Dining with dogs makes comeback
But it comes with a price for restaurant owners
BY MANDY MILES Citizen Staff
Restaurant owners soon could be rolling out the red carpet and topping off the water bowls for their canine customers, as city officials are expected to approve a new permitting program that will allow dogs in open-air restaurants. But accommodating man's best friend requires some new tricks for restaurateurs, who must jump through numerous regulatory hoops.
For instance, those water bowls cannot be used in the food service and preparation, and all dogs must be on leashes, according to the new program, which also requires hand sanitizers on each outdoor table, conspicuous signs alerting people to the presence of dogs and strict hand-washing policies for staff members.
Dogs must remain on the ground rather than in people's laps, and they must be kept "under reasonable control," the new law states.
Restaurant owners who intend to welcome dogs into their establishments must pay $100 for a permit from the city, and must carry at least $1 million in liability insurance.
The majority of restaurants likely have that coverage already, but they must now be sure their policy covers dogs or any incident arising from their presence, Assistant City Attorney Ron Ramsingh said Monday.
The Key West Planning Board will meet Thursday to review the new program, which is being recommended for approval by the city staff. Once the Planning Board approves it, the ordinance will go to the City Commission for two public readings.
Many local restaurants were long known for their dog-friendly policy, but recent investigations by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation revealed that the city had no law in place regulating the presence of dogs in food service establishments.
A statewide law bans the animals from restaurants, but that law can be overwritten by a local ordinance. Key West never had such a local ordinance, so dogs were temporarily disallowed.
The new program applies only to restaurants with outdoor seating, and makes no mention of establishments that serve only drinks. Those businesses are regulated by the state health department. The new ordinance uses the city's definition of "restaurant" as an establishment that is not a drive-through, "where the principal business is the sale of food, desserts and beverages to the customer in a ready-to-consume state."
Many business owners are eagerly anticipating the canines' return.
"Many of our regular customers enjoy bringing their dogs with them; even customers without dogs like seeing them here," said Evalena Worthington, owner of Schooner Wharf Bar, which has been one of the most pet-friendly venues in town. "As our world famous T-shirts say, we are looking forward to 'hanging with the big dogs' again -- and the little ones, too."
David Case, owner of Sarabeth's restaurant on Simonton Street, also will welcome dogs back to the patio area of the restaurant, although the recent flap has heightened his awareness of the issue -- and of people who are uncomfortable around dogs.
"I have many locals who are missing being able to dine out all over town, so I believe I will participate in the new program," Case said. "But I also intend to be hyper-vigilant toward people who would prefer not to be seated near a dog."
The owners of Salsa Loca Mexican restaurant on Angela Street also anticipate the return of their furry friends, one of whom, Roxy, belongs to the owner and was a popular greeter.
The Key West Planning Board meets at 6 p.m. Thursday in Old City Hall, 510 Greene St.