Written by Jim Murphy | Photos by Sadrah Schadel
Two dogs walk into a bar…
That’s not a joke anymore. In North Carolina, as well as every other state except North Dakota, dogs are welcomed at restaurants with outside seating. That should not come as news to anyone who has strolled past the many outdoor restaurants of Western North Carolina. From Great Danes to Chihuahuas, man’s best friends can be spotted lounging under tables or lapping at the water bowls put out for their convenience.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he dogs and their people both are enjoying this relatively new adventure. “I bring him with me as often as I can,” said a smiling Charlie McCoy. He and his dog, Cooper, were having lunch at the Mellow Mushroom in downtown Asheville. Charlie was enjoying his sandwich, and Cooper was enjoying the attention from surrounding tables. Charlie is typical of the dog owners who bring their pets out for a meal. He likes to talk about Cooper, who is part Boxer, part unknown, and all personality. “He likes the attention,” Charlie says. “He likes people. He’s a special little guy.” A water bowl sat untouched as the dog turned his full attention to a diner at a neighboring table, who was petting Cooper. “I like having him here,” the neighbor said. Cooper preened his appreciation as Charlie grinned.
The canine presence began more than a decade ago when Florida decided to loosen the health regulations that prohibited pets anywhere that food was served, including patios and sidewalk tables. Pretty soon other states made similar decisions, and a trend was born. In North Carolina the state health department updated its regulations in 2010. The new restaurant rule contains all the standard legalisms, for instance defining dogs as canis lupus familiaris. Larry Matthews, state environmental health chief, said, “the language in the previous rule was unclear.” Some restaurants were reading the rule to mean they could allow dogs in outside dining areas. “We decided to review the rules and recommend revisions. We consulted public health veterinarians, the FDA, and other jurisdictions. And we got a lot of public comments.” The public was strongly in favor of more dog access, and the Commission for Public Health voted to open the patio doors in the summer of 2010.
The rule requires dogs to be physically restrained and prohibits them from passing through indoor areas of the restaurant. It makes exception for service animals and specifies that pet access is at the option of the restaurant owner. Larry Matthews stressed that last condition. “The rule does not require a restaurant to admit animals. It simply says nothing prohibits animals. It’s at the owner’s discretion.”
In a business sense, that’s not much of an option. “We embraced it because it’s a peer pressure thing.” David Lindell, general manager of the Mellow Mushroom, says management discussed the dog issue at length. “You can’t be the only restaurant with a patio to deny dogs in Asheville. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t. We knew there was no way we could be the restaurant that stood out because we don’t allow dogs.”
David Lindell showed a measured attitude on the dog issue, but other restaurant managers sounded more positive. “We’ve had our moments, but overall it has been a good experience for everyone. I think it’s fine,” said Steve Larson, owner of Murphy’s Saloon in Boone. “Our clientele is pretty local. A lot of people know each other, and they know the dogs. Our waitresses are good to the puppies. They bring them water in bowls we use only for the dogs. We call them dog specific bowls. Overall having the dogs around is probably good for business.”
None of the restaurant people we spoke with could quantify just how good —or bad—the presence of pets might be for their business, but Pablo Gomez, general manager of Luella’s Barbecue in Asheville, offered an indication. “That’s why we opened our patio,” he said. “It’s not only for people who want to be outside, but also for people who have dogs.” Luella’s went to the expense of adding a patio partly to accommodate the canine market. “The plan was oriented to make people feel comfortable coming here. People like to walk their dogs and bring them in while they have dinner. Some of the dogs are regulars here. We recognize them when they come in.”
Adding a patio to attract the canine clientele is a sign that going to the dogs might mean good business, but some restaurants have taken it a big step further: dog menus. Bistro 17 on Hilton Head Island and the Square 1 Burger chain in Florida offer chicken-and-vegetable dishes designed to set tails wagging.
It is not only restaurants hanging out “Pets Welcome” signs. Hotels and motels are also bidding for the business of vacationers who can’t bear to leave behind their best friend, who is, after all, a full-fledged “member of the family.” The expanded pet options have spawned a small industry of websites that cater to pet-friendly experiences. The standard search sites, such as Yelp or Urban Spoon, include “Pet Friendly” categories, and other sites specialize in dog accommodations and services. One of the largest of those pet-specific sites is Bring Fido (www.bringfido.com). It lists 40 dog-friendly restaurants in Asheville and includes listings for towns from A (Arden) to W (Weaverville) in the surrounding area. Each listing has a short description of the place, the menu, and whatever customer reviews it might have.
The website has been online for eight years now and, Rebecca Barnett, social media manager says, it gets a million unique users a month. “We were able to double in size each of the first five years, and we’re still growing,” she says, listing two reasons for their growth. “When we started, there was not an organized location for this information, so when people found us they were very happy to have this resource. Also, statistics indicate a larger percentage of millenials have dogs than baby boomers. More young people with dogs means a greater demand for dog accommodations.”
[quote float=”right”] “We have a little sign out front, saying ‘Dogs Welcome.’ And we put out water dishes and give them free dog biscuits. The dogs don’t cause a mess or raise a fuss. And they get attention. People passing by will stop a few minutes and talk with the owners.”[/quote]The numbers are enough to get the attention of any entrepreneur. According to the American Veterinary Medicine Association, more than 43 million families claim nearly 70 million dogs as part of the family. With a market that size strolling down the avenue, one can imagine every restaurateur saying, “by all means, please take a table on our patio.”
But to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln: “You cannot please all of the people all of the time.” Not everyone is a dog lover. “Of course a few people complain,” says Mindy Jones, general manager of the Town Tavern in Blowing Rock. She is quick to add, “but for the most part, everyone enjoys them.”
Larry Matthews at the state health department echoed the positive response. “I’m not aware of any complaints,” about dogs at restaurants, he said. “Of course most of the complaints would be made to the local health departments, which enforce the state health regulations. But we haven’t gotten any feedback” to indicate that there may be problems, he said.
David Lindell at the Mellow Mushroom expanded on an aspect of the dog market that is not all cute and fuzzy. “It comes right down to each individual. Some people are very good about keeping their dogs under control; some people aren’t. Some people understand they can’t bring their non-service dog inside when it starts to rain; some people don’t.”
David says they get only a couple of complaints a year about dogs on the patio. And he classifies the problems caused by dogs as “small hassles here and there. Even some of the things we had trouble with in the beginning have subsided. People who have troublesome dogs began to realize it, and they’re naturally adjusting. Everyone thinks, ‘My dog is nice’. But someone with a dog that begins to act aggressively on the patio will begin to understand that none of the other dogs are doing this, so perhaps my dog is the problem. And now they leave the dog at home.” Would it be easier to run the business without dogs on the patio? “Absolutely.”
Dogs may present an occasional hassle, but some restaurant owners welcome them with open arms — and biscuits. Tommy Wright, general manager of Mike’s on Main in Hendersonville, has trouble concealing his enthusiasm when the topic turns to dogs. “We have a little sign out front, saying ‘Dogs Welcome.’ And we put out water dishes and give them free dog biscuits. The dogs don’t cause a mess or raise a fuss. And they get attention. People passing by will stop a few minutes and talk with the owners. I think it’s great. Pets can go on vacation with their families.”
It’s also a matter of keeping the customers happy. “We have regulars that come in every day,” says Mindy Jones at the Town Tavern in Blowing Rock. “I’m sure they would be offended if I didn’t let them bring their dogs.”
Patio dining is delightful on those mild, sunny days when the great outdoors lives up to that description: great. But what about those other days, the windy, chilly, drab days of winter when the threat of rain or snow sends us searching for shelter? If you want to bring your best friend along on those days, you’ll have to forego a meal, but you can still enjoy a beer with Fido by your side.
[quote float=”left”]“We decided to review the rules and recommend revisions. We consulted public health veterinarians, the FDA, and other jurisdictions. And we got a lot of public comments.” The public was strongly in favor of more dog access, and the Commission for Public Health voted to open the patio doors in the summer of 2010.[/quote]The law prohibits dogs inside any building that serves food, but they are allowed in places that confine their servings to the pourable variety. Dogs are allowed in bars if they do not serve food. In Western North Carolina the most readily available establishments that meet that food restriction are breweries. And while non-food establishments that serve the full range of spirits are hard to find, in this part of the country breweries are hard to miss.
Most of the craft breweries have more in common than their product. They generally occupy older industrial buildings, where tall stainless steel containers serve as a backdrop for the bar area, with its concrete floor, big-screen TV mounted on a wall (and usually showing some sports event), a back bar featuring about a dozen taps, and a series of hand-chalked signs announcing the varieties of suds available on any given day. Somewhere behind the bar stands a small display of sports trophies. Several of these dog-friendly establishments are neighbors on Asheville’s south slope.
Twin Leaf Brewery seats about 80 people, and owner Tim Weber says, “there’s always dogs in here, as many as six or eight at a time; and, they never cause any problems.” He’s happy to have dogs as an auxiliary clientele, but he is quite unhappy with the regulation. “It just doesn’t make any sense. Customers can bring in their own food and sit inside here and eat it. But I can’t legally serve food if we have dogs in here.” He shakes his head in resigned frustration.
Larry Matthews at the health department says simply, “the regulation governs food for sale to the public.” It doesn’t prohibit customers from bringing their own food.
Twin Leaf opened just a year ago, but just down the street Green Man has been serving suds since 1997. With no food menu, dogs are allowed, even welcomed, inside the building as their humans try to decide which flavor to try among the ten craft beers on tap. Humorous signs cover the walls, including one that warns: “Don’t let our regulars scare you off.”
Another South Slope brewery is Hi-Wire, where two dogs of indeterminate heritage were among the bar patrons recently. They greeted each other with tails wagging and dutifully accepted the cooing and petting of random customers. “They’re fun. Really cute,” said bartender Tenni Arslanyan. “Having the dogs around livens up the atmosphere. People appreciate the fact that they can be comfortable bringing their dogs here.”
Not all the breweries are food-free, so anyone planning to take the dog out for a beer should make sure they’re going to a place that can allow pets inside.
The regulation has been in effect for five years now, and it has widespread approval, both from the public, the restaurant owners, and the state officials. It appears to be here to stay. “We see no reason to amend that rule,” Larry Matthews says. “We haven’t had any complaints, and it seems to be working well.”
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…