Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Belly up: Wilmington’s first dog bar serves sips for pups and their humans

Dog owners can get own healthy protein-broth-based beer for their pooches at Ruff Draft. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — People and their pups can now belly up to the pine at Ruff Draft, the area’s first dog bar on Wrightsville Avenue, which opened over the weekend.

It’s a trend gaining momentum, adding to the bottom line of a growing pet industry that, in 2021, drew in $126 billion on pet treats and food, supplies and medicine, vet care and other services, according to the American Pet Products Association. In North Carolina, some of those “other services” include dog bars; currently a handful exist statewide in Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Raleigh.

READ MORE: Burgers, booze and pups: Mess Hall to relocate and expand, offer city’s first dog bar

Owner Sam Steger is adding to the list with Ruff Draft. He has been working on the project since spring, originally intended to be part of his burger joint’s expansion. Mess Hall will close at its current address on Oct. 1. and relocate to a larger space at 2156 Wrightsville Ave. When a neighboring building became available in April, Steger decided it made more sense to separate the two businesses. 

“We already have problems with people trying to bring in dogs at the current Mess Hall,” he said, now located in The Cargo District on 17th Street. “So I could already see problems with the messaging if we were opening a dog park at a restaurant and bar, and explaining to people dogs could only be allowed outside, not inside the restaurant.” 

Ruff Draft welcomes dogs to run free off-leash both inside and out.

An 11,000-square-foot dog park is situated between the new Mess Hall and Ruff Draft but only accessible by checking in at the dog bar. The park is complete with a dog wash station, trash bins and waste bags, as well as picnic tables. Newly planted trees and bushes surround open space. A 1,500-square-foot small dog park is sectioned off for those who wish to be separated from the bigger canines. 

Steger and Ruff Draft business partner Stone Tippett — also a Mess Hall manager — will add obstacle courses and toys to the park (outside toys are not allowed). The two have been pulling 80-hour workweeks renovating the inside of Ruff Draft, a 7,000-square-foot former HVAC business. The bar itself only takes up 2,000 square feet, with additional capacity upstairs and in the back.

Stone Tippett and Sam Steger are the owners of Ruff Draft and also oversee operations of Mess Hall, which will relocated beside the bar by Nov. 1. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“There’s a lot of opportunity,” Steger said, indicating future growth. “Obviously, first, we’re trying to get our feet under us and see what the community wants.”

A garage door opens from Ruff Draft into the dog park bringing in natural light. Otherwise, it is illuminated by Edison bulbs, also which hang between the two buildings above the dog park outside for dusk visitors. Black concrete floors and trim and light wood are highlighted by minimal decor, including artwork like the famous painting of dogs playing poker. 

An entryway sign, “Where Ruff Days Get Better,” brightly shines in neon lights, beckoning Intsagrammable moments for everyone’s pups.  

“I want to have everything covered in artwork out here,” Steger said, pointing to the side of the buildings facing the dog park. “And not just have one person do it but a bunch of artists.”

The bar itself is stocked with all local brews on tap — Wrightsville Beach Brewery, Wilmington Brewing Company, Bull City Ciderworks Edward Teach and Broomtail — as well as plenty of North Carolina canned beers. Locally made spirits — End of Days, Blue Shark — also are offered, among a selection of other whiskeys, tequilas, rums, and vodkas.

The sippers aren’t only relegated to humans either; quadrupeds have a choice of dog beer. Good Boy IPA Lot in the Yard and Good Girl Tail Chasin’ Blonde are made from protein broth, turmeric, ginger, basil, carrots and fennel water, and consist of healthy ingredients like crude protein, fat and fiber.

Steger and Tippett are considering getting into the treat game, as what goes better with beer than snacks?

“It’s something we’re trying to just ease into,” Steger said, citing various FDA regulations they want to research before pulling the trigger. For now, individually packaged treats and bones are for sale by other brands. 

However, Mess Hall will have a walk-up order window accessible from the outdoor dog park so folks can take their burgers into Ruff Draft to enjoy.

“We’ll probably have a little dog burger on the Mess Hall menu,” Steger said.

For pet owners to enter the bar with their dogs, they have to purchase a day pass ($8); monthly ($30-$50) and annual passes ($250+) are available as well. Steger said since opening they’ve sold 50 or so day passes and just a handful of others. The membership covers expenses to upkeep the park, as well as insurance fees required for the establishment to remain open. It also will include entry into members-only events; Steger and Tippett also plan to host public adoption fairs and pet-friendly markets.

Steger and Tippett did 95% of the upfitting of the dog bar. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Proof of vaccinations, including rabies, Parvo and Bordetella, must be shown to staff upon entering, and dogs must be spayed or neutered and over six months old. Guests will sign a waiver accepting responsibility for their dogs’ actions (aggressive animals are not allowed), and there is a maximum of two dogs per patron.

Steger and Tippett are aiming for a Nov. 1 grand opening celebration for both Ruff Draft and Mess Hall, presuming all goes according to plan with the burger spot’s relocation.

“There is a lot of room out front for a stage,” Steger said, indicating live music could be on tap, as well as other entertainment.

For now, Ruff Draft is open Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. 

(Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
(Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
(Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
(Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
(Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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