amanda’s advice:

  • Get good, targeted insurance (for flood, fire, etc.) that covers contents as well as the structure of your building.
  • Don't wait for the federal government, HUD, the Red Cross, your state or city to help you financially—or you will never re-open.
  • Find other resources and then keep fighting for grants and low-interest loans.
  • Create a neighborhood merchant alliance: you’ll be much stronger if you’re grouped with others who share your needs and concerns

Amanda rebuilt with removable fixtures and equipment. All of the shop’s new electrical outlets are 48" off the floor. “But if another Sandy-style flood comes,” she sighs, “there is not much we can do. Just pray there isn’t another one in my lifetime!”

She urges business owners not to lose heart or momentum on their way back to recovery following a natural disaster. “We are still fighting for Sandy aid funding, almost two years after the storm.”

The shop is up and running again—and business is better than ever. Amanda says both she and The Salty Paw are simply and indivisibly part of the neighborhood. “I’ve been living here for 18 years now, raising my two boys. I’m active in the PTA, as well as several downtown community boards, and I’m part of a working group with all the city officials in the redevelopment of the South Street Seaport.”

Given that the shop is so interwoven with the neighborhood, we asked Amanda if she could nonetheless imagine a franchise of Salty Paws. This made her smile. “I named it The Salty Paw,” she said, “because I can see it on every coastline in America. I have people who Facebook me from such far-off places as England and India, asking about the possibility of a franchise.”

Amanda seems especially skilled at keeping things in perspective. Super Storm Sandy was easy to deal with, she says, compared to the death of Tyras three years ago. Her husband and her sons were what helped her weather that loss. She’s still grieving. But she thinks she’s finally ready to get another puppy, who will, in his or her turn, become a fixture at the Salty Paw and along the gleaming white cobblestones of South Street Seaport.

“Pets are unconditional in their love and loyalty to their owner,” says Amanda. “Where else can you get that 100 percent of the time?”

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