Talking Shop: Who let the dogs in? This woman

Karen Mahmalji is in it for the wagging tails.

It's common for the owner of Top Dog Barkery to see pooches, quivering with excitement, pulling their owners in the direction of the store.

"It's hilarious and we love it," said the 49-year-old Irvine resident. "The dog knows he's going to get his favorite treat, so that makes us laugh and it's a great feeling."

The venue — with its tagline, "The Dog Lover's Boutique and Bakery" — is located in the Corona del Mar Plaza alongside Chico's, Sprinkles Cupcakes, Sienna Brown, Brighton Collectibles and other shops. Its airy, sun-filled interiors, outfitted in muted yellow, red and black tones, showcase tables and shelves teeming with an assortment of customizable sweaters, toys, beds, food and more.

But the one-stop shop is not only for pets. Colorful photo frames, water tumblers, wine stoppers and paw-print coffee mugs also cater to those who love them. And Mahmalji makes a concerted effort to buy items bought in the United States.

"Now that I'm in a small business, I realize the trends and that we need to support our own," she said. "I am a boutique shop and I really can't get everything that I need from a 'Made in America' source, but I try very hard to do that. Sometimes the prices are a little higher, but I hope people understand that that's what I'm aiming to do."

Laurie Allen of Newport Beach supplies whimsical and fun collars, leashes, harnesses and blankets to the store. As the owner of 72 Bark Place, she met Mahmalji about two years ago to offer tips about the dog business, and the pair struck up a friendship.

Although she supplies products to places in Huntington Beach, San Clemente and Laguna Beach, Top Dog Barkery is the only one in Newport Beach that sells her wares. That was a conscious decision, said Allen, 57, to avoid creating competition in the same city.

"It's a charming store," said Allen, who shopped there when her 10-year-old Labrador, Barney, who died earlier this year, was alive. "It's got really cute things and there's a lot of different stuff in here. I come here a lot and [see] people enjoying it — it's nice, friendly and fun, fun, fun."

Mahmalji was volunteering at the Irvine Animal Care Center when she decided that her next venture would focus on pets. So she looked around for locations before picking an upscale 1,300-square-foot space owned by the Irvine Company that formerly housed a Three Dog Bakery. She set up shop in late 2012, with products ranging from $1 to $200.

"Being high-end is a priority because of the area," she said. "It's the plaza, it's the clientele, and it's because I don't want to or have any intention of competing with Petcos and PetSmarts and any other [such] places. I wanted it to be something special where people can come in and get special attention, high-end customer service and also special orders — very customized."

Keeping animal care close to her heart, Mahmalji continues to foster pets and partners with different rescue groups, for whom she hosts events at Top Dog Barkery once or twice a month. In the same vein, she has extended an invitation for free appointment-based "doggy day care" to people who live or work near the store. By exposing the canines to people who stop by, it trains them and allows them to socialize, she said, which, in turn, can lead to faster adoptions.

A majority of clients — an even mix of newcomers and regulars — flock to the shop for its dog treats, some packaged or from local vendors, and others that are baked on-site, Mahmalji said.

Every day, she joins her team in making fresh cookies, cupcakes and cake slices that are free of salt, sugar and preservatives — all of which they taste to ensure the quality is up to par. "K9 Kookies," "P'Nutter Biscuits," "Boston Terrier Creampies," "Dognuts" and "Corgi Cannolis" are a few of the constantly evolving flavors along with beef, turkey and bacon pies, all of which can be cooked without wheat. Personalized cakes for special occasions are available to order with a three-day notice.

At the start of 2014, Mahmalji added a grooming salon to the list of services available at Top Dog Barkery. It's strictly by appointment, she said, and the pooches are in and out within two to three hours. Owners can choose from three packages that offer a bath, blow dry, breath freshener and even a blueberry facial.

"We treat them like family when they're here," she said. "We give the dogs treats, play with them, take them for walks while they're waiting to get picked up. It's a nice environment for them."

Other new additions include "Wacky Wednesday!" — featuring various promotions from 4 to 7 p.m. every week — and free "Sunday Barkfast of Doggy Woofles" (read: waffles) from 10 a.m. to noon. Also, puppy training classes are around the corner, according to Mahmalji.

Dana Hornberger, 55, is a devoted customer who has shopped at Top Dog Barkery for well over a year. She makes no apologies for wanting to spoil her five rescue dogs, all of whom are females.

"I actually have a PetSmart right by me in Tustin Hills, but it's always hit-and-miss and they don't have anything fresh or special," she said. "There are other dog stores in Orange County, but they're far apart. What's nice is that I can get everything here — I don't have to go get a leash in one store and something else from another."

Hornberger makes it a point to attend special events hosted by Mahmalji, like a Christmas-themed one where Santa Claus made an appearance, and others with photo opportunities and trick contests. Not only is she able to see unusual dogs, she quipped, but it gives her the chance to fraternize with fellow dog lovers.

But her favorite aspect of Top Dog Barkery, hands-down, is the bakery.

"You know how there are treats that some dogs are so-so about?" Hornberger asked. "I break these [into pieces] and I'll see my dogs go [cranes her neck] from the couch and come galloping in. They go berserk — completely insane."

If You Go

What: Top Dog Barkery

Where: Corona Del Mar Plaza, 924 Avocado Ave., Newport Beach

When: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

Information: or (949) 759-3647

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