Doggie Duty: Picking up after Fido proves lucrative for Monona couple
When Peter Natzke turned 40, he started a side business he’d long been contemplating. “Some people buy a Mustang when they turn 40,” he laughs. He and his wife, Jordy, started Canine Butler Pet Waste Removal. After spending years picking up after his own dog, Peter said he “figured someone out there would pay to have someone else do this.” Twelve years later, the family business is thriving.
Their slogan reads, “We’re #1 in picking up Fido’s #2.”
“Ninety-five percent of the time, we’re extremely proud of this. … Five percent of the time we’re like, ‘What are we doing?’” — Peter Natzke
On a Saturday morning in March, Peter, 51, backs his silver pickup truck toward the Sycamore Dog Park’s chain-link fence. Moments later, he and his sons, Joshua, 27, and Matthew, 25, lift heavy bags of dog waste out of the park’s 55-gallon drums and hoist them over the fence and into the truck. Sometimes the bags break open, but not today. “On two,” Peter instructs. “One, two …” They grunt under the weight of each bag.
It is 8 a.m., and the family will be removing dog waste from parks, yards, and buckets until sundown.
Making dog business their business has proven lucrative for the Natzkes. Their initial goal was to put their boys through college, and they’re very proud that Canine Butler did, without the help of any student loans. Meanwhile, the business has continued to grow. “We can’t stop now,” Jordy admits. “Once we reach 180 customers, we’re in six figures, and we’re not far off. This company is our security.”
With three UW degrees between them, Peter and Jordy also hold down full-time jobs. He travels most of the week as a salesman, while she is a speech pathologist. Their “side business” now has 120 weekly customers and includes a contract with the City of Madison to dispose of waste at its 10 dog parks. Jordy recently cut back on her speech pathology job to accommodate the growth. “We can’t tell our customers that we won’t be there. I’m on vacation this week from my main job to pick up poop,” she says.
Spring in their step
This is the Canine Butler’s busiest time of year, as customers call for one-time yard cleanups after as much as six months of neglect. The unusually harsh winter, which kept people from going outside to pick up after their pets, is mostly to blame. With snowfalls every few days, layer upon layer of waste accumulated.
Spring cleanups have increased 100% over 2013, the Natzkes report, and have taken them from Prairie du Sac to Mazomanie, from Mount Horeb to Janesville.
The business now requires at least 30 staff hours a week, including administrative work. Consequently, the Natzkes work seven days a week, 52 weeks a year — rain, snow, or worse.
“Even when our son got married, we took time off so we could pick up poop before and afterwards,” Jordy says. “When you’re in a small business, it’s like a baby. You can’t just leave and go out for the night. The baby must be attended to.”
The business provides three primary services: A weekly yard pickup; a bucket service, where customers put dog waste into a provided bucket that is emptied each week; and a one-time (or spring) cleaning.
Picking up pet waste requires bending, heavy lifting, and a lot of hand sanitizer.
“Our customers are really diverse,” Peter says. “Some have seeing-eye dogs, some are elderly and can hardly walk to get out to their yard, and some have two incomes and just want it cleaned up.”
Mary Lou Finnegan, in her 60s, lives on the east side and has been a customer for over a year. “I have had several bad falls,” she relates, “and on ice, I was sliding around in my backyard. So I engaged Peter for the winter. But it’s such a convenience, I use him year-round.”
Suzanne Stapleton, 47, first learned about the service from her mother, who also is a client. “Anytime someone does something for my mom, it means I don’t have to,” she laughs. Stapleton has been a bucket customer for over a decade.
Often Peter and Jordy work separately, canvassing a typical yard in about 15 minutes. They’ve hired employees in the past at a livable wage of $15 an hour for part-time work, but retention is an issue. One man quit after his first day. That doesn’t impede Peter’s plan for growth, however. He’d prefer to be doing 10 times as many yards each week.
On poop patrol
They leave the dog park and drive a short distance to the home of a weekly customer, fanning out into the yard. “Just don’t look up,” Peter reminds everyone. At this time of year, waste often freezes into the ground, requiring a swift kick to loosen it.
Surprisingly, they have found that picking droppings up by hand — with latex gloves — is much more efficient than using shovels. “One time,” Jordy recalls, “when I was knee-deep in [our job], I looked up at Peter and asked, ‘Honey, is this the for better or worse part of our marriage?’ He said, ‘No, this is the for richer or poorer part!’” They laugh. In fact, the affable couple laughs a lot — a tribute to what has to be a solid marriage.
They crisscross the yard in quick fashion, scanning for deposits. It isn’t rocket science, but it can be backbreaking work. “You should take photos of us going to physical therapy!” Jordy jokes, bending down to scoop up a load. “We need to pick everything up,” she says. “If there are 20 piles, we can’t just pick up 15 of them and leave.”
But the psychological effect of the job can be more taxing than the physical aches and pains. “Starting each day can be hard. We always have to be there. We can’t just go to a Brewers game or to Chicago for a weekend,” Peter says, as the family members slather themselves in hand sanitizer and ready for the next yard.
Each week, customers receive a small plastic bag containing an original poem or haiku written by Peter, plus a couple of family-friendly jokes and a handful of dog treats. The leave-behinds have endeared them to their customers. “My dog gets excited when the truck arrives,” Finnegan says. “I love the jokes, and my dog loves the ‘Peter cookies.’”
The Canine Butler charges $50 per hour for a one-time service (15-minute increments of $12.50) with a minimum charge of $37.50. It is disgusting work, but it’s work the Natzkes take seriously and many people would rather not do themselves. “It’s also much cheaper than marriage counseling!” Jordy laughs. Weekly yard pickups average $44 a month for a “one-dogger” and more for additional dogs. Bucket service costs less.
Considering that their service is a luxury for most folks, their business actually weathered the economic storm better than the Natzkes expected it would. “We had customers say they’d eat peanut butter and jelly for a week rather than give up the service,” Jordy says.
Each week, the Natzkes collect well over a ton of dog waste, which they haul to the Dane County landfill. Spring cleanups can triple that tonnage. “We have taken over 8,000 pounds to the dump in the last two weeks,” Peter reports. They hope one day to partner with a company that could convert it all into biofuel.
Succession plans are somewhat sketchy. While sons Josh and Matthew understand the Canine Butler’s viability, “they didn’t necessarily sign up for this either,” Peter admits. “But if something happened to us, the business would survive. They’d either do it, or sell it.
“Ninety-five percent of the time, we’re extremely proud of this. We took a small idea, a niche, and grew a business. Five percent of the time we’re like, ‘What are we doing?’”
Their boys, who were in high school when the business first began, were initially embarrassed, their parents admit. “They probably thought, ‘Why couldn’t they get into baseball cards?’”
Canine Butler Pet Waste Removal
608.221.0975 | caninebutler.net
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