Small Business Spotlight: Palma Marinas and PHilthy Paws

Oct 16, 2019 34 days ago

Not everyone gets to combine their personal passion with a professional pursuit. For Palma Marinas, owner of the new self-serve pet washing business PHilthy Paws at 806 South 47th Street, the road to working with animals took nearly 40 years.

Palma grew up in the hospitality industry. Her father spent twenty years in the Navy working as a cook on submarines before he and his wife ran their first restaurant in South Jersey when Palma was 8. “The first restaurant was in a disco,” Palma recalls. Her father ran the kitchen, the dining room, and the banquet room. “By ten I was washing dishes and mopping floors,” Palma says. “By the time I was 13 I was waitressing.”

At home, Palma, an animal lover, had her pets. “I used to bring every stray home,” she says. “I’ve had fish, I’ve had turtles, my parents had birds.” She even brought a bullfrog in from her yard and named him Froggy.

While she was growing up caring for animals at home and helping out with her parents’ restaurants, she had front row seats for what it takes to run a business, and watched her father try lunch trucks and eventually open his own restaurant. Through her 20s she worked various front of house positions until deciding she wanted to try her hand at managing a banquet room. When she applied to a local country club, she was told she needed a college degree. So, almost 30, Palma became a college student for the first time.  

Palma earned an Associate’s degree in Business, then decided to pursue a Bachelor’s in Hotel and Restaurant Management from Drexel University. “That’s how I ended up here,” she says, gesturing to the neighborhood surrounding her business on 47th, just south of Baltimore. “I went to Drexel and never left.”

After earning her degree, Palma spent time as the production manager for Drexel’s cafeteria, then running retail at West Chester University, and finally ended up at Aramark’s corporate offices in Center City. Before she knew it, she had spent 17 years working for Aramark. “You get comfortable,” she says. She enjoyed the health benefits and vacation time, but she felt like her career had veered off course.  

The idea for her own business happened through serendipity. One day Palma got frustrated while giving her dogs a bath. She was trying to wrangle two dogs, including a 50-pound Chow Keeshond mix, and was having a tough time. Her back hurt, her tub was getting damaged. She complained to her husband who suggested she do something about it. “What am I going to do?” she responded. “Open a pet washing business?”

In the TV version of this story, we’d fast forward six months and watch as Palma cut the ribbon on her new venture. In reality, things were rockier, and it took departmental layoffs at Aramark for Palma to get serious about opening her own business.

Palma had several goals for her store. She wanted a place that felt like a spa for your animals; she wanted to differentiate from the pet chains who offer self-service washes as a way to get you to buy pet food and other items; and she wanted it to be in her neighborhood. “There are families here,” she says about the area around Baltimore Avenue. “It’s a growing community. Most of the people who have businesses here live here. This is where I wanted to be.”

She went through a few different names—first Pups Stop N Wash, then Pets Stop N Wash, so she didn’t seem to be discriminating against cats or other animals. The Eagles had recently won the Super Bowl and a friend suggested PHilthy Paws, with the first two letters capitalized to draw a connection with the city and the underdog status the Eagles had played up during their championship run.

With a name and the first version of a business plan, Palma now needed a storefront. She spent six months searching for a space before finding the storefront at 806 South 47th Street. Located a few doors north of Vietnam Café, the long-vacant store had formerly housed a plumbing store. Although the store needed a lot of work, Palma thought the location was great, so she signed a lease and went to the zoning board for approval.

And was rejected.

“I was heartbroken,” Palma says. All was not lost, however. The zoning board informed Palma she would need to be granted an exception for her business to exist on the first floor of a building that had apartments overhead. They also recommended she contact us here at University City District, so she could receive her navigating zoning, permitting, and more.

She reached out to us and was connected to Ryan Spak, our Project Rehab Manager. As part of his role for UCD, Ryan offers assistance to local business owners as a member of our department of Planning and Economic Development. In Ryan, Palma found a fellow animal lover who also has a soft spot for strays—our office men’s room was once locked for an entire afternoon because Ryan rescued an injured kitten and housed her there until he could bring her home, nurse her back to health, and find her a permanent home.

Ryan helped Palma through several iterations of her business plan, introduced her to members of the Spruce Hill Community Association and the Baltimore Avenue Business Association, and helped her apply for and secure a storefront improvement grant. Palma received a special exception from the Zoning Board in November of 2018, secured a contractor, and after a few delays and setbacks, had a soft opening in September of 2019.

Palma leads a tour through the space. “Right now we’re self-wash,” she explains as she shows off tubs of various sizes, including a huge one with a hydraulic system that can be raised and lowered to accommodate larger animals. “We supply the aprons, the towels, the shampoos. The water is already tempered for your pet so it won’t overheat, and the dryers are specifically pet driers. We then have add-on services for nails, and teeth, and ears.”

Eventually, Palma would like to hire a full-time groomer and additional services. “There are people who, as much as they love their pets, don’t want to bathe them. They want to drop them off and for someone else to do it.” She’d also like to expand to offer mobile grooming, doggy daycare, and dog walking.

First things first, though, she wants to build a loyal customer base. Although most of the clientele so far has been dogs, Palma wants people to bring in all types of pets. “You want to bring your bird, or your lizard? You can bring whatever animal you want!”

PHilthy Paws is open Tuesday through Sunday by appointment or for walk-ins. Visit their website for more information.

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