Everyone likes relaxing over a meal with their best friend, but what if your best friend is your dog?

MUTTS Canine Cantina provides the perfect socializing solution. The outdoor fast casual allows dog-friendly dining, and also has a secure off-leash dog park where Fido can play while humans chat with friends and other dog owners.

“Dog moms and dads come to MUTTS to eat, drink, and be merry—and let their dogs do the same,” says Michelle Boggs, managing partner at MUTTS.

The Dallas-based brand is one entry in a growing category of fast casuals that are embracing pets as viable companions for human customers. Though the dog-park/fast-casual combo provides plenty of entertainment, with sandwiches, affordable cocktails, and an endless parade of cute dogs, it also serves a real community need.

Today, more millennials are viewing their pets as members of the family. The pet market is thriving, and all predictions indicate it will continue to grow. Four-legged friends are an increasingly important part of life, around which young people often base major decisions, and it only follows that the pet-friendliness of a restaurant will factor into dining decisions. Even if they aren’t going full-on dog park, more brands are realizing that appealing to dog owners brings in loyalty and customer appreciation from this group. These guests enjoy feeling like their favorite brands take their guests’ pets seriously.

Recently, Sweetgreen debuted a gourmet, all-natural dog treat in its stores. The treats, called Plants for Pups, were created in collaboration with Brooklyn-based pet supply brand Wild One, offering health-conscious canines a clean-ingredient treat mix of hand-sliced, non-GMO sweet potatoes and fresh apples. The sustainable, ethically sourced vegetarian treats perfectly match Sweetgreen’s established food ethos of locally sourced, healthy produce and ingredient transparency.

“We have a ton of guests who come to Sweetgreen who want the same level of ingredient transparency for their pets as they do for themselves, so we set out to offer something that our customers could trust feeding to their dogs,” says Meenakshi Nagarajan, vice president and head of marketing at Sweetgreen. “The treats are … gently dehydrated to maintain freshness. They promote digestive health with dietary fiber and antioxidants.”

High-end burger fast casual Shake Shack has been offering its Woof! menu for dogs since 2010. The Bag O’ Bones is a blend of five ShackBurger dog biscuits made by Bocce’s Bakery that can be enjoyed by all sizes of dogs, while the Pooch-ini—ShackBurger dog biscuits topped with peanut butter sauce and vanilla custard—is for large dogs only due to the addition of sugar, dairy, and nuts.

The Woof! menu mirrors the indulgence of Shake Shack’s wildly successful human milkshakes, burgers, and fries. It came about when the Shake Shack team noticed how many dog owners visited its flagship Madison Square Park location in New York and decided to make a way for pets to enjoy its offerings, too.

Shake Shack and Sweetgreen also allow dogs in outdoor seating areas at stores. Every Shake Shack with a patio is dog-friendly, and many are equipped with dog parking spots, water bowls, treats, and more. Sweetgreen’s outdoor seating is also dog-friendly, and its newly opened Montrose location in Houston has an outdoor area specifically created for four-legged friends.

“With our Montrose location, we wanted to cater to Houston’s dog culture,” Nagarajan says. “We did this by creating a dog patio, shaded by trees, that has water and hooks for the dogs. Offering a space in the neighborhood where locals can enjoy a meal without having to leave their dog outside allows customers to feel welcome to stay and relax.” 

Both brands have indoor seating where dogs are not allowed due to health codes, but both allow service animals inside their restaurants, as is generally required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. These guidelines vary from state to state, but in order to accommodate customers with various abilities at all locations, both Sweetgreen and Shake Shack require all staff to have a basic service animal training.

MUTTS sets up shop entirely outside, so dogs are welcome in every eating area. But as the brand grows (and if and when it franchises in cold-weather states), it will have to contend with the challenge of arranging indoor, dog-friendly seating that works with health codes.

Because of the off-leash parks at MUTTS, the concept had to establish stringent safety and security measures. The locked, off-leash parks are accessible by members only, which ensures better security and also adds an ongoing revenue source for the brand. To become a member, dog owners must prove that their dog is at least four months old, has all vaccinations, and has been spayed or neutered. MUTTS’ signage and its website remind owners that they assume responsibility for their dog. “If a dog displays any kind of aggressive behavior, we ask them to leave or don’t let them in,” Boggs says. “I might feel a little skittish walking my dog, but I would know it’s safe at MUTTS. It’s locked and you’ve got a community of like-minded people.”

Any logistical challenges that come with offering a dog-friendly space pale in comparison to the benefits it brings. Shake Shack and Sweetgreen representatives say their dog treats have been hugely popular with dog owners, and MUTTS is expanding quickly throughout Texas with plans to venture into other states soon.

And at the end of the day, what brand doesn’t want to attract cute canine customers? “When I’m having a bad day, I just go out to the park,” Boggs says. “I just watch the dogs and the happy people, and it all evaporates.”

Customer Experience, Restaurant Operations, Story, Shake Shack, Sweetgreen