The store opened in late December at 2809 Thorndyke Ave. W., in what was previously a medical marijuana dispensary. Photo by Joe Veyera
The store opened in late December at 2809 Thorndyke Ave. W., in what was previously a medical marijuana dispensary. Photo by Joe Veyera

The sketch of a smiling, soapy golden retriever greets those passing by a new storefront on Thorndyke Avenue West.

That’s Winston, though owners Erika Hargadine and Keith Bower went with one of their seven-year-old pup’s nicknames for their business, Gigglechops Dog Wash (2809 Thorndyke Ave. W.), which opened in late December.

But the impetus behind starting the new self-service shop goes well beyond a love of pets. It’s a chance to provide employment opportunities for a community that’s often overlooked in the job market: those with special needs and learning differences.

Hargadine’s son is among the millions of Americans who have autism, and she had come to notice the difficulties that he and his friends faced when it came to finding work.

To her, a self-service dog wash made sense as a business that could well-serve employees who aren’t neurotypical.

For one, it allows for a systematic approach to each task, from greeting customers when they enter, to cleaning the tubs after they’re finished. Employees work off a set of checklists, going step-by-step through every process.

“Everything has a standard operating procedure,” Bower said.

The dogs themselves provide a point of easy discussion, which can take off some of the social pressure.

“From a customer service standpoint, dog owners like talking about their dogs,” Hargadine said. “That’s all we talk about.”

That’s not to mention how the dogs themselves interact with the employees.

“Animals don’t care, they don’t care if you have special needs or not,” she said.

For one employee, Eric, the key word is intentional.

“If you have a disability, an employer who understands disabilities and work with you, sets a process, that’s better than working at Safeway or Fred Meyer,” he said.

He also noted that such opportunities are rare, and that there’s a gap of knowledge for many employers when it comes to workers with special needs.

“A business like this, you get to develop relationships with customers, the owners, and you can feel that you’re understood in more fulfilling work than working for another place,” he said.

Hargadine also mentioned that their business provides its employees with the chance to do things they couldn’t elsewhere.

“They’re actually getting to do things that maybe they wouldn’t have the same opportunity at a grocery store or a restaurant,” she said.

There are plans to expand the purview of their work, as well. Hargadine said the hope is to find an experienced groomer willing to mentor someone with special needs one-on-one.

“That’s a growth opportunity for someone,” Hargadine said.

Bower said it took about six months to get the business up and running, including the time it took the convert the space that last housed a medical marijuana dispensary.

“It was completely empty,” he said, “So everything that you see in here, the plumbing, the electric, the tubs, everything’s brand new.”

The soft opening was a chance to work with employees and determine the best approach to various jobs, with the understanding that each person may learn differently. Trying to launch at a busier time may have been overwhelming, he said.

“We knew that opening two days before Christmas, there wasn’t going to be a huge volume of people,” he said. “But it’s given us the opportunity to really work through and iron everything out.”

Now, the hope is customers will come see for themselves.

Gigglechops Dog Wash is open weekdays 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and weekends 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The cost for a wash is $19 for one dog, or $17 each for two or more in the same tub, any size. For more information, visit www.gigglechopsdogwash.com