Walking through downtown Los Angeles’ Fashion District in January, pedestrians saw an unusual sight: A “pup-up” cafe where dogs were the main attraction.
The Dog Cafe bills itself as “America’s first dog cafe.” After paying a $15 or $20 fee, guests were allowed to enter the downtown Los Angeles pop-up and play with a number of people-friendly shelter dogs that are up for adoption. The event only lasted a few days—from Thursday, January 15 to Sunday, January 18—but its proprietors hope to do similar temporary events in the future, and to open a permanent brick-and-mortar location in Los Angeles eventually as well.
Dog Cafe founder Sarah Wolfgang, who was formerly in a Korean pop group, says the idea for her business came from South Korean dog cafes she patronized abroad, which allow patrons to bring pet dogs in—and featured friendly dogs who live inside the cafe.
However, the model is somewhat different in the American iteration. Due to health codes, food isn’t prepared on premises. Instead, a food truck outside offers coffee drinks to customers, and the atmosphere inside is decidedly geared toward dog adoption. By having two different businesses operating in tandem, the Dog Cafe is able to run legally.
Wolfgang, 21, told Fast Company the Dog Cafe originated with an Indiegogo campaign. In that iteration, it was hosted inside a clothing store that leased itself out for events and pop-ups. She added that one of the most challenging parts of the pop-up wasn’t bringing dogs into a clothing store—it was setting up insurance for an untraditional event such as a dog cafe.
The cafe was located on a busy commercial strip with heavy foot traffic, inside Revolution Sales Group, a hipster clothing store. A dog-proof gate (which in fact foiled this reporter when he tried to operate it) separated the cafe / clothing shop from the doorway. Guests were required to sign waivers before entering, and reservations can be made for $20, which include a chance to meet the dogs and a drink from the food truck outside. Walk-up customers were allowed entry for $15 on a first-come, first-serve basis, with priority given to guests with reservations. Wolfgang told Fast Company that approximately 450 patrons visited the cafe over three days.
What’s it like inside a dog cafe? During the weekday lunch break I visited, it was pretty calm. Approximately five dogs roamed the space, interacting with visitors. Lesley Brog of Wags and Walks, which supplies the dogs, said the dogs were selected for their friendliness around guests and comfort with strangers. One of them even had a GoPro camera strapped to its back by a reporter. Coffee was supplied by local firm Grounds & Hounds Coffee, which says they donate 20% of their revenue to animal rescue organizations. At a side table, canine-themed artwork was for sale in a fundraiser for dog-rescue organizations.
While the idea sounds pure fun, there are many challenges to operating a dog cafe, cautions Anna Jane Grossman, a New York-based dog trainer and the founder of School For The Dogs. She suggests that having dog handlers, leashes, and crates on the premises would help to maintain a safe space for dogs and dog-loving humans.
“I think the idea might be a lot more complicated than the halcyon vision of putting a bunch of pound puppies with a bunch of dog-starved people, and serving coffee,” she says. “It wouldn’t be quite like cat cafes, where cats can lounge around on people’s laps.“
Also, because some human food can be risky for dogs—and since health inspectors tend to prohibit animals in eating establishments—in a more permanent dog cafe, eating and drinking might need to be done separately, Grossman says.
Ultimately, the mission of the Dog Cafe is to get more shelter dogs into loving homes. Another dog cafe concept has been floated in New York as well, as a way to boost much-needed adoptions.
Wags and Walks says two dogs have already been placed with loving households as a result of the cafe event so far, and that other applications from the cafe are still being processed. Outside of the Dog Cafe, Wags and Walks managed to place over 20 dogs in homes during the first week of February.
And Wolfgang, who has identified a promising brick-and-mortar space in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood, continues to raise funds for a permanent Los Angeles location, with legally zoned drinking and petting areas. While Wolfgang didn’t manage to meet her $200,000 goal on Indiegogo, she told Fast Company that the Dog Cafe plans further “pup-ups” around Los Angeles to raise funds in the future.
Below, watch a video report from the ABC Los Angeles affiliate: