St. Paul Pioneer Press 1/25/2011
By Richard Chin
When Mike Kuehn-Hajder bought a DoodyCalls dog poop pickup franchise in 2008, he thought something was missing.
So in between visits to scoop up dog waste from Twin Cities back yards, the 38-year-old Maple Grove resident devised a system to relieve cat owners of pet toilet duties, too.
"It was something the industry needed," said Kuehn-Hajder, who worked in sales and retail management before starting his own business. "We as an industry weren't doing justice to all family pets."
He got his first cat poop pickup customer in October 2008, and since then he's continually refined the concept to the point that the DoodyCalls company recently rolled out the cat litter service that Kuehn-Hajder pioneered to its 35 DoodyCalls franchisees nationwide.
Marc Samson, DoodyCalls public relations director, said there's gold buried in all that litter.
According to estimates from the American Pet Products Association, cats outnumber dogs in the United States, 93.6 million to 77.5 million.
"Those stats are very exciting for us," Samson said.
Samson said DoodyCalls is the first big pet-poop pickup company to offer cat-box butler service. And Kuehn-Hajder is the guy who made it work.
"He just jumped in head first and said, 'I'm going ahead to do it,' " Samson said.
Kuehn-Hajder's program works like this: For a single cat, he'll start you out with three covered plastic boxes full of clean cat litter. You keep one box available to the cat at all times. On the day he's scheduled to make a pickup, you snap the lid over the dirty box, put it on the porch and pull out one of the clean boxes of litter for the cat.
At his truck, Kuehn-Hajder disposes of the dirty litter, cleans and disinfects the box, fills it back up with clean litter and leaves it on the porch.
It's sort of like an old-fashioned milkman service, but instead of bottles of fresh milk, it's boxes of clean cat litter. You don't have to be home; Kuehn-Hajder doesn't come inside the house. The third box of litter is kept as a backup.
It's up to the customer how often Kuehn-Hajder visits or how many boxes of fresh cat litter he provides. The cost varies depending on the grade of cat litter you order. The price starts at $11 for one new clean box per visit.
But Kuehn-Hajder said that if you really want a scoopless experience, you might order four fresh boxes a week and just replace the boxes every few days instead of scooping. For his mid-priced clumping litter, that would cost $27.
For that money, Kuehn-Hajder promises that you no longer have to buy and haul home your own litter, scoop poop or scrub out the box.
"It's totally worth the money," said Minneapolis resident Caprice Bart.
Bart, a 42-year-old server in a wine bar, said that since getting the cat litter service six months ago, she no longer is nagged by the thought of a dirty cat box that needs to be cleaned or the cat litter that she forgot to buy.
"I don't like buying a 50-pound thing of cat litter and schlepping it upstairs," she said. "We don't have to do the sanitizing of the litter box in the winter in our bathtub. That grosses me out a little bit, frankly."
When she has told her friends about the service, "they kind of look at me like, 'What, you don't clean up after your own cat?' "
But the house smells better, and cats Kermit and Norma seem to like it. Norma seems to be hitting the litter box more accurately than before, Bart said.
"We just trade out the boxes, and it's like magic," she said. "It's the greatest service I ever signed up for."
Maplewood resident Michele DeMarre said she picks up after her dog, but she hired Kuehn-Hajder for cat litter service for her four cats. DeMarre said her son is assigned to do the between-visit scooping and he carries the litter boxes to and from the door.
"I don't do anything but pay the bills," DeMarre said.
Kuehn-Hajder said he's still perfecting his system. A custom cat box, a cardboard liner with odor-absorbing baking powder and special cleaning and pickup vans are possibilities, he said.
"Some people are like, 'C'mon, it's a litter box,' " he said. "But the odor... ." In his opinion, cat litter smells worse than dog poop.
But he thinks the business potential smells sweet.
Kuehn-Hajder said that so far, he has fewer than 100 litter box customers and they make up about 20 percent of his customer base. But he thinks that by the end of this year, his cat customers will outnumber his dog clients.
"No one else is really doing it like we are," he said.