By Daryl Conner
“They said I couldn’t do it, people thought I was insane,” Laura Jayne Sabbah said, “But here I am, four years, two vans and a great team of employees, and the phone keeps ringing.”
“I am happy to share my story because people get discouraged when others tell them ‘no’. I heard ‘no’ from banks, investors, the city, everyone. But I realized there is never a ‘right’ time, and if I didn’t pursue my dream, I’d blink, wake up at 50 and be bitter that I never tried. Life is designed to repeatedly punch you in the guts to keep you on your toes, but if you want to get things done, you just have to go for it.”
And ‘Go for it’ she did. Raised in New Jersey and Connecticut, Laura started out bathing dogs in a kennel as a teenager in the ‘90’s. “The groomers there taught me how to do the basics. Most groomers I knew didn’t go to schools, they’d find an employer and become an apprentice,” says Sabbah.
From there, Sabbah got a job as a packer for UPS and attended what she called a ‘no frills’ grooming school in Connecticut. “I went in knowing the basics; I wasn’t flying blind. I wanted to learn things like handstripping, and they told me I’d never do it. If I wanted to attempt a certain trim, I’d have to completely dematt the dog first just so I could practice.”
While at school, she was introduced to mobile grooming. “One day, a mobile groomer came in and showed us her beautiful [mobile] van. She looked so happy, she loved her job, her van, her customers and her schedule. Something clicked, I wanted that, too.”
After school she moved to Florida. “I rented space to groom from pet stores. I was doing a lot of short haircuts and dying a few tails pink. I basically put my professional growth on hold, but at the same time I was learning a ton about how to run a business. Since grooming was very seasonal and tourist–dependent, I also worked managing a tattoo shop and in bars and restaurants. I learned unique ways to be creative and make a business work.”
With a strong desire to improve her grooming skills, Sabbah moved to the Washington, DC area. “Education is best in the northeast for groomers. There are more trade shows here, and good mentors are clustered here,” Sabbah says.
Her experience up to this time had been that groomers hated each other. “They were like Beta fish—no one could get along. Then in 2012 I discovered Facebook grooming groups. It was this incredible, door–opening thing. Suddenly there were thousands of groomers in these groups helping each other. Industry leaders were there, willing to help and answer questions any time.” So she read, asked and learned.
Sabbah had a dream of living in Manhattan, so she found jobs and mentors there. “Dogs have lots of coat in NYC, shaves are rare,” she says.
With a hunger for learning, she said, “I started going to trade shows like it was my job. Started buying books like it was my job, got good shears and products, and really worked to improve my skills.”
At her last place of employment, she began to feel more confident about her grooming proficiency. Around this time she started thinking about getting a van and going mobile. “Other groomers told me that there was a reason why there are so few mobile groomers in the city. There is no parking—a mobile groomer would be getting so many tickets. I said, ‘I’ll just figure the cost of tickets into my overhead.’”
Sabbah told me that there are only around 15 mobile groomers in all five boroughs of New York City. She also said that there are 300,000 registered dogs in Manhattan, “So triple that, because nobody registers their dogs,” she added.
She also explained, “There is a regulation in the city that you have to take an animal handling class to be a groomer. Grooming salons in NYC are regulated by the health department, they regulate every operation, and they don’t sanction mobile grooming. There is a conception that mobile grooming is illegal in the city, but I have a federal tax identification number, pay taxes to the city and state, and have customers who are health department employees. It was a headache for me to try to find out all the information to be in compliance with the laws, even LegalZoom had problems. But here I am, with big pink vans, making it happen.”
She started out with marketing. She got her logo, had her webpage done, and then began the process of getting approved for financing for her van. “It was considered a high–risk loan, because, even though I had excellent credit, I live in the city. No house, no car, no collateral.”
Undeterred, she got creative and made it happen. “I founded my business with earth–crushing debt. When I started out, I was paying bills, taking no paycheck. It was like taking care of a baby every day. I worked three days at my existing job, and four in the van for a while. To get the word out about my business, I’d do things like park the open van near a busy sidewalk and put a bubble machine out to attract attention. I had dog treats. I’d invite friends to hang out with dogs to create interest. Dog walkers would see us, pet owners, too, and the phone started to ring morning, noon and night. In six months, my business was paying its bills, but I still wasn’t paying myself.”
As busy as she was, she also wanted to help animals in need. “I wanted to do something good, so I approached the Humane Society and offered my services for free. At first, they were unsure, but I said they could send a staff member on board. After a while they built up trust, and then they sponsored me as New Yorker of the Week. A camera crew came out and interviewed me, and my business kept growing. I had planned on doing this solo, because a new business is about as stable as a 15–year–old girl. I had planned to work by myself and have a happy work environment. But the business quickly grew to the point where I needed a second truck.”
I asked how she managed to find good employees: “I’ve gone through every single stereotypical mistake that every business owner goes through. I’ve made every mistake there is. Now I have an incredible team; someone to do administrative duties so the groomers can enjoy their job, and my best friend, Maria Lopez, who started out as my hair stylist, went to grooming school and is now working for me.”
Part of her team is her husband, Anthony Massaro. “He has been unbelievably loving and supportive behind this whole process. I can’t even put it into words, but I could not have done this without him. I’d work 12 hours, 7 days a week, and I’d get home to find him there with dinner on the table and wine poured. He’d let me vent until I was done, and keep the household going so I could take care of my new business and myself.”
So, what about that parking situation? “It’s taken me four years to perfect. Most areas have commercial parking, and I have commercial license plates. That gives me the right to pay for parking in a certain area. I can also park in front of a hydrant if I have an employee in the driver’s seat, or I can double park with an assistant there to move the van if necessary.”
When it comes to what Sabbah considers her keys to success, she said, “It’s not just about the grooming. It’s the customer service and the treatment of the pets, as well as the transparency and how we operate. Treating customers well is important in a city that can be so negative. I’ve found if I can make my customer’s life a little easier, I have a customer forever.”
She also exceeds customers’ expectations by giving each pet a goodie bag every time she grooms. “A poo bag, inside is a business card, a couple of treats and a toy. Every dog gets a Barkleigh report card, rolled like a scroll. Sometimes we spell the pet’s name out with stickers. People love them!”
As if she is not busy enough, Sabbah has been stepping into the grooming competition ring with frequency. “I’ve learned more competing than I have in the past two decades, and I was working on it!”
She is also giving some classes at trade shows. “I know a lot because I study a lot. Business is my forte—strong marketing and customer service.”
They said she couldn’t do it, but then this talented, tenacious groomer proved them wrong. You can find her making her dreams come true and finding places to park her big, pink van in Manhattan. ✂️