It was love of a dog that spurred creation of Wag N' Wash.

And it's the mission of enhancing the life of man's best friend that drives the company as it celebrates nearly 20 years since its start in Colorado Springs - and the recent opening of its 18th location, in Monument.

Jef Strauss and Dan Remus opened the first Wag N' Wash on the Springs' west side in 1999. It was small - just 1,500 square feet - with a self-dog wash, a small biscuit bakery and a shelf or two with pet products.

"The driving force that started the business was Geni, our Dalmatian," Remus said. He and Strauss were in jobs that kept them from home for 12-plus hours a day and they felt guilty, he said, about neglecting their aging canine. So they started looking for a business where every day could be Bring Your Dog to Work Day.

They looked to retail since they both had retail backgrounds, Remus said. And since Geni was the inspiration, it made sense to find something pet-related.

"I started looking at some different ideas for pet businesses," Remus said. "There were few dog washes, and it was just an idea that intrigued me, so Jef and I started looking at it closer."

Dog bakeries were getting popular at the time, Remus said, and he saw the biscuit bakery as a way to contribute to the business during the week, since the main activity would likely be on weekends. But, he said, "we weren't that interested in competing against PetSmart or Petco," so they didn't stock up on pet products. Nor were they interested in grooming services at first.

Today, though, Wag N' Wash - which evolved into Wag N' Wash Healthy Pet Centers and now Wag N' Wash Natural Food & Bakery - includes do-it-yourself pet wash options, grooming, a wealth of natural pet foods, toys, pet beauty products and more.

"One of the things we have always done is listen to guests and what they're looking for," Remus said. "Really it's the customer base that drove us to expand the business model into what it is today."

It was also customer demand that led them to add stores, Strauss said.

With the first store, customers were coming from as far north as Monument and as far south as Penrose, he said. "It just seemed like we should think of a second location."

That second location, on the city's north side, opened at the end of 2004; they earlier had expanded the west-side store. Wag N' Wash now has five company stores, including three in the Springs, and 13 franchise locations coast to coast.

Remus said he would have been content with keeping things small and had initially been looking forward to almost "a hobby job."

"Jef was the driving force for making the business the size that it is today," he said. "He saw the potential and he had the drive."

Financing was a struggle when the two started Wag N' Wash.

"We could not get a bank on board," Remus said, "so we took a second mortgage on our house to start the business and crossed our fingers and worked really hard."

The banks perhaps did not realize what a growth industry Remus and Strauss had tapped into. The pet industry was valued at $17 billion in 1999. Today, that figure is close to $70 billion.

Natural food is the industry's fastest-growing segment, Remus said. They tapped into that trend early on when a representative from a natural pet food company led them to study what they were feeding their dog. Though they were feeding her a food recommended by their veterinarian, "we became appalled at the ingredients we were feeding Geni," Remus said.

All areas of the business - self-wash and grooming, pet food, retail and the bakery - are driving growth for Wag N' Wash, says Rob Flanagan, company president.

"Last year, for our stores open for more than five years, average growth was over 5 percent, which is extraordinary."

Online competition is a challenge, he said, but Wag N' Wash has an advantage in that part of its business - grooming and self-wash - isn't something you can get online. So people will come to the stores for those services and then buy other items, he said.

The self-wash services aren't limited to canines. Customers, Strauss said, have brought cats, goats, miniature horses, pot-bellied pigs and more to the stores for a scrubbing.

Looking ahead

So where does Wag N' Wash go from here?

Two more franchise locations are set to open this year, Flanagan said: one in Broomfield this summer and one in Lakeville, Minn., "probably late summer or early fall."

But, he said, there's no target for, say, five years down the road, or 10.

"We're really not focused on, 'Hey, we want to hit this number,' " he said. "You put that number out and you start rushing your real estate decisions, you start rushing your franchisee choices."

Strauss also isn't keen on targeting a number. "Our growth strategy," he said, "is really to work with individuals who could be good franchise partners."

And what makes a good franchisee? Someone, Flanagan said, with a love of animals who is excited about running their own business but who also understands that beyond that dream is the reality of running a business - handling cash flow, directing staff, dealing with problems. "Most have been part of corporate America and have always just had that yearning to work for themselves," Flanagan said.

Strauss adds another trait. "Part of what's been important to Dan and myself, from early on, has been community nonprofit support," he said, and so they look for that community spirit in franchisees as well. In 2017, Wag N' Wash stores donated more than $100,000 worth of pet food, washes, merchandise and monetary donations back to their communities.

The estimated initial investment for a franchisee ranges from about $525,000 to $750,000. Wag N' Wash has field representatives who visit the franchisees several times a year.

In addition, Strauss and Remus - who lived in Monument when they started Wag N' Wash and now live in Denver - try to visit all the franchisees once a year in an effort to maintain a consistent level of service.

"We focus more than anything on what is the why of our business," Flanagan said. "Why are we doing this? For us, it's about enhancing the lives of companion animals. So when we get into talk of cleanliness and brand standards, we're talking about it because it all serves this really amazing mission. So it changes the conversation from 'Oh, I have to clean this' to 'I'm improving the experience of guests and animals.' "

Wag N' Wash has grown as attitudes toward pets have evolved. Flanagan grew up in a farming community where dogs were often on chains in the backyard, he said. Today, dogs and cats are more often considered cherished members of the family.

"It's been a huge trend," he said.

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