New Yorkers save two canine cafes as dog-centric eateries gain momentum

March 13, 2024

When the owners of two New York canine cafes announced they were closing last month, it was a shock to their customers—so much so, in fact, that they refused to accept it, reports The Washington Post.

Above, rescue dogs Juliet and Milos prepare to enjoy the tasting menu at Dogu in San Francisco. (Photo source: Rahmi Massarweh)

“I knew people were going to be sad. I knew I was going to hear some nice things about the cafe, but I didn’t realize that people were going to mobilize to change the outcome,” said Logan Mikhly, who founded Boris & Horton with her father, Coppy Holzman, in 2018.

Boris & Horton opened in the East Village, billed as the city’s first cafe for dogs, where humans and their pets eat and hang out. It’s similar to a regular cafe, but there are more customers with floppy ears and wagging tails, and it’s part of a trend of similar shops that have popped up around New York and elsewhere.

The cafe serves snacks and pastries for humans and dogs (the coffee is just for humans). After several years of success, Boris & Horton launched a second location  in Brooklyn last spring.

To comply with the local health department’s regulations, human food and pet food are prepared separately, and dog food is served in single-use, disposable containers. The cafe portion of the business is in a distinct, adjacent space to the seating area.

Although Boris & Horton was often bustling, the business recently started suffering. There were challenges at the Williamsburg location, including a delay in its beer and wine permit. Then a mysterious dog respiratory illness began spreading in several states before the holiday season—keeping people away during Boris & Horton’s busiest time of year.

“Holiday events were canceled because of that; a couple corporate events were canceled because people weren’t comfortable,” Mikhly said. “We just didn’t have that holiday bump that we normally have.”

“We had a couple tough weekends where we normally see our highest revenue and it just wasn’t happening,” she said. “We were starting to feel pretty worried.”

Last month, she and her father made the difficult decision to shut down both locations. They said they felt they had no choice.

“We finalized it all fairly quickly. We wanted to give our staff enough time to look for other jobs, and the community enough time to say goodbye,” Mikhly said.

But the community wasn’t willing to let the cafes go. Almost immediately, customers rallied.

“It was such a complete shock to me that they were closing,” said Amanda Gerzog, 28, who lives near the East Village location and has been a regular customer at Boris & Horton for the past six years. “I was devastated, but also determined.”

Gerzog, a social media marketer, often works remotely at the cafe. As a dog lover who doesn’t have a pooch at home, she jumped at the opportunity to be around dogs all day.

“That’s one of the reasons I go,” she said. “There is a unique sense of community that you feel in the cafe. Boris & Horton is a place where I just love to be for hours.”

She knew other New Yorkers felt the same. So Gerzog started a GoFundMe campaign to save the small business. In only a few days, more than $20,000 poured in.

“I’m so happy that the community felt the same as me,” Gerzog said. “They’re definitely a business that doesn’t deserve to close.”

Mikhly and her father were stunned by the support. “People just made it their business to help us,” said Mikhly, explaining some people reached out with other offers, including a technician who fixed the air conditioning at one of the cafes.

“We also heard from people what the cafe meant to them,” Mikhly said. “People had a stronger connection to it than I ever thought.”

With that in mind, Mikhly and her father started their own fundraising effort and drew in more than $250,000—all from individuals. The average donation was about $60.

“We’re so, so grateful,” said Mikhly, adding that they temporarily closed both cafes for repairs and upgrades. Both Boris & Horton locations reopened Monday.

“We’re now feeling pretty re-energized and revitalized,” Mikhly said.

Boris & Horton is part of a growing number of restaurants and coffee shops that cater to four-legged customers nationwide—and around the world. For the most part, Mikhly said, the dogs are well-mannered.

“Owners are pretty good at knowing if their dogs are right for a dog-friendly cafe,” she said, noting that the floors in the cafe are cement to avoid damage from doggy accidents—which happen sometimes. “We take cleaning up quickly very seriously.”

People show up to hang out with their pooches—who are welcome to go off-leash—but also to socialize. “If you come to the cafe, you’ll notice that people are looking up from their laptops, they’re talking to their neighbors,” said Mikhly. “It’s a much more social environment than a typical coffee shop.”

They named the cafe after Holzman’s eight-year-old pit bull mix, Boris, and Mikhly’s 14-year-old Chihuahua-poodle mix, Horton.

“We find that dogs are definitely a catalyst for conversation,” Mikhly said, adding that they also partner with shelters and rescues to host regular adoption events. About 3,000 dogs have been adopted from events at the cafes.

Many regular restaurants are tapping into the dog-friendly trend and offer separate outdoor patio menus for canines—complete with nonalcoholic  “doggie beer,” seasonally flavored ice cream and grilled steak served with steamed vegetables. Some hotels are welcoming pups, too, offering up doggy bathrobes and treats. Dogs even can attend movies at a British cinema chain.

At Dogue in San Francisco, pet owners can sign up their dogs for a $75 tasting menu on Sundays. “Our tasting menu is now booked out through April,” said Rahmi Massarweh, the chef and owner of Dogue, which opened in 2022.

The multicourse meal has what Massarweh calls “primal proteins”—which are meats and seafoods that “dogs would naturally eat in an ancestral form,” he said, citing wild antelope heart as an example. Dogue also makes and sells packaged dog food, as well as “pawtisserie”—pastries designed for dogs.

Dogue doesn’t serve human food but does offer owners complimentary drinks.

Experts say one of the benefits of dog-friendly businesses is that they bolster humans’ mental health and connection to one another.

“Some of the most important relationships we have are with our companion dogs,” said Philip Tedeschi, founder of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver.

Tedeschi said dogs make us more present and engaged. They serve as a “social lubricant,” encouraging people to feel more comfortable interacting with others.

Being around dogs “reduces cortisol levels, or the stress neurotransmitters that often prevent people from interacting with one another,” Tedeschi said. It also activates oxytocin and serotonin, which make humans more likely to be social, he said.

Tedeschi said he isn’t surprised that businesses are increasingly catering to canines—or that a community mobilized to save a set of dog cafes from shutting down.

“Dogs and other animals can teach us a lot about relationships and how we can treat one another,” he said.

Research contact: @washingtonpost