Hyde Bark, a North Kenwood dog-walking, cat-care and pet-sitting business, has received a $50,000 grant from the city to refurbish a garage into a doggy daycare and boarding facility.
LeAnna Quartuccio founded Hyde Bark in 2015 and operates it with her husband, Brandon Elkins, from their home at 4447 S. Ellis Ave. They have more than 400 clients in Hyde Park, Kenwood, Bronzeville and Woodlawn and, before the pandemic, took care of around 150 pets a day. Dog walks are priced by time, from $13 for a 15-minute walk to $28 for an hour.
Discussions for another $100,000 in funding through the city's Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grants, part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s INVEST South/West initiative, are ongoing, but Quartuccio plans to put the money Hyde Bark has already received towards the garage at 4534 S. Cottage Grove Ave., set to become the Hyde Bark Play Park.
“These grants are supporting business plans that, in some cases, have been years in the making," said Department of Planning and Development (DPD) Commissioner Maurice Cox in a statement. “By providing financial resources that communities need and want, they’ll help ensure that local business corridors remain centers of economic activity for their respective neighborhoods.”
Quartuccio applied for the grant on the advice of Rhonda McFarland, executive director of the Quad Communities Development Corporation, 4210 S. Berkeley Ave., a neighbor and client, and attended QCDC courses to prepare her proposal.
"It was pretty easy to apply," Quartuccio said, "but you definitely have to have a business plan and know where you're going with it."
Hyde Bark and 31 other project finalists, selected from 325 applicants, received $5.4 million in total grant funding from $37,000 to $250,000 for $12.6 million in total project costs. Half of the finalists are located along commercial corridors being targeted through INVEST South/West, which includes the neighborhoods of Bronzeville and South Shore.
“All that we’ve witnessed and experienced over the past few months shows us that our neighborhoods need economic anchors now more than ever before,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “These grants will help ensure that the South, Southwest and West sides of the city have viable, sustainable businesses that grow and thrive long after the current health crisis ends.”
Final grant amounts will be determined as projects are refined in the coming weeks and months, with the DPD helping with contracting, construction permits, licenses, financing and other needs.
Quartuccio and Elkins have scouted the garage on Cottage Grove for two years. It is currently empty, but they plan to rehabilitate it and build a safe play zone and a boarding area for the dogs when their owners are out of town.
"We'll have play areas for the dogs based on size and temperament," she said. "It'll be a safe place for them to play for other dogs of similar size and personality and be supervised by trained staff."
Down the road, they are also considering offering grooming and more training services. (Hyde Bark currently offers leash training, where the pets learn not to dart, bark at other dogs or chase squirrels, for $10.)
Quartuccio, a livelong animal-lover with childhood dreams of becoming a veterinarian, got into the business when she took a dog-walking job while studying at Columbia College Chicago; it was the best job she ever had. With more time on her hands after her son started kindergarten, she decided to return to it as a career.
"It took off far more quickly than I ever anticipated," she said. She hired her first walker within three months of launching the business, and Elkins quit his job to help out a month after that.
The pandemic and recession have severely hampered Hyde Bark's business, however: during the shutdown, demand declined 90%. Customers who were suddenly working from home have needed fewer pet care services, and Quartuccio had to lay off 10 out of 18 employees.
"With the safety concerns, we have told clients if they don't need us, don't book us just because they feel loyalty," she said. "But we're back up now, to about 50% capacity. We're recovering, but it's a slow build up."
A Paycheck Protection Program loan was a saving grace, and Hyde Park currently has work for 12 people, who are paid for service with a minimum salary guarantee, paid time off and the planned introduction of health insurance in December.
At any rate, the $50,000 is enough to get Hyde Bark started on the garage work, and Quartuccio is happy to have more work for existing employees.
"Our primary focus is on the doggy daycare, because we think that is the most important thing for the dog to have someplace safe and supervised to play," she said. "If we have to put the boarding on the back burner for a little bit, then that's fine. But the daycare is the big thing that we're really excited about."
While Quartuccio enjoys the job for the exercise and time she gets to spend outside — Hyde Bark operates 365 days a year, rain or shine — the animals remain the best part of the job, which she still says is the best in the world.
"All (dogs) need from you is care and love. They don't judge you. They're always happy to see you, no matter what kind of day you're having or what's going on in your life," she said. "They depend on you. They need you and let them out so they can be themselves."