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From pet peeve to pet project

SMALL BUSINESS

A couple open a store to help make downtown L.A. more dog and cat friendly.

October 13, 2008|Andrea Chang | Times Staff Writer

For pet lovers Janene Zakrajsek and Rob Gaudio, living in downtown Los Angeles presented some difficulties for their four-legged friends.

Zakrajsek couldn't find the right kind of pet food for her cats, Bailey and Minx, without driving to a store across town. And with no dog parks nearby, Gaudio's Jack Russell terrier, Cosmo, had a tough time making friends.

Not wanting to abandon their big-city lifestyle, the couple opened a pet store in December at the corner of 6th and Main streets.

While providing convenience to the area's many pet owners, Pussy & Pooch Pethouse and Pawbar also has become a happening social scene -- a place where downtown dwellers meet and mingle, their pets sniff one another, and a small but thriving community comes together.

"Because the whole downtown area here is reinventing itself, I think that the store symbolizes that and we're reinventing the typical pet experience," said Zakrajsek, who moved downtown eight years ago after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in 1998. "Where is there a better place to have something so on the edge?"

Although Pooch carries the usual pet staples -- food, toys, accessories -- it isn't the traditional warehouse-type Petco or pricey pet boutique. To fit the character of the city and to reflect their own personalities, the couple thought the store needed some bite.

Which means that many of Pooch's offerings are decidedly unconventional.

For example, the store sells a pet shampoo called Sexy Beast and a doggy T-shirt with the image of a name tag and the words: "Hello, my name is Stud." (There's a matching shirt for female dogs, but we won't go there.)

The 3,200-square-foot store also houses a self-service pet wash area, a patio with wireless Internet and an art gallery for animal-themed works.

Over at the Pawbar, owners can treat their pets to made-to-order meals. Typical menu items: raw chicken and turkey nuggets, sausage stew, organic frozen yogurt and two kinds of nonalcoholic "dog beer."

"It's kind of like beef-flavored vitamin water," Zakrajsek, 35, said.

Aside from its products, Pooch boasts a social calendar that is loaded with parties, monthly Mutt Mingle mixers, obedience classes and pet adoption days.

Pets are always welcome in the store and to its events; there's even a large patch of grass called a Pet a Potty -- complete with a fake fire hydrant -- for visiting dogs with business to do.

"They do more social activities here than most nightclubs," said a downtown artist known as Matteo, who brought his Chihuahua mix, Chiquita, to a recent ice cream social at the store.

"This has become a doggy destination."

When planning events, the couple keep in mind the area's distinctive residents, many of whom are young, hip and single. So on Super Bowl Sunday, they threw an "anti-Super Bowl" party and served cupcakes and champagne. On Valentine's Day, they held a speed-dating-with-your-dog night.

Last month, Pooch, which has four employees, hosted a viewing party for the season finale of CBS' "Greatest American Dog." More than 200 guests and about 50 dogs attended, including the reality show's winning team.

After posing for photographers on a strip of grass representing a red carpet, guests chatted over mini sandwiches, artisan cheeses and wine while a DJ played music nearby.

"There's a great energy here -- people are here to have a good time," said Valerie Kelly, 38, a wine and spirits sales rep from West Los Angeles who came with friends. "And there's not an unhappy dog in the house."

But it's not all about parties and social events for Zakrajsek and Gaudio, who married in Las Vegas two years ago in a gondola at the Venetian hotel.

To launch the store, the couple visited pet shops, attended trade shows and combined their different strengths -- hers in design and merchandising, his in finance and operations -- with their shared background in marketing.

When customers visit Pooch, Zakrajsek and Gaudio are happy to dispense pet advice, whether it's talking up the benefits of raw food or the most effective leash for a large dog. Cosmo, who spends most days in the store, often helps demonstrate how products are used.

To accommodate people who work late, the store stays open until 9 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

It's that kind of convenience that persuaded downtown couple Kim Parmon, 24, and Matt Freitas, 28, to adopt a puppy in July.

"Knowing Pussy & Pooch was here helped in our decision," Parmon, an actress, said. "We've gotten a lot of suggestions already. It's really great to have a place where you can interact with other pet owners."

Their dog, a boxer-shepherd mix named Dexter, has quickly become a big fan.

"Every time we walk this way," she said, "he pulls us into the store."

Pooch has seen steady month-over-month sales increases, Gaudio said, although he declined to reveal revenue figures. If things continue to go well, the couple would like to expand to other locations.

But the downtown store and its eclectic crowd will always be the priority, they said.

"We just wanted to be a part of that evolution and to stake our mark early," Gaudio, 36, said. "There's a few things that really stick out when you think of downtown, and we want Pussy & Pooch to be one of them."

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andrea.chang@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Animal attraction

Business: Pussy & Pooch Pethouse and Pawbar in downtown Los Angeles is part store, part social scene for pets and their owners.

Owners: Janene Zakrajsek and Rob Gaudio

Employees: Four

Track record: The business has been open less than a year, but the owners say sales are building each month.

Aim: To create an edgy atmosphere that will appeal to downtown residents.

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