One of the keys to starting a successful new business is having a deep understanding of your customers’ needs. And Sarah Wolfgang, founder/owner of The Dog Cafe, America’s first ever cafe featuring open dog adoption, understands her customers as well as anyone.
Growing up in Korea, Wolfgang fell in love with dogs at an early age, but lived in an apartment where dogs were not allowed. Her solution to getting her “dog fix,” as she puts it, was to visit local “dog cafes,” which are exactly what they sound like: places where you can go to drink coffee while dogs are free to roam around.
After moving to Los Angeles three years ago and visiting its many animal shelters, Wolfgang observed that the city had a major need for dog cafes like the ones she frequented as a child.
“Many dogs at shelters, especially those with special needs, go virtually unseen because there are so many other dogs there,” Wolfgang says. “But when they’re in a smaller group and there’s more of a spotlight on them, it really helps them get adopted.” Thus, The Dog Cafe, located on Virgil Avenue in Silver Lake, was born.
The unique cafe features not only a full coffee bar (serving up 100 percent fair trade, organic beans from the Grounds & Hounds Coffee Company, an organization that uses a large fraction of its proceeds to support no-kill animal rescue shelters), but also a wide-open area where you’ll find 10-15 rescue dogs that were hand-selected by Wolfgang and her staff.
“We work with local rescuers and shelters, and are on good terms with a lot of the volunteers there,” Wolfgang says. “We ask for their help in choosing which dogs are ‘dog-friendly’ and are the best fit for our cafe. Sometimes they’ll even contact us and ask us to take certain dogs. After that is the ‘healing period,’ in which the dogs are taken either to a foster home or my house in order to get them out of ‘shelter shock’ phase and slowly integrate them into the coffee shop.”
Despite Wolfgang and her staff’s best intentions, The Dog Cafe stumbled out of the gate in terms of receiving negative press when it first opened this past April. The primary reason for that was a good problem to have: the interest in the cafe was so high that they were perpetually having to turn people away at the door (which necessitated the reservations-only system that the cafe now has in place). But the other major reason for the negative press, according to Wolfgang, has been a little tougher to shake.
“A lot of people come in with the preconceived notion that they’re going to be trampled by puppies,” Wolfgang says. “But the truth is, because many of our dogs come from local shelters, they don’t have the happiest of pasts. And because of that, they’re more likely to be shy around human beings they don’t recognize.”
Take an 8-year-old boxer named Junior (no please, take him home!), whose past is so traumatic that it manifests itself in aggression toward other dogs, preventing Wolfgang from keeping him in the cafe most days.
“This poor guy was brought into an animal shelter as part of a bonded pair,” Wolfgang says. “And unfortunately, a rescue group decided not only to split up that bonded pair, but also to take the younger, more adoptable one and leave Junior there. So we decided to take him with us, but unfortunately, since he’s not dog-friendly, it’s been hard for us to find him a home.”
But Wolfgang insists that for customers who curb their expectations and understand that “we’re not training them to put on a show for human beings, but rather to just be themselves freely,” visiting the cafe can be a truly rewarding experience. “A lot of times we’ll see people leave and they’ll be smiling, saying, ‘That was the best hour of my life. That was so fun,’” Wolfgang says. “As time has gone on, we’ve gotten a really positive response from college students and families, families who come in with no interest in adoption, but end up asking about filling out the paperwork by the time they leave.”
Wolfgang has also noticed that the cafe has likewise become a frequent, sometimes weekly destination for people who, just like Wolfgang as a child, can’t adopt any of the dogs, but yearn to be around them nonetheless.
“We have one customer in particular who comes in once a week and will stay for a few hours,” claims Wolfgang. “She actually lost her dog just a few months ago, so The Dog Cafe has been a way for her to provide herself with therapy, essentially. And it’s so amazing to see because, when she walks in, the dogs will react to her the same way they would react to us (i.e., the staff). They’ll be extremely happy and sit on her lap. It’s really helped her with the grieving process. It’s so awesome.”
For more information about The Dog Cafe or to schedule a visit, go to www.thedogcafela.com.