WALLINGFORD – What started as a business in her Fairfield-area basement has grown into a full-service grooming service for Harmarie Lebrón.
The 32-year-old recently opened The Dog Den Grooming Spa at 200 Church St. in Wallingford.
After losing her retail job, Lebrón wanted to find a cheaper way to care for her cocker spaniel, Luna. She invested in professional grooming equipment and started grooming the dog herself.
“One of those things is that it was rewarding to learn how to groom your own dog versus the hassle of going to pick her up every three weeks because she had a very thick coat,” Lebrón added.
Luna now runs a professional care business, .
“The idea kind of came out of my general love for animals. I always had a dog growing up and I wanted it to be a place where I would want to take my dog,” said Lebrón. “I have experienced grooming at different levels from various other shops, nothing against anyone, everyone does everything as they like. But for me, it was more like I want to feel at home, but I’m also originally from New York so I want that modern, elegant, high-end vibe.”
Lebrón began building her client base by hanging out in the park or walking her dog. People began to notice Lebron’s grooming skills.
“People would ask ‘who cuts your dog?’, ‘where should I take her?’ it looks amazing,’ Lebrón explained. “And I started building a clientele that way and then word of mouth spread. It got to the point where dressing up in your house, while it was nice and still had a cozy feel, it just wasn’t big enough.”
Before starting her company, Lebrón, who served four years in the military, got a job at a hair salon using the experience she gained working on her own dog. From that experience, she began to notice things she wanted to do differently.
“I said ‘you know what? I don’t want to work for anyone else,’ said Lebrón. “I’d rather do this for myself. And I started to see a lot of things that I would like to do differently and it’s a little difficult because when you’re not a business owner, you might have a certain amount of opinion about how things are going to be done, but it’s never going to be the way you would do it yourself.”
After cutting hair for a while, she realized that it wasn’t fair to her clients or their pets to cut their animals in a small room in her home, so she decided to get a display case.
Lebrón got a storefront at the 200 block of Church Street in the Yalesville section of Wallingford. The location she chose has large windows, which was appealing to Lebrón because it would allow for greater transparency with her clients.
“What I love about him is that when I first saw him, all these walls were already built, there were windows everywhere in every room and I like that because it’s a matter of trust,” Lebrón said. “I want the client to be able to trust me and the dog to be able to trust me. And the fact that you can go inside and see where the dog is being groomed and you can walk down the little corridor and see the bathing areas. That was also important to me.”
Lebrón enlisted the help of her boyfriend and his father, and the three of them renovated the space themselves. From the floors, the bathtub, the plumbing, the logo and the pictures of her cocker spaniel decorating the walls, everything was made to make Lebrón’s dream come true.
Lebrón opened her storefront to the public in October and is now fully booked every Saturday for the next month and a half.
She said one of the biggest things people love about her business isn’t just the quality haircuts and mud baths, but the fact that she’s a genuine person who takes the time before each session to connect with each of her furry clients.
“In this industry, conversations are extremely important,” said Lebrón, who has Italian and Puerto Rican roots and speaks Spanish as well as English. “First, the person comes with his dog. Their dog doesn’t know you. They get a sense of how you interact with their owner and with them. So establishing a base where you people are in good standing and just happy to talk to each other sounds weird, but on a chemical level of course it releases pheromones. The dogs pick it all up.”
Shannon St. Hilaire of Wallingford decided to try taking her German Shepherd, Spirit, for Lebrón care after several referrals from her friends. She described her experience with The Dog Den as “terrible”.
He also appreciates that the business is owned by a woman and that Lebrón is a military veteran.
“She, you know, took me in right away,” said St. Hilaire. “Spirit was the only dog there so it was very comforting for him. He did great with her. He’s had some bad grooming experiences before, which is why I won’t be taking him often… And she’s a veteran and it’s a woman-owned business. So we try to support wherever we can.”
Lebrón also prides himself on being crate-free, allowing grooming dogs to roam.
“So if a dog comes in and I’m with another dog, he’ll be in the same room with me so I can keep an eye on him. I never keep them together unsupervised,” she explained.
Lebrón has also partnered with the Wallingford Animal Shelter at 5 Pent Road.
The shelter usually calls Lebron when any dog from the shelter needs grooming.
“Shelter dogs come here and they’re very happy not to be in their crate and running around,” Lebrón said. “You see them when they come in and they look crazy. And then you groom them and it’s like a completely different dog leaves and the dog feels better.”
Lebrón said she hopes to continue giving back to the community as her business grows. He also hopes to take his business to the “next level” by hiring a team of people who are trained and handle dogs the way they should and potentially open a second location in the community.