Tom Batina saw his chance when he heard the Ritz-Carlton was planning to open a kennel. He had worked in hotel management, but he'd quit his job at the McCormick Inn to apprentice at a dog-grooming shop. "I just decided to get involved in dog grooming. I lived in this area and I thought, Gee, I should open a dog grooming shop here." But by the time he'd learned the basics of brushing, clipping, and bathing, he realized he didn't have enough money to open a shop of his own. So when the Ritz opportunity came along, he says, "I approached them and suggested they should open a full-service kennel with boarding and grooming." Twelve years ago he became manager of the Ritz kennel. A year later he took over ownership of the business, and he's been serving pet owners in the neighborhood as well as guests of the hotel ever since.
As he speaks Batina is cleaning the ears of a small poodle that looks like a balloon animal covered with white fur. Most of the dogs here look like that. They all seem well behaved and actually seem to enjoy the grooming. Maybe they learn it from their owners.
"People think we're a really chichi place," says Batina. "We're not. Sure we're in the Ritz, but we're in the lower level." Indeed, the place is simple and unpretentious. The poodles aren't snacking on Godiva chocolates or sipping brandy from snifters. And there are no satin-covered doggie beds. At the Ritz, guests are allowed to keep their pets in their rooms, and most guests do.
Still, Batina has to acknowledge that "we have a pretty nice clientele here," and when pressed he'll admit to having rubbed shoulders with Whoopi Goldberg's cocker spaniel and John Travolta's black Labrador, to name just a couple.
"A lot of the people who drop off their dogs are not the owners. They're the people who work for the owners. We get maids and chauffeurs bringing in the dogs. A lot of people call us up from car phones and we'll pick up their dogs at the curb to make it easier. It seems everyone has a car phone these days, but our customers have had them for a long time."
Batina comes in every morning at nine and devotes about an hour and a half to each dog. He starts them off with a good scrub and shampoo. The critters are then dried with a long cylindrical drier that looks like a device from Dr. Seuss's The Lorax. Next they are groomed with an electric clipper and brushes. For a finishing touch, perhaps a bit of work on the tail to fluff up the pom-pom. Prices vary, but grooming the average dog here costs about 35 bucks.
"You have to always be concentrating," says Batina. "I don't have the kind of job where you can stop and say, 'Oh, let's play with Charlie.' I'm pretty much working nonstop. You always have to think about what you're doing. You have to think, 'Am I cutting the right hair? Or am I cutting something else?'"
Batina reports that he's never had any major screwups at the kennel. The dogs are mostly cooperative, and he considers the job relatively hazard-free except for the danger of the large amount of fur that can accumulate if he's not vigilant. "I try to clean up as much as possible because they say that fur is one of the only things that the lungs can't clean out." For a while he tried wearing a mask--a health precaution that backfired. "You cant wear a mask the whole day. So you put it down and it gets full of fur and you put it back on and you wind up breathing in more than if you hadn't used the mask to begin with."
Batina takes his work seriously and is careful to emphasize again and again that he is simply a groomer, not Dog Groomer to the Rich and Famous. "Everything's pretty normal around here. We don't dye the dogs or give them perms or anything like that. The people who come here, rich or poor, all want the same thing; they all love their pets and they just want to make sure that they are treated well. . . . We don't even like to give treats. If people bring their dogs' treats, we'll give them. But if I were to decide to be nice and give a dog a treat, then I'd be taking a risk if the dog got sick. I don't want to take the chance of having an owner calling and asking, 'Did you feed my dog something while he was there?'"
It's a service business: "I'm happy that I can please my customers and be able to see some type of gratification a dog looking clean or looking nice. The dogs do feel better after they've been groomed. It makes people happy. People get a lot of pleasure from their pets and if they can be happy and see their pets happy, that's pleasing to me."
When Batina finishes a hard day's work, he goes home to a building that doesn't allow dogs. He does have a couple of cats. "I brush them," he says, "but I don't groom them as much as I should."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.