A windfall can mean many things to a small business — the opportunity to hire a new employee, the ability to expand, the chance to add services — but for Jessica Ellis of rural Montesano, it’s all of those things and more.
“I’m super overwhelmed and grateful,” Ellis said on Nov. 7. “My husband can come to the farm and do the dream with me.”
Ellis, 33, and her husband, Thomas Ellis, 35, own Freedom Acres Dog Boarding up Middle Satsop Road north of Brady. Last month, Ellis won the grand prize of the Washington Coast Works Sustainable Small Business Competition for their operation.
Using the $10,000 prize, the Ellises are adding another “K9 cabin” to the business. The current K9 cabin has four kennels, and two wingback chairs for people and dogs to lounge on. The second cabin will allow for a total of 10 dogs for Freedom Acres. At 10 dogs, Thomas Ellis, who currently works as an arborist for the State of Washington and as a facilities tech for Summit Pacific Medical Center, will be able to devote all of his professional efforts to Freedom Acres.
“It was always a five- or six-year plan to add another cabin and have him work here full time, then boom, this happened,” Jessica Ellis said. “That five-year plan turned into a one-year plan.”
Jessica Ellis always has been a dog person, she says. When she was growing up in Rapid City, S. D., she trained and fed the family dog. While serving as an Army Medic, 2002-2006, she asked to be stationed at Joint Base Lewis McChord.
“I was always a little bit interested in Washington, and after I was here, I convinced my family to move here,” she said.
Most recently, she worked as a veterinary technician at Brady Veterinary Hospital. Clients were apprehensive of the general idea of boarding their animals, Ellis said.
“They had crazy guilt about leaving their dogs in kennels,” Ellis said.
Soon, clients were asking Ellis to pet sit, specifically owners of pets with special needs (dogs with diabetes or high separation anxiety). There were always horror stories of overnight kennels where clients say their dogs came home smelling badly because they were allegedly never let out — those kennels would no longer suffice. Pet owners wanted something more.
“People wanted something different and they were asking me to provide it,” Ellis said. “They wanted quality over quantity and they were willing to pay for it.”
A milestone in her personal life (the birth of her son) had her staying at home, and that allowed her to transition into Freedom Acres full time. Well, that, and a whole lot of help from her family and friends.
“This has been a dream of ours for many years, and it would not have happened without my awesome family,” Ellis said. The banks were skeptical when she approached them asking to fund the dream (especially when she planned to quit her job), she explained. “Our family and Brady Vet stood behind me and this is why it happened.”
So how does a dog kennel win a sustainable business award? It’s more than just the solar panel on top of the cabin, but that certainly helped.
“All the little things added up for (Washington Coast Works),” Ellis said.
The solar panel on the roof of the K9 cabin provides some 50 percent of the energy the cabin uses. The kennels are reclaimed chain link fencing that was bound for a landfill. The wall panels were found in a gravel quarry. The ceiling insulation is the former insulation at Shelton High School which the Ellises claimed during the school’s recent renovation.
One piece of the cabin that’s particularly interesting is the tongue and groove wood ceiling panels. Those panels were the old wood flooring of Union Stables in Seattle.
“It’s a piece of history. Those boards are more than 100 years old,” Ellis said.
And while the prize money will help the business expand, Ellis said they don’t plan to expand too much. After all, it’s the individuality of the kennel that attracts the clientele.
When a client brings a dog in for the first time, they may ask, “What will you do with my dog?” Ellis poses the question back to the client, saying, “What would you like me to do with your dog.”
A particular dog is let out at 4 a.m. for an overnight bathroom break.
“I’m happy to do it. It doesn’t take anything to go out in my pajamas and let the dog out so that client knows their dog is being taken care of,” Ellis said. “In other kennels, that wouldn’t happen, and the dog would have to go in the kennel and wait until morning to be cleaned.”
The wingback chairs in the current K9 cabin have inspired the direction of the new cabin. When Ellis put the chairs in the cabin, they were for clients, but the animals, when let out of their kennels, makes themselves at home on the cushions.
The new cabin, like the current cabin, will feature windows and drywall and furniture. The goal is to make the environment mimic home as much as possible for the dogs.
“It doesn’t feel cold and like a kennel. It feels like stuff they’re used to,” Ellis said. “It takes more maintenance and time, but it’s worth it.”
The new cabin could be ready as soon as summer 2017.
Freedom Acres Dog Boarding is on Facebook at Facebook.com/freedomacresdogboarding. Visit the Facebook page for additional information, or call Freedom Acres Dog Boarding, (360) 338-2010.
The Washington Coast Works competition was established by The Nature Conservancy and was sponsored by Quinault Indian Nation, the state Department of Commerce, Bank of the Pacific, Enterprise for Equity and the Herbert Jones Foundation.
Evan Mulvaney of Hidden River Farms in Montesano was one of two applicants to receive a $5,000 runner-up prize. According to a press release from Washington Coast Works, Mulvaney plans to use the award to drill an irrigation well to restore Caldwell Creek.