For some poor doggies, doing a stretch at the local kennel while their families are away can be traumatic. Stuck in a cage, lousy food, mean guards, fleas…what prison movie does this remind you of? Jailhouse Bark?
But since 2009, a few lucky dogs who reside in the greater Indianapolis area have been living the life of Riley’s dog at three upscale pet hotel and lodging facilities. Guests enjoy immaculate, comfortable suites, multiple visits to private outdoor potty yards and twice-daily room service. Not to mention flat screen TVs.
The name says it all. Barkefellers.
Founder Rick Coffey explains: “We treat our guests with the same affection and care that we would want our own pets to receive.”
Barkefellers provides a long menu of accommodations, activities and extras—options including lodging, grooming, daycare, and training services. Canine guests enjoy luxury amenities like regular room service, flat screen televisions and expansive indoor and outdoor activity areas. Cats can stay too: They bask in complimentary room service, multi-level areas for play and climbing, and cozy napping areas.
Rick and Christi Coffey and their two children, Krista and Jordan, have been running Barkefellers since the company was founded. Now the family is ready to grow Barkefellers beyond the Coffey family and Indianapolis—through franchising.
More Like A Marriott
Rick Coffey was a successful businessman with two separate careers before getting into pet care. He did a six-year stint selling residential real estate; then a 35-year tour in commercial cleaning and sanitation, selling equipment and chemicals to manufacturing and transportation companies who needed industrial cleaning.
He got the idea for Barkefellers from a woman he met doing his real estate job. She owned a pet hotel in Indianapolis, and she shared some financial details. It piqued Rick’s interest. But he knew he would need to differentiate a new pet care business, and he kept thinking: Upscale.
What does upscale mean anyway in the context of a pet care facility?
“There are several things that distinguish us from our competition,” Rick explains. “First of all, the look of the facility and its curb appeal are very important. Second, when you go into the facility you see an attractive lobby and you don’t smell any odors. The lobby should look more like a Marriott than a kennel. Third, we hand-pick our employees; they’re pet lovers, and they’re experienced. Fourth, since I was already experienced in sanitation, most people give us nines and tens for sanitation. Lastly, the amenities that we offer are outstanding—not only in the suites chosen by the ‘parents,’ but also the amount of activities.”
Rick’s use of “parents” (as opposed to “owners” or even “companions”) tells a lot about how “upscale” plays out at Barkefellers. “Dogs are like people,” he adds. “We’re all different. So we offer something special for each and every pet that visits us.”
Drawing a Crowd
It took the first Barkefellers facility a year to go into the bark—um, black—and the second and third facilities were turning profits after only four months. But it wasn’t easy. Rick’s biggest challenge was one that will be familiar to any small business startup: Getting exposure.
“If people took the time to take a tour,” he says, “they walked away saying, 'I’ve never seen a place quite like this. I feel comfortable leaving my pets.’ But how do you get them to take the tour? The challenge for us was getting them in the door.”
Rick had been in business before, and he turned to familiar tools and techniques to draw a crowd. To start with, he made sure that the locations he chose offered maximum exposure and ease of access. Then he built a great web site and sent out sophisticated direct mailings. Most important, he made sure every Barkefellers employee was dedicated to keeping the customers happy so they’d give the facility great word of mouth.
Initially, the Barkefellers staff was 12, including Rick and Christi. Today it runs close to 150 employees.
Taking It On the Road
With the business growing fast, the Coffeys took a big step: They decided to franchise the Barkefellers concept.
“We just started about a year ago,” Rick explains, “and because we’ve been growing our corporate stores so aggressively the franchising was a slower process. We’re still waiting for our first franchisee to sign up—but we’ve got three promising candidates. In 2015 we went to our first trade show to market ourselves, and we’ll be attending a couple more shows in the immediate future. We also hired a terrific PR firm, SSPR. And we’re focusing on search engine optimization to create more exposure for the franchise operation, not only locally but nationally.”
The challenge as a franchiser is finding an investor who has the money. “To invest in this business you have to either rent or purchase a facility to operate out of,” says Rick. “And because there’s brick and mortar involved it becomes expensive. We have two parts to our franchise system—a real estate part and a pet hotel part. You need about half a million dollars in cash to get into this business.”
Soon after we spoke, Rick took Barkefellers to the International Franchise Association and Trade Show at the Javits Center in Manhattan. It’s the world’s largest international franchise show, hosting thousands of people. Hopefully, a few of them will be dog lovers with significant financial resources.
All In the Name
Looking back, what was Rick’s greatest triumph? “Thinking up our name,” he laughs.
And his biggest mistake: “Not getting into this business until I was almost 60! I wish I had started Barkefellers 20 years ago. We’re committed to raising our level of customer service, creating superior facilities, and providing well-trained staff to create the best possible experience for our customers—and the pets we care for!”
The franchise operation is designed to take that concept nation-wide.