By Jim Hagerty
DOWNTOWN — While their stories differ, all small businesses have a beginning.
Fresh out of high school, Angie Johnson headed for the coast to try her hand at whatever came along while she pursued a degree in business. It was California and her house was a boat. Life was more than the 18-year-old imagined it. There was a slight problem. There were few jobs to be had and Johnson was about out of options.
“I applied to a lot of places, but couldn’t find anything,” Johnson says.
Then came an offer for a position as a dog groomer. It required no experience and most importantly, it paid.
“It was great. I was going to establish residency and start school and I never planned on coming back. That was 26 years ago.”
But there was another twist to the life for the young, independent woman with a plan.
“My aunt and uncle decided to sell the boat and move to Colorado,” Johnson said of the unexpected course change. “So, I moved back to Rockford.”
While she didn’t have the degree, Johnson had something to fall back on: a newly learned skill that eventually led to a position in Rockford’s Miracle Mile district grooming dogs for small business called All Paws Beauty Salon in 2004.
“I realized I was good at it and found a lot of satisfaction from what I was doing,” says Johnson. “The dogs sometimes come in looking shabby but look really good when they leave. It’s kind of like creating artwork.”
Johnson built a clientele over those first two years, keeping All Paws on the map as a top local groomer. In 2006, her course changed again, only this time it would come with slightly more responsibility.
“I was already thinking that I wanted to own my own (grooming salon). Then the owner came to me and said, ‘I am selling the business and would like you to buy it,’” Angie recalls.
With Johnson’s latest change of path came a different perspective, one of an owner in a Rust Belt city where some people still have an employee mindset that goes back generations. For an entrepreneur, part of the challenge was how to continue making All Paws what it has been for the local market.
Realizing Rockford was not the city it was in 2004, Johnson took a leap and relocated a few blocks from City Hall.
“I love downtown,” she says. “It was a big move but it doubled my business.”
Johnson’s also good at what she does. She grooms a dozen or so dogs a day – sometimes more. That’s not bad for a one-table salon, she says.
But that could change soon, too. Johnson is currently training daughter Bailey, 18, a recent Auburn High School graduate with career aspirations of her own. She is not sure what will come next but knew a transition from her retail job at a shoe store to one alongside her mother was a natural one.
Bailey says she’s learning the family craft and the family business. A move from the dog-grooming world is certainly an option but she has time to decide.
“I might teach dance,” the former CAPA student said.
Like other retail businesses, dog grooming is available at All Paws’ competitors, mostly those on Rockford’s east side. And while she is a staunch supporter of doing business with local merchants, Johnson recognizes how the service fits into their overall business plans.
“There is a convenience there for people,” Angie said. “The box stores will groom at night, and on Saturday and Sunday. But, they also charge double and triple what I charge and they charge for a lot of extras.”
De-shedding, shampooing and conditioning and de-matting are included in Johnson’s grooming price. They are all part of her service, not add-ons to others.
“I charge a little extra for brushing teeth, but that’s about it,” she said.
All Paws Beauty Salon is at 130 N. 1st St., next to Benny’s Cleaners. R.