There’s a sense of community when customers walk into Dawgs All Day. It’s not the decor, or the sounds of happy dogs playing in the back of the shop— no— its owner Vannessa Cruz’s warm and welcoming greeting that gives her business a touch of home that has made it into a Bushwick staple.
In 2015 Cruz, 38, opened the doors of her shop. Her vision was simple— to bring a warm and helpful daycare and grooming service to her neighborhood, just like the businesses she was used to growing up around in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
“From the same friendly faces and exchanges, to the convenient bodegas and local Spanish restaurants with cheap good eats just a small walk away I want this to feel exactly the same as when I grew up” says Cruz about the environment she wants to create.
Cruz spent the better part of the last 20 years as a bookkeeper, a career she started as motivated 18 year old at a Long Island golf course. Eventually her passion for numbers lead her to pursue a career in business management at SUNY Old Westbury. Unfortunately her pursuit in higher education was short-lived as Cruz, who at the time was living on her own, couldn’t afford to continue going college.
Shortly after, she moved to Bushwick to continue her career as a bookkeeper until 2010, when she was unexpectedly laid laid off.
“At that time in my life I was going through a phase where I didn’t feel like I needed to have responsibilities — I wasn’t good with time management, I became super disorganized and was having a hard time just trying to figure out what I should do with my life,” admitted Cruz.
Unsure of where her life was going Cruz took the advice of a close friend who suggested she adopt a dog. In come Bruce, the Labrador Hound she found at the ASPCA in 2010, when he was just a two month old pup.
“Once I adopted Bruce I started doing research on how to make a better life for him, how to train him, what foods to give him and overall what I could do to make sure he always felt great — so one day I just thought why not open my own place,” recalls Cruz. “I wasn’t sure how this was going to turn out when I first opened, but I knew I wanted to provide a place I would feel comfortable taking my own dog.”
Three years later she has made good on her promise to enhance Bruce’s quality of life and that of the dogs she serves. But while she has created an exciting canine curriculum filled with activities like backyard ball pits, pool parties, and Halloween celebrations, Dawgs All Day represents more for her community in Bushwick.
Since she opened, Cruz has made a conscious effort to turn Dawgs All Day into force of empowerment for Bushwick—particularly the staff who work in her shop—but it’s her own experience as a young Latina growing up in Brooklyn, that has made it possible.
“My only option as a teenager and Puerto Rican girl was to flip burgers, so I decided I wanted to be a part of someone’s life, a young adult or teenager, to help steer them in the direction I was steered towards,” Cruz tells Bushwick Daily. “Having a few people I could look up to myself in the past has helped me significantly to strive for a better future.”
One of the people she has impacted since opening her shop is Devaney Delvalle, 21, who is a senior team members of Dawgs All Day and has a strong bond with the shop, the dogs and Cruz herself.
“She took her dream of not wanting to sit behind a desk for the rest of her life, went out on a limb and made her dream a reality,” said Delvalle, a Bushwick native who is Puerto Rican and Cuban. “Most businesses in Bushwick are owned by men, and she is succeeding as the woman behind it all.”
Being Latina business owner is another way that Cruz motivates Devaney and the rest of her staff. The training they receive in caring for off the leash dogs from Cruz for also play a large factor in their own growth process.
“I have learned so much and I feel like I have grown a lot since my first day, because the dogs test you and I have come to terms with being able to lead, but I also have to learn to trust them as they learn to trust me,” says Delvalle. “Vannessa has made me comfortable and she constantly shows us that it isn’t just about the dogs, but the team, and making sure we always work on our communication skills.”
There is a real investment in her team and just this year alone Cruz paid for Delvalle and several other staff members to become certified in pet CPR. She recently also help fund one of her former employees dog walking service, despite it being in the same neighborhood and a future competitor.
While her mentoring her staff is important, it’s also important for Cruz to use Dawgs All Day as a way to tap into the community. One way she has accomplished that is by working with the St. Nicks Alliance and their Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), which helps young men and women in Brooklyn find employment opportunities. Dawgs All Day currently employs two participants from St. Nicks Alliance and half of the shops permanent team have also come SYEP from previous years.
Cruz’s dedication to her community goes back to her upbringing, but it is also with an awareness of the future and what Bushwick is dealing with at the moment–gentrification. But like so many other people who have had to bare witness to a changing community, she struggles with the pros and cons.
“Bushwick is definitely a changing environment, I mean just think about how ten years ago you couldn’t always walk through here without having to look over your shoulder, and now I feel safe, but at the same time the people that lived here all their lives don’t get to enjoy a cleaner safer community, because they’re being forced to leave,” Cruz said.
Despite feeling conflicted, Cruz is aware of the community’s demographic and with the same consciousness she has towards mentorship, she ensures her customers prices for food, pet products and toys are below retail value. She also has specials on grooming services throughout the year, showing customers that Dawgs All Day is not just about the bottom line.
Though the shop has become a haven for the pups she serves and their owners in Bushwick, Cruz sometimes wonders how she made it all happen, and how this is her life.
“This is all still surreal to me! this shop, where my life is today, and believe me it still scares the hell out of me, because I don’t know the future, I don’t have a crystal ball, but I love it, I love what I do and love who is impacted by this place,” Cruz said.
All photos by Jonathan Gomez