Best friends since college, Kyle Noonan and Josh Sepkowitz teamed up in 2012 to start FreeRange Concepts in Texas after embarking on separate career paths for 15 years. The cofounders’ first endeavor under that umbrella group was a combination high-end bowling alley, restaurant, and bar called Bowl & Barrel, which now boasts three locations. FreeRange Concepts has also grown to include a restaurant/concert venue and a grill/gastropub.
Noonan and Sepkowitz’s latest creation is a fast casual–bar–dog park hybrid. The aptly named MUTTS Canine Cantina has two units in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, along with more locations in the works.
QSR spoke with Noonan and Sepkowitz about what inspired such an out-of-the-box concept, the logistical challenges the mash-up presented, and where they hope to take it in the future.
Noonan: We really like a business model that has some sort of unique, experiential component to it. Beyond just selling food or drink, we like being able to create concepts around things people are passionate about. People are passionate about their pets, and we’re both pet owners. It’s amazing the amount of money you will spend on your pet. We thought this was a great opportunity to be able to tap into the millennial market where they don’t want to leave their pet at home or hire a pet sitter. They want to be able to take their dogs to work or go out to eat with their dog. There was no concept built with that in mind, so we thought it was a great opportunity. Additionally, we really love the revenue model of having a membership-based dog park.
Sit and stay
Noonan: We all know the bar is a high profit center, and it’s one of the elements we really liked from a business-model standpoint. It also encourages people to hang out and make multiple purchases in one visit.
Sepkowitz: People will stay for hours. It’s very unlike your typical quick-serve product because it’s very social. People come hang out with their friends. We have a full bar and a food counter like a traditional burger stand with burgers, fries, and shakes.
Noonan: Our No. 1 selling item—hands down—is our frozen margarita. We do it a little differently; we actually have frozen boozy popsicles that you can add to it. The margarita is all fresh juice—it’s not out of a mix—so it’s a great margarita on its own. Then you top it off with a boozy popsicle, and it’s a lot of fun.
Sepkowitz: Another big hit is for the dogs. The Pupsicles is a frozen popsicle made with beef broth and peanut butter. Dogs love it, and it’s all natural.
Noonan: We took five years of operating the first location to really fine-tune it and understand it before we got to a point where we knew we could scale. It’s not a difficult operation once you understand how to run it, but it was a learning curve for us.
I would say the biggest challenge was the membership program and systems. We didn’t initially invest in the technology that we have now. We underestimated the membership software needs. You have your own personal barcode, and it lets you in and out of the park and eventually will give you the ability to order food and drinks.
Noonan: The sense of community at MUTTS was stronger than we had projected; it’s almost a tribal engagement. Not only do you have a bunch of people there who love dogs, but you also have little subcultures for poodles or schnauzers or labs. You’ll start seeing patterns where the same people come every Tuesday night. It’s also good for us from a financial standpoint: We have high frequency of use. There are very few concepts you want to go to multiple times a week like Starbucks, but MUTTS has become that.
Sepkowitz: Ever since we opened the first MUTTS, we’ve had intense interest in franchising. It was impossible at that point to provide an answer, but we can now. We began selling franchises in 2018.
We’ve kept a list of them, and now we’re going back and talking with people from California to Wisconsin. We qualified 20 –25 initially. The Austin franchisees are in the beginning stages, but MUTTS has many things in the pipeline. We’re targeting the Sunbelt states, primarily because of weather. MUTTS does have a significant outdoor component, so the more sunshine you have, the more successful it will be.