Ralph Bernstein’s Second Act

You know the cliché “If you love what you do you never work a day in your life”? For many years this did not describe Ralph Bernstein.

Bernstein had spent his entire career mired in the corporate world, with lots of obligatory travel, and never felt like it was the right place for him.

“I never felt comfortable there,” he said. “I always felt a bit like the proverbial square peg in a round hole.”

After his first wife died unexpectedly in 2011, Bernstein needed a place to take his dog for daycare while he was at work and boarding while he was away on business, which was nearly every week. And in the process, found his second act.

“I had seen ads for Downtown Dogs in the Skyway so I stopped in for a tour. I talked to the general manager, saw the whole facility, and I loved it,” he said. “It was convenient and just my kind of place – relaxed but professional. So, I started taking my pug there every day and it was great.”

And despite the peace of mind for his dog, he wasn’t finding it with work.

“I was sitting there thinking, ‘If I could do anything, what would I do?’ I’ve always been crazy for dogs and I thought I would open a dog daycare,” he said. But it wasn’t about opening a new dog daycare – it was owning Downtown Dogs specifically. “I really loved the feeling and the vibe; professional and friendly. And the employees that I interacted with were amazing. They knew my dog’s name by the second time she was there, knew her personality, and they knew me. And, of course, I loved seeing all the other dogs! Really, the highlights of my day were dropping the dog off and picking her up.

“On a lark, I called the owner and said ‘I’ve got a crazy question for you: Would you ever be interested in selling your business?’ And she said, ‘I’ve got a crazy answer for you: Yes, I would.”

In August 2014 he bought the, then 10-year old, business, and the 35,000 square foot building at 821 2nd Ave. N. in Minneapolis and he hasn’t looked back. He’s traded business suits for jeans and polo shirts – which isn’t to say that work as a business owner isn’t stressful. It is. But it’s a stress of his own making.

“It’s a big business. I have 19 employees (25 pre-Covid) and a capacity for up to 250 dogs daily. I have a mortgage and a new sister business, Dog’s Day Out, a DIY dog wash, and full-service bathing and grooming salon, so believe me, there is plenty of stress,” he said. “On the other hand, I am every committee, so if I want to do something, I do it if we can afford it; I don’t have to make a presentation to anybody. Frankly, temperamentally, it suits me much better than the corporate world.”

Part of what helps Downtown Dogs stand out from other daycare and boarding facilities is that there is no cookie-cutter approach to how they handle the dogs.

“We get that every dog has its own personality and should be treated like the unique creature that they are,” he said. Dogs are separated by temperament and play style, not just size. Bernstein and his wife, Abbe, have two small dogs that are nothing alike, despite being the same size.

“Frannie (the Pug) is maybe the laziest dog on the planet, and Lyle the Fox Terrier never stops; he only has two settings, on and off,” he said. “They would rarely be in the same playroom at Downtown Dogs, even though they’re basically the same size dog.” Another thing that sets Bernstein’s now 16-year-old business apart is that they take dogs of all ages, breeds, and sizes including bully breeds and giant breeds.

In light of these times, and to increase customer confidence and convenience, Downtown Dogs and Dog’s Day Out offer curbside service. The staff will “fetch and retrieve” your dog to and from your car upon request. The high ceilings and large, open-plan design allow for plenty of air circulation and social distancing.

In the spirit of Tikkun Olam, Bernstein’s love of dogs extends to helping local rescue and animal welfare organizations. Each year Downtown Dogs provides free boarding for more than 100 homeless dogs in need of adoption. It also sponsors a variety of nonprofit animal-related initiatives. Recently Bernstein partnered with Pet Haven, a dog and cat rescue group, to warehouse 25,000 pounds of donated cat litter, resulting in an annual savings of $50,000 for Pet Haven.

“On any given night, we’ll have anywhere from two to 10 foster dogs here from any number of organizations in town. I know these hard-working, worthy rescue groups – which almost always have more dogs than they have volunteer foster homes – really need our help. And I think our customers really appreciate our efforts to help repair the world for these needy pups.

“I just think that we’re all in this together and when we’re in a position to return some good fortune to the community, somehow we should. I see it as an obligation. Maybe it’s more of a Jewish value than a business value but, we should never be complacent about our business success. We should take some of what we are lucky enough to have and pay it forward to someone else.”

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