MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. — Thirty years ago, Debbie Levy decided to start a business. She already owned a boutique, so this venture would be her No. 2. The idea came to her in the backyard.
“I was cutting the grass, and there it was,” said Levy, who lives in Maryland Heights.
It was the thing every pet lover hates. The thing that can ruin a carefree stroll across the lawn. The thing that isn’t mentioned in polite company.
Levy saw money in it.
When she opened Yucko’s in 1991, it was one of the only dedicated dog-waste removal businesses in the area. Since then, dog ownership in the United States has steadily climbed, spending on associated goods and services has accelerated even more quickly, and the industry has blossomed in St. Louis. Outsourcing the most unpleasant aspect of having a pet prevents arguments over chores, keeps grass healthy and allows older people to avoid what can be a daunting undertaking.
“It’s definitely worth it,” said Roseanne Clark of St. Charles, who fell while scooping earlier this year and landed in the emergency room. She hung up her rake and hired Pootector, a Festus startup, to pick up after her two dogs.
Aside from the ick factor, the barrier to entry is low: Pooper-scoopers just need a shovel and some bags. Schedules are flexible. And a loyal customer base can pave the way for expansion into related enterprises like lawn care, dogsitting or grooming. But it’s not a cakewalk. There’s no escaping the vagaries of the weather. Margins are thin — weekly pickup of an average-sized yard costs around $15 — so efficiency is essential.
For years, Levy ran Yucko’s while managing her boutique and taking shifts as a bartender. Her customers were not shy about sharing their opinions of her side job.
“There were some jokes,” she said. “They’d say they didn’t want me to open their beer.”
Most professionals are good-humored about the nature of their work, giving their companies names like Paw of Doody or Mound Hounds. Marketing requires a light touch; the bright-eyed poop emoji is an advertising mainstay.
Jim Coniglione has been in the business two decades, and is something of a mentor for upstarts across the country.
“I call myself the King of Poop,” he said.
Coniglione, of Long Island, New York, was a tire-shop owner when he founded Scoopy Doo. Over time, the “entre-manure” expanded his customer base, hired employees and even workshopped a reality television show for Animal Planet.
The key to success, Coniglione said, is being serious about your work, but not about yourself. His fleet of vehicles are each emblazoned with Scoopy Doo’s motto: “We take a lotta crap from our customers.”
Jess and Les Pinion, the husband-and-wife team behind ScoopDawgz, sought advice from Coniglione before launching their Edwardsville company in April 2019.
The Pinions’ full-time jobs are fast-paced and desk-bound. They like the quiet, set-your-own speed of scouring for scat. The family business — their college-aged daughter often helps out — has seen steady growth, with an uptick this month as school and extracurriculars tug at families’ spare time.
“People think, ‘How are we going to manage these dogs?’” said Jess Pinion.
Annette Faerber’s two aging miniature dachshunds require a lot of her attention. Cleaning her Glen Carbon yard had slipped down on the priority list when she heard about ScoopDawgz a couple years ago.
“It’s nice to not have to think about it,” Faerber said. “Usually, I don’t even know they’re here.”
According to some surveys, as many as 40% of dog owners never clean up after their animals. Excrement can take a year to fully decompose. Because dogs eat a high-protein diet, their feces is acidic and damages grass. Bacteria, viruses and parasites can seep into the soil and contaminate waterways — or be tracked into the house.
Dave Thomas of Granite City operates a lawn care company, LandEscape. Minesweeper is his dog waste removal auxiliary.
Beyond a healthier lawn, “taking care of the landmines gives you barefoot confidence,” Thomas said.
Pairing the pickup service with mowing boosts his per-trip rate. Dog-poop removal alone isn’t worthwhile if it’s not part of a well-organized route.
“It’s really density-required when you’re only making 10 or 20 bucks,” Thomas said. “They all got to be next to each other.”
John Condon, who owns Affton-based Poop2Scoop, has had to contend with a slowdown during the pandemic he attributes to families with more time at home.
But pet adoptions have spiked in the past 18 months, and Condon thinks first-time owners will call him — eventually.
“When you get a new pet, it’s all new to you. You’re doing everything,” he said. Then the novelty wears off.
Condon opened Poop2Scoop two years ago. He had been studying to become an engineer when he decided sitting at a computer all day was not for him.
“It’s hard work,” he said. “But it’s nice to be outside.”
Michelle Short of Festus also made a career U-turn when she was furloughed from her job in the travel industry soon after COVID-19 paralyzed tourism.
She had recently paid her nephew to clean up after her rescued dogs, Murphy and Jackson. She could give that a try, she thought.
“I was always into animals,” Short said. “I wanted to be a vet, but I couldn’t do the math.”
She named herself the Pootector, launched a website and slowly built a client base. Customers have become her best sales tool.
“I recommend her to everyone I know,” said Linda McDowell of Ballwin. “She’s doing something most people would not want to do. She’s even here when it’s raining, God bless her.”
In the spring, when homeowners wanted to get their winter-neglected lawns in shape, calls for the Pootector piled up. A month later, Short hired her first employee. She’s now looking for another.
“There’s a ton of dogs, a ton of yards and plenty of work to go around,” she said. “It’s the most satisfying job I’ve ever had.”