Since launching Winnipeg’s first pet-store-on-wheels in early June, Leslie Watson has grown used to people spotting her business name on the side of her retrofitted cargo trailer and remarking aloud, "Updog Boutique? What’s Updog?"
That’s usually when a light goes on inside their head, she finds, and they repeat the second part of their query, this time mimicking one of cartoon character Bugs Bunny’s most famous catchphrases.
"I’m not sick of the what’s-up-doc, what’s-up-dog joke yet. I still laugh every time I hear it," Watson says, standing inside her hard-to-miss unit which, on the day of our visit, is strategically situated a bone’s throw away from Shaw Park, site of the Winnipeg Goldeyes’ annual Bark in the Park promotion.
While chatting, Watson keeps one eye on Murtaugh, the two-year-old goldendoodle she and her husband Sean share, making sure he doesn’t, you know, sample the merchandise. A couple of weeks ago, while she was stationed opposite an off-leash park in Transcona, a black lab, sans owner, popped inside her trailer. The pooch took a quick look around before snagging a plush toy in its jaws.
"He ran out like a shot and I never saw him again," Watson says with a laugh. "I guess that’s the price of doing business."
In her "real life," Watson is a theatre stage manager for companies such as Winnipeg Jewish Theatre and Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. For years, she never took vacation during the summer, opting to ply her trade at Rainbow Stage instead. When she and Sean got Murtaugh two years ago, however, she decided to take June, July and August off in order to stay home with their pup. ("You mean like mat leave?" we asked. "More like mutt leave," she shot back with a grin.)
At some point that summer she mused she could really get used to being outside, going for walks in the park day after day. One problem: going a few months without a paycheque every summer wouldn’t exactly be great for her bottom line. That’s when she began brainstorming, trying to figure out if there was anything else she could do to make some extra cash, while at the same time not being separated from Murtaugh.
Because she was a "full-on dog-mom" from the moment she brought her pet home, she was very familiar with the wide variety of cool items one could purchase for their "fur-baby," everything from gluten-free treats to organic shampoos to the latest in dog apparel. She was also aware of Fashiontruck Canada, a highly successful, mobile clothing store started by a pair of Toronto entrepreneurs in 2014. ("Move over food trucks," read a Toronto Life review of the apparatus. "This spring, the fashion industry is venturing into roving-retail territory.")
She thought, what if she combined the two by buying a fairly inexpensive trailer, renovating it and stocking it with pet products she knew and loved? When she told Sean what she had in mind, including the part about how it would be cheaper than leasing a permanent space, he said, "You know, that’s actually a pretty good idea."
"Sold," she replied.
Watson bought her V-nose model, four-metre-long cargo trailer in March from a dealer in Grunthal. She parked it at her father’s place in Oakbank, where she and her dad spent the next six weeks revamping it, adding such amenities as shelving, windows, laminate flooring and solar lighting. At the same time, she was busily contacting manufacturers from coast to coast, people whose products she had either bought for Murtaugh in the past or had strongly considered buying, but hadn’t yet. She had one rule: she wanted to avoid stocking items dog owners could easily pick up at big-box stores.
"Yes, I was opening a pet store, per se, but I didn’t want to be fighting for customers with all the other (pet) stores," she explains. "I come from a theatre background where everybody works as a team and it’s a very compatible atmosphere. I didn’t want to go into retail if it was going to turn into this crazy, competitive thing. I don’t need that in my life. So as much as possible, I carry stuff that before Updog came along, you couldn’t find in Winnipeg, or had to go online to buy."
Among the brands you’ll find in her boutique, which can comfortably fit as many as five people and their four-legged friends at once: Bark Industry, a Calgary-based enterprise whose doggie backpacks have been featured on Dragon’s Den; DogDog Goose, an Edmonton firm that produces all-weather, bio-thane leashes; and Happy Daisy Gourmet Dogfood, a Winnipeg enterprise that, among other delicacies, offers kangaroo jerky, freeze-dried bison and salmon-trail-mix cookies. (Sorry, those are for your dog’s bowl, not your lunchbox.)
Erica Tse and Jill Bueddefeld are the founders of Pine + Bone, a Winnipeg biz that produces eco-friendly fashion accessories for dogs. They’re also the proud "parents" of Bunsen, Tse’s three-year-old Coton du Tulear, and Piper, Bueddefeld’s four-year-old goldendoodle.
"Besides Updog, Leslie is the person who started the Winnipeg Doodle Network, so Jill had gotten to know her well from doodle romps," says Tse, referring to a local organization that, according to its Facebook page, serves as a vehicle for "Winnipeg doodles and their owners to chat, give/get advice and tips and set up play dates for their local doods." "She asked us if she could carry our products back when she was planning Updog and, of course, we were thrilled at the opportunity to have some of our products in her mobile shop."
Some of the Pine + Bone items Watson has on hand are customized dog bandanas, bow ties and hair bows, the latter of which can be paired with a matching scrunchie for the dog’s owner.
"Updog is a fabulous idea and because Leslie has been such a big part of the Winnipeg dog community, we’re thrilled for her that it has become such a success, already," Tse says.
"Where haven’t we’ve been?" Watson states, when asked how far her Jeep-and-trailer unit has travelled during its first season on the road. "We’ve hit almost every off-leash park in Winnipeg, dog-friendly patios such as the one at Forth Café, as well as a Canada Day market at The Forks and a Luckygirl pop-up market in the Exchange."
As for out-of-town events, she’s been a registered vendor at Winnipeg Beach’s Boardwalk Days and she also attended a fundraiser in Morden in support of the Pembina Valley Humane Society.
To date, she has heard of only two other dog-related ventures similar to hers, both of which operate south of the border. Not that she’s afraid somebody might read this and think, "Hey, what a good idea, I should do that, too."
"Honestly, I think it would be great if there were a bunch of mobile shops in Winnipeg, selling all kinds of things," she says, adding that Updog should be out and about until the end of October, weather permitting. "Just like how a bunch of restaurants in the same part of town is usually good for business, the same thing would probably occur with mobile stores. The more there are, the more people will get used to seeing them and feeling they’re a convenient way to shop."
For a calendar-list of where Updog Boutique will be next, go to https://www.instagram.com/updogboutiquewinnipeg.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.