Intrepid pioneer sparks dog-grooming revolution in Pilsen

By Yemeng Yang

As the first pet grooming store in the Pilsen neighborhood, Heart of Chicago Grooming takes responsibility to get residents used not only to the price but also the philosophy of pet grooming.

The store, located on South Blue Island Avenue, offers basic bath and brush, hairstyling and other add-on services, such as nail clipping and teeth brushing, for dogs and cats. It also sells pet food and treats.

Painted in warm green, the store wants to pass a soothing feeling to its customers, or pets. There’s no cage on the grounds, and John Whedbee, the owner of Heart of Chicago Grooming and also the groomer, doesn’t muzzle dogs.

“Having the cages allow you to do more dogs,” said Whedbee. “But I feel putting them into cages is a very negative condition. I want them to get rid of anxiety.”

Instead of caging pets and letting them wait, Whedbee and his part-time assistant admit only one dog at a time. So pet owners make reservations a week ahead, drop their pets at the appointed time, and then wait for Whedbee’s phone call to pick them up.

It hurts volume. A normal pet salon could groom 10 to 12 pets a day, while Whedbee’s store does only three daily on average.

The annual revenue is around $60,000, of which 25 percent comes from retail sales, a business section that didn’t exist in the store until last August, Whedbee said.

The retail section in Heart of Chicago Grooming. (Yemeng Yang/MEDILL)

The cost of the business is low except for the rent. Whedbee got a wholesale price of $50 per gallon for nine different types of shampoos and conditioners, which is $150 for retail. Those nine gallons could last for 10 months, which makes the cost so minimal that Whedbee doesn’t even track it.

Whedbee plans to double his revenue within a year. For the grooming business, the revenue in January this year more than doubled to a range of $3,500 to $3,800 from $1,200 a year ago.

“What I’m counting on is the retail picking up, and probably the grooming becoming a little more consistently busy,” said Whedbee. “I think eventually when I have that food service for long enough, people will be coming in more to buy things than to groom pets.”

Graffiti are everywhere in Pilsen. (Yemeng Yang/MEDILL)

It is a gift, as well as a challenge, to open a grooming store in Pilsen, a predominantly Mexican-American community. The store plays vivid music and displays artistic work, echoing with youthful spirits thriving in the neighborhood.

The store’s logo and business cards were designed by Javier Suárez, a street artist who grew up in Pilsen. Using Whedbee’s own dog, Roman, and cat, Ziggy, as prototypes, Suárez designed four different business cards with two other breeds.

“Owner loved my aesthetic and let me have too much fun with this,” wrote Suárez on his website.

A set of business card for Heart of Chicago grooming designed by a street artist. (Yemeng Yang/MEDILL)

Whedbee, as a white business owner who cannot speak Spanish, did a lot to adapt to the neighborhood, especially when dealing with prices. Residents were not used to the cost of pet grooming, since there were no pet grooming shops in the area before.

The residents “need a gentle introduction into the expense,” said Whedbee. “I intentionally, consciously have my prices a little lower than the standard, and I offer discounts which is basically unheard of in my industry,” said Whedbee.

Clients appreciate Whedbee’s effort.

“John is so good with the dogs! The service is very friendly. He loves the community he serves,” said Marie Balderas, a client.

Whedbee keeps his tools in order. (Yemeng Yang/MEDILL)

Two more pet grooming shops opened two month after Whedbee opened his, and another opened three or four months ago, said Whedbee. But there isn’t a lot of competition among them.

“In the pet care industry, there’s kind of a phenomenon that there isn’t such a thing as competition,” said Whedbee. “There’re so many dogs and cats out there that we could all share clients. It doesn’t really seem to affect the numbers for the month.”

Photo at top: After bathing and brushing each dog, Whedbee dresses it up with a bandana. (Yemeng Yang/MEDILL)