RECESSION-PROOF: The Bark Shoppe of Harlem Still Delivering Top-Notch Care for ‘Man’s Best Friend’

(HARLEM – April 22, 2020) – Melissa Mitchner is a highly-motivated entrepreneur who owns and operates her own pet grooming salon in Harlem. The Bronx native was intent on establishing The Bark Shoppe, New York’s premier pet care facility, and she did.

The aim has always been simply to foster “great relationships between pets and their owners.” The products, services and recommendations are all based on the expertise of leading pet care professionals with the pet’s individual needs in mind.”

Mitchner’s tagline is “Your pet is our priority.” How apropos!  

Mitchner is a 33-year-old entrepreneur who took Harlem by storm 8 years ago. She spoke to HBJ about her journey. And by the way, while she has been very successful – do understand she did all of the work in order to be in the position she’s in today: Succeeding while others are floundering, especially in light of the pandemic that has caused business giants and “small fries” alike to pack up and move on.

She’ll tell one, for instance, that because she was a challenged student, she ended up graduating from City-As-School, an alternative school.

And while she ultimately attended Columbia University, she is just as proud at her stints at Hostos College and Lehman College. Sure, Columbia carries more weight in corporate circles, Mitchner is just as proud of her accomplishments at the lesser known schools because that’s where the hard work was done on identifying her goals and honing her skill set.

Then, one day she found herself in an opportunity of a lifetime. Columbia has a community business development program that Mitchner suggested “helped me to think broader both nationally and globally.”

“I learned how to increase my revenue and about the economic development process – from hiring people to reinvesting in the community,” she said. “Most importantly, I learned that I can compete with the best of them and how to combine book smarts with street smarts.”

Open 6 days a week, Mitchner’s goal is “to be that pillar in the community, especially with everything being gentrified, you can see the growing wealth gap. In Harlem, we see people going to their second homes. Many people are struggling to get food. There are seniors who can’t get food, even with the separate lines for them specifically. I think it is important, especially for black businesses, to give back. I personally want to put my money back in the community.”

Yep! As for the redevelopment of Harlem, the Bronx native is all-in. She believes in the community, she’s in love with the people, and she sees a vision for Harlem that will feature more business owners like herself.

“If you need exercise, we have Harlem Cycle,” she said. “If you need sweets, then Jessica has the Harlem Chocolate Factory.”

Mitchner is a highly conscientious entrepreneur who comes from a family with deep roots in community service. So, truth be told, it’s not surprising to hear about her commitment to Harlem.

She is the great granddaughter of the late Maryland state Senator Troy Brailey. He, too, was a beacon of hope in his West Baltimore community. Her grandmother, Brailey’s daughter (Alice Torriente), also has a long track record of service in both New York and Baltimore. Not only a retired educator, Torriente is a political pundit who has worked elections since the mid-80s. To say the least, she is far from green when it comes to American politics.

Torriente told HBJ that she is very proud of her granddaughter and how she would move heaven and earth to help ensure Mitchner’s success.

Let’s be clear, however, Mitchner is the type of person who just needed a bit of direction. As for the motivation, that’s all her!

Mitchner, for instance, spoke about the early days when The Bark Shoppe was just a vision.

“I had worked for Best Buy for 9 years,” she said. “One day, I was watching a reality show, “Chicagolicious”, on WE TV. It was about a lady and where she took her dog for pet care. I did some research and quickly came to see that pet care is a $96 billion industry, overall. This includes food.”

She added that “$8 billion specifically is spent on pet care services, like dog grooming, dog walking, day care and boarding specifically.”

The more she researched the market, she said the more she learned: “how many dogs are in America, how many pet owners there are, how much they spend on average for services, and that this is a recession-proof industry.”

At this point, she was truly smitten with the idea of owning her own pet care salon. She took her severance package and concluded, “I think we should do this in Harlem!”

Although Harlem was changing and becoming more gentrified, Mitchner had already seen in her mind what was to come next. So, she started shopping for a location.

“I walked literally from 135th to 110th Street looking for a location. I also enrolled in grooming school. Within two weeks, I had signed a lease and was set to open within 90 days.”

Even willing to empty out her savings, Mitchner took that proverbial leap of faith. And in time, she has emerged as an industry leader who is now teaching at expos and conferences.

Interestingly, she has not forgotten people. She spoke about a program called “Pathways to Graduation” where she provides mentoring opportunities to young people. Even more, she also has a heart for the needs of the ex-offender community. “Friends of the Island”, a non-profit which helps people transition back to the streets from prison, is a program to which she lends her support.

So, is the pet care business really recession-proof?

According to Mitchner, an astute student of her industry, “Yes, it is! The reality is that it is definitely recession-proof. While we experienced a loss of 40% of our dog walking business, we simultaneously saw more of a demand for grooming. We found that people were spending more time with their dogs, and so their dog smelling good and being healthy became a part of the sense of normalcy people are looking for.”

She said that while they were closed for 2 weeks, clients were very upset. So, the wheels in her mind began rolling and in a short time, she was back on her grind.

“So, I reached out to another Harlem business owner, Sneeze Guard, began curbside check-in, and started updating our website.”

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Mitchner said that she knew she had to remain focused, if she were going to survive this.

“I asked myself, ‘What’s the game plan?’”

She said that a critical part of the story includes the moral support that she and other Harlem business owners provided each other. Clearly, these were desperate times.

“We helped talk each other off the ledge,” she said. “We’d check-in on each other. Obviously, we were all frantic. In the past, we’ve been hit in the gut, but this time, we also got punched in the face, not just the gut. So, we knew we had to stay rational and calm because after all, I had employees for which I am responsible. And that’s important to me. We had eight employees. Now, we have four.”

As COVID-19 led to a national shutdown, Mitchner said that she was scheduled to appear at the Atlanta Pet Fair. However, she instead decided to stay home and come up with a plan.

“That’s when I said, we’re going to take in as many dogs as we can.”

She said that it was initially a very challenging time.

“I had one employee from New Jersey who couldn’t even get to the city,” she added.

Still, she “remained calm and let everybody know that I have their best interest at heart. I think that the most important part is developing a strategy to get from point A to point B and looking at what vehicle do we have to get us there.”

Mitchner has made her family extremely proud, including her grandmother. Torriente told HBJ, “I’m extremely proud of her. She’s an extensive traveler, both domestically and internationally. I think this has helped broaden her perspective.”

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