13 Questions with Paul Fehrenbacher, Co-Founder at Mutt Jackson

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Rover-Time recently had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Paul Fehrenbacher about his breakout business, Mutt Jackson. I caught him just as he was making his way to a community Singles Night they were hosting at their Montrose Dog Beach location that evening. Our phone call was underscored by the light beeping of his seat belt sensor letting him know that the box of retail items sitting in his passenger seat equalled the weight of someone who should definitely be buckled as he was driving along to the Mutt Jackson space. The night of our call, Paul was also only one day away from their first local business Popup Event of the summer (featuring Bubu Brands, The K9PT, and Anything Is Pawzible.) It’s clear there’s a lot on this new business owner’s plate, but more importantly, there is a lot on the horizon for Mutt Jackson. And yet, there was no hint of exhaustion in his voice. Quite the opposite. To hear Paul’s excitement as he shared his vision to gather Chicago’s pet community together in a new, refreshing way was an inspiring experience. But I’ll let the Chief Mutt himself fill you in on what makes Mutt Jackson so special. 

Can you tell us in 2-5 words what Mutt Jackson is? What services do you offer?
It’s not easy to encapsulate an idea or a business in 2-5 words but if there was a phrase that epitomizes what Mutt Jackson stands for, it’s “Come One, Come Call.” What we hope to create here at Mutt Jackson is an experience for people to live as a family with their dog. Our flagship location at Montrose Dog Beach provides self-service dog wash stations that allow beachgoers — both human and canine — to enjoy all of the fun of the dog beach without bringing the beach (read: sand, gunk, and grossness) home with them. But really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

What sparked this idea? Did you always envision yourself creating a dog-focused business like Mutt Jackson?
It’s been a journey to get to where we are today. I yearned to be an entrepreneur from a very young age. While getting my first company off the ground, Montrose Dog Beach was always the one place I could go after work to figuratively let my hair down and become whole again. But even while trying to decompress, I was still thinking as an entrepreneur. When I would see a problem, I’d think: maybe I can find a solution? As great as Montrose Dog Beach is, it had a very glaring problem up until last year, that problem being there was no way to wash all of the sand and gunk off your dog after they frolicked on the beach. I had no aspirations of starting a business, I just wanted to solve a problem, initially.

I reached out to the Chicago Park District to ask the simple question, “Why isn’t there a hose at Montrose Dog Beach?” The Park District responded that they didn’t want to pay the tens of thousands of dollars it would cost to run a water main to that location. So in essence they were saying there never would be a hose at Montrose Dog Beach. Which lead to the naive question of “If a business wanted to install self-service dog washes there, could they?” And of course charge for them to recoup infrastructure costs. The Park District said, “yes, but . . . ” and the “but . . . ” was you’re going to have to do all these things, meet with these community groups, pay for all the infrastructure, etc. It was a passion project more than anything and over the course of five years, off to the side, I would just check the boxes. Towards the end of the five years, there was kind of a “oh no” moment — “oh no” in a good way where I’ve gone this far, I’ve checked all of the boxes, and there was no one in opposition. I’d been telling people I wanted to do this for five years, it’s going to have to happen!

By this point in time, I’d reached an opportune moment to sell of my ownership stake with my first business and run with this new idea. Okay, if we’re going to do this, it needs to be more than a couple of self-service dog washes at Montrose Dog Beach that are only going to be used during the summer season. When the Park District approved it, my good friend and now business partner, Brian, who has a marketing and design firm called SquarePlanet asked, “How can we make this bigger?” Our goal was to create an environment where people could spend time with their dog and treat the dog as it is: part of the family.

How did you come up with the name Mutt Jackson?
My business partner, Brian, came to me before we broke ground with an idea for a name that  would live up to the vision we were striving towards. He presented me with two options: Mutt Jackson or Mutt Johnson. He was aiming to create a name identity that when people hear it, they think that’s the type of person that I’d want to associate with. A type of person who could go to a black tie event, to a neighborhood dive bar — or anywhere for that matter and fit in because they’re content with who they are and love people well.

And I said, “If we’re going to do that, we have to go with Mutt Jackson.” The person who has had the most influence on me besides my father, is my grandfather, who went by Jack. I was Jack’s grandson. Even though he passed away when I was 10 years old, to this day I often think, “What would Jack do?” He lived up to our “Just Love.”  and “Come one, Come All.” mottos in such a significant way. No one was a stranger to him. He was the most welcoming, non judgemental, generous person. Our logo is based on my grandfather’s handwriting. The double “t” in “Mutt” is how he spelled my grandmother’s name, Loretta.

What makes Chicago, and Montrose Beach specifically, such a perfect destination for pet owners?
To my knowledge, it’s the largest place in all of Chicago that you can let your dog run off-leash.

I call Montrose Dog Beach, Chicago’s slice-of-heaven. Every walk-of-life, every breed of dog walks through the gate to that beach. When you’re on the dog beach, no one cares how tall you are, how short you are, what sex you are, or what breed you are. It’s come one, come all. You are judged by your heart and not by your outward appearance; your breed. That’s what we’re striving to create and celebrate at Mutt Jackson.

Why is this time a good time for Mutt Jackson to exist?
For two reasons:

#1. Everyone has a deep desire to love and to be loved. Mutt Jackson is aiming to create an environment where everyone can experience that. Dogs have this amazing ability to bring us together and, in a lot of ways, allow us to be more human.

#2. You look at the demographics with how people are bringing dogs into the family. It’s staggering how those demographics are with millenials having dogs well before they have children. People now celebrating their dog’s birthdays like they would for a child. The dog is now truly becoming a part of a family — in a very good way. One of Mutt Jackson’s core beliefs is that the dog is a part of the family. We want to create opportunities and experiences for the dog to be treated as such.

What are some of your big goals for the business in the next 3-5 years?
We’ve identified other locations in Chicago that we want to expand to. And that’s not 3-5 years from now, that’s within this next year or two. We’d like to have another Mutt Jackson location in Chicago by next summer. There are also areas in the Chicago suburbs that lend themselves well to the Mutt Jackson experience. Outside of Chicago, our goal is to create this experience in Phoenix, Austin, and San Diego in the next five years.

What do you love about your team?
At the end of the day, what makes Mutt Jackson special is the experience we create for our customers. I call it our secret sauce. I love that everyone on our team has fully embraced this idea. They are all unique in how they create that experience but they all know that our job is not just customer service but also customer hospitality. We want people to feel warm and welcome. When they walk out our ramp to go back to the the parking lot to drive home, hopefully they say to themselves, “that was different. I liked that. I want to know more about it.” Everyone of our employees, even though they’re all relatively young in their careers, has embraced that and I think that they get the long-term vision of Mutt Jackson. Where Montrose Dog Beach is the tip of the iceberg on what we can create. They come to me with new ideas of how we can constantly improve. We can quickly evolve and create things together. We really take ownership and pride in what we’re doing.

Can you tell us more about the dog wash itself?
When we found out that the Park District was going to give us approval, I knew that we were going to have to have the best dog wash in the world to withstand all the gunk and sand that was going to come off the dogs. So I looked at every option there was. It became clear that the best dog wash was out of Australia from a company called Tru Blu Dog Wash. They make the K9000 Self-Service Dog Wash. A couple of gentleman over a decade ago who were making car washes realized you can make a fantastic dog wash with a lot of similar componentry. The K9000 is so popular in Australia that over the last decade, the culture has become: when you wash your car, you wash your dog because so many car washes have those machines installed. We were fortunate to be one of the early adopters of the K9000 in the United States. So much so, that our relationship evolved in such a positive way with the Australian team that we’re now a distributor for the K9000.

My dog tolerates baths but she certainly doesn’t love them taking them. What makes using the K9000 such an enjoyable experience for dogs?
With our K9000 here at Montrose Dog Beach you are able to rinse, shampoo, condition, and blow dry your dog. You select which option you want to do over the course of 10 minutes and then have a clean, great smelling, dry pup when you’re done. One of the cool things we’ve experienced now that we’re in our second year at Montrose Dog Beach is having people say, “my dog usually hates baths but it does so much better here at Mutt Jackson.”  I attribute it to a couple of things: 1. The pup is just coming from the beach where they’ve been playing so they’re a little tuckered out. 2. They’re outdoors so they can see other dogs and feel a little bit more at peace than in an indoor bathroom. Also, the fact that often times someone gets some type of treat to accompany the dog wash. Usually that treat is our Muttsicle — a frozen dessert we’ve created that can be topped with beef, chicken, or banana chips for your pup. Dogs that might not initially love the wash experience, really come around with one of our treats.

I’d love to hear more about partnerships that have made a big difference to Mutt Jackson, both in your founding and as you move forward into the future.
MonDog is the volunteer board that oversees Montrose Dog Beach. They were very supportive of our idea from the start. I think one of the biggest turning points when it came to getting Park District approval was when Alderman Cappleman came on board. I think he realized how Montrose Dog Beach could be even better than it already was. He saw that it could be the crown jewel for dog lovers in Chicago and beyond. He really supported the vision we had for Mutt Jackson.

I think in the Chicago community in general, there’s an underlying notion by some that the Park District should be free and not for profit in any shape or form. By virtue of the fact that we took our time to get the approvals in place, we were able to meet with a lot of community groups that are traditionally against for profit enterprises in the Park District. In doing so, we were able to share our vision with them which was: we don’t want to change what makes Montrose Dog Beach unique and special. We just want to add to it and offer services that will improve people’s experiences.

Continuing our connections to the community, we look forward to welcoming the dog retail and service industry as a whole to our space through our weekend popups. I realize how special Montrose Dog Beach is; I don’t want to hoard that. One of our core beliefs is that we should come together as Chicago businesses and showcase each other’s strengths. This is a very big opportunity for all of us. I told the team, let’s use what we’re doing here to showcase businesses like Rover-Time. We’re very intentional that we want to stay local. It’s been very encouraging to see how local dog services have gotten that vision and we actually sold out of our Popup Events within the first two weeks we offered signups this summer.

Your calendar is so full! We’re looking forward to joining you for the PopUp Event on July 14th! Any other events coming up that you’re especially looking forward to?
In the spirit of bringing together a community, we’ve partnered with Real Dog Moms of Chicago to create a community event every Thursday this summer. Every Thursday from 6:45-7:45pm, we host one of the following:

You’ve coined the hashtag “#MuttMoment”! What exactly is a Mutt Moment, and why are they important?
A Mutt Moment is an example where a dog teaches us what’s really important in life; causes us to go, “you know what, I’m taking life too seriously. Let’s realize what’s important here.” The same day our team came up with that term of a mutt moment, my dog Dufresne chewed all of my girlfriend Jessica’s closing documents after she had just bought her condo. It was the only time he has ever chewed any paper like that but for whatever reason he decided that he was going to chew through the originals of her closing documents. I came home to shredded paper all across the floor and I literally took a picture of it as soon as I walked in and was like here is a mutt moment, right? At the end of the day is anyone going to die? No. Can paper be reprinted? Yes. Why do we take life so seriously as humans? Dogs have this very unique way of having us slow down and realize what’s important. I think a mutt moment in a lot of ways, ironically, even though we call it mutt, is something that makes us more human. A dog teaches us what’s important enough to really love and how to interact in way that we are meant to with each other.

We’d love to hear more about Dufresne!
When I started my first company, I had two dogs named named Simon and Ginger who I would take to the dog beach. They were Maltese-Yorkie mixes (“Morkies”) and littermates. Our trips to the beach and seeing them frolic together brought me such immense joy. Unfortunately, when I was divorced a few years ago, I lost both Simon and Ginger in the separation. It was a huge loss for me so I waited a while before I got a new pup. When the time came, I decided that my next dog  was going to be one I rescued. I was following all the the local rescue shelters’ social media feeds and I saw plenty that drew my heart to them but none that made me stop in my tracks and say, that’s my dog.

It was in February two years ago that I was watching a video Found Rescue posted of a small Pittie-Boxer mix. This little pup you could tell was so innocent looking and yet at the same time so smart. They were having him do all these different types of tricks. Somehow looking in his eyes and seeing how engaged he was with the trainers, I said that could be my little guy. So I went and met him and did the two week trial adoption period. I fell in love with him. I was drawn to the fact that he was a pittie. Going through a divorce can be a very humbling experience and it was the same time I sold off the ownership in my prior company that I started so I was kind of starting anew. I can really relate to the fact that people could look at me and form judgement that wasn’t true. In a lot of ways it looked like my life was a little bit chaotic and I resonated in the fact that I knew my heart was true. Pitties are like that. Their heart is true and they’re judged unfortunately by their outward appearance too often.

I also was intentional in naming him Dufresne. The first movie I watched as a teenager that really resonated with me in a substantial way was Shawshank Redemption and the notion that no matter what life throws at you, you never give up, you try to see the best in people and opportunities, and  if you do that long enough, good things will come. So I named Dufresne after Andy Dufresne. He has been life changing; he’s my partner in crime.

Special thank you to Paul for sharing his story with us. It was incredible to see the heart and vision that makes Mutt Jackson so unique. Rover-Time can’t wait to popup on our beach this Saturday!

To join us, click here.

Becky is Rover-Time’s Operations Director and has been with our company since June, 2014. She supports the relationships we have with incoming and existing customers. She also oversees new hire onboarding and Rover-Time’s success. She loves animals (especially her very own dog, Gretchen), improv, and learning to cook. And now, she also “loves” running.

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