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1st Place: Bar K | Kansas City, MO

Hey, Dogtender

Bar K presents dogs and their humans a business model like no other.

OWNERS: Leib Dodell, David Hensley and Joe Kessinger | WEBSITE: | FOUNDED: 2017 | OPENED FEATURED LOCATION : 2018 | AREA: 2 acres | MPLOYEES: 20 full-time, 45 part-time | FACEBOOK: barkdogbar | INSTAGRAM: barkdogbar

SURELY BY COINCIDENCE, friends David Hensley and Leib Dodell brought home puppies on the same day 11 years ago. They began taking out Golden Retriever Ellie and Shepherd mix Bear together once the pups were old enough.

“We brought them to dog parks, but also to places where we had always gone, like patios at coffee shops and bars,” Hensley says.

They soon learned that neither public spaces nor pet-friendly businesses offer an ideal experience. Limited shade and seating, unknown shot histories and a lack of supervision plague dog parks. And pups aren’t allowed to run and play where people eat and drink out.

Hensley and Dodell decided to create the ultimate place for both dogs and their humans. Bar K spans 2 acres on a bank of the Missouri River in Kansas City, MO. It features 68,400 square feet of off-leash parks with two bars and 5,000 square feet of restaurant, coffee shop and bar, with leashed dogs welcome on its outdoor deck and upstairs patio. A grooming salon and small retail section round out the offerings.

“We are an entirely new kind of destination,” the business partners say. “The uniqueness of the Bar K experience is obvious in the joyful, amazed expressions on the faces of our guests.”

Petfinder Park

“Kind of a Dump,” with Potential

Bar K sits on land adjacent to downtown and partially under the Heart of America Bridge. Hensley and Dodell, along with business partner Joe Kessinger, secured it through a long-term lease with the Port Authority of Kansas City.

“It was this big undeveloped property, kind of a dump,” Dodell says, “but we could see it had the potential to be something special.”

Helping them with the transformation was Clockwork Architecture + Design. Together, they incorporated 21 solar panels and 17 repurposed shipping containers into the eco-friendly plans.


“We’re right on the river and by railroad tracks, thoroughfares that carry shipping containers, so they speak to our location,” Hensley says. “And we love the look of them, the modern industrial vibe.”

That aesthetic carries through to Bar K’s interior, which features concrete floors, wooden tables with metal chairs, and pops of color from oversized dog portraits by photographer Ron Berg. Outside, murals dot container walls, including one sponsored by Bayer that serves as backdrop to the Seresto Stage in the beer garden.

Off-Leash Parks & Dogtenders

Pups who visit Bar K have a variety of outdoor amenities to choose from, among them a Doggie Jungle Gym sponsored by Westlake Ace Hardware, a four-sided climbing wall built by local rock-climbing gym RoKC, and a splash pool shaped like a liquor bottle. Large and small dogs get their own areas, as do puppies. Dogtenders trained in behavioral cues supervise the play.

Many staff members have prior experience working with animals, including at zoos and boarding facilities. All take part in continuing education, both with local trainers and visiting behaviorists.


“Our dogtenders can look at body language to determine whether a dog is in a good place and really happy, or nervous and not having fun,” Hensley explains. Dodell adds, “They’re taught to spot conflict and redirect.”

Sporting conspicuous blue vests, their presence and caring interactions with pups give owners the confidence to step away without worry for a meal or drink in inside areas where their dogs are not allowed.

Those who stay close certainly don’t miss out, with beverages available at the bars and plenty of seating, from Adirondack chairs to picnic tables with umbrellas. Breed meetups, trivia contests and live music happen in the off-leash areas throughout the week.

Dave Hensley and Leib Dodell

Membership Model

Hensley and Dodell launched Bar K in 2017 at a nearby warehouse. That initial stage allowed them to test their concept and learn operations for such a business — Hensley owned a small business not in the pet industry, and Dodell is a lawyer .

“It was only open on evenings and weekends and had a limit of 50 people, and we were almost always at 50,” Dodell says. “We proved that people crave joyful spaces to bring their dogs.”

The permanent location opened in August 2018, but from the beginning, Bar K has operated under a membership model.


“We wanted a way to monitor the dogs who came in,” Dodell says. “That is a key value proposition over public dog parks with no gatekeeper.”

Annual memberships cost $225 per dog and $25 per additional dog. Membership recently passed 1,900 households, and Dodell says, “1,500 people can come through on a busy weekend.” Day passes are available with proof of vaccinations.

The Bar K concept has proved such a success that Hensley and Dodell plan on opening in five additional cities. Next up: St. Louis and Oklahoma City.

Judges’ Comments

Beth Miller: Bar K has taken the dog-lover experience to a new level. Their use of happy colors and customer experiences is a great blend of appeal to newcomers and returning guests.

Jane Harrell: In a world where dogs go everywhere, Bar K caters to a future dog-loving community in a way that’s safe, stylish and (I hope) coming to a city near me.

Beke Lubeach: I love the concept. The availability of truly dog-friendly and dog-accepting locations throughout the U.S. is very limited. Having “Dogtenders” is a great perk, and educating kids on-site to interact safely with dogs is amazing.

Leel Michelle: Bar K takes dog and human interaction to the next level. This is one of those “Why didn’t I think of that?” ideas that hits you like a ton of bricks! Combining super hip, up-cycled architecture with a playful ambiance full of activities for people and pets, I can’t imagine it’s very easy to get rid of all your guests at the end of the night! Bar K, you had me at first bark!

Kristen Levine: I love this place! Creativity, vision for the expansion, and design is fantastic. I’ll be in Kansas City soon and plan to visit.



5 Cool Things About Bar K

1 LOCALS ONLY. In its small retail area, Bar K stocks swag with its logo as well as pet products from Kansas City businesses. Among them: The Paw Wash and Beer Paws.

2 BONE APPETIT. The restaurant serves a “healthy casual” menu for humans. Dog offerings include entrees Beef Stew and Chicken Risotto, created with Purina nutritionists, and desserts such as Ice Cream Nuggets. Doggie Flights of three dishes also are available.

3BUILDING COMMUNITY. Bar K supports the rescue community with its separate Petfinder Park, which hosts adoption events every Saturday. Dogs adopted get a free annual membership. Bar K also has private meeting spaces where businesses — pet and others — hold meetings and customer-appreciation events.

4 ALL-WEATHER FUN. In the winter, a heated tent covers the beer garden. Dogs can come and go through flaps. “The dogs are very happy to be outside, even in cold weather,” Dodell says. Fans outside help keep customers cool in the summer.

5 KID-FRIENDLY, TOO. Most dog parks prohibit kids. Bar K welcomes all ages to its restaurant and on-leash areas. In the off-leash parks, kids 16 and younger must be accompanied by an adult and kids 8 and younger must be in immediate physical presence of a parent or guardian. Ages 4 through 12 must watch the “I’m a Bar K Kid” safety video and take a quiz. Only dogs are allowed to run and to play on equipment, and dogtenders will politely redirect families to on-leash areas when necessary.

Pamela Mitchell is the senior editor at PETS+. She works from her home office in Houston, TX, with Spot the senior Boston Terrier as her assistant.



PETS+ Live with Candace D'Agnolo

Learn More About America's Coolest Store Winner, Bar K

Catch the replay of this PETS+ Live! Lunch & Learn webinar hosted by Candace D’Agnolo of Pet Boss Nation. This episode featured Candace on location at Bar K in Kansas City, MO. Find out how owners Leib Dodell and David Hensley implemented their idea for a dog park/restaurant/bar that owners enjoy as much as their pets do — and learn why the business took top honors in the 2019 PETS+ America’s Coolest Stores contest.

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America's Coolest

Partnering and Pop-Ups: A Downtown Store Extends Its Customer Base Through Creative Outreach

Owners Ben and Lisa Prakobkit balance their slick store with warm smiles and genuine sit-down friendliness.




The Modern Paws, Tampa, FL

OPENED FEATURED STORE: Dec. 26, 2018; FOUNDED: 2014, ran an e-commerce store from home; 2015, expanded to sublease 200 square feet of a neighborhood grocery store; 2018, opened brick-and-mortar storefront; EMPLOYEES: 1 full-time, 2 part-time ; AREA: 1,628 square feet ; FACEBOOK: themodern4paws; INSTAGRAM: themodernpaws

Midwesterners Lisa and Ben Prakobkit brought their heartland ethos to Florida’s Gulf Coast.

TO UNDERSTAND WHY TWO Midwesterners thrive at The Modern Dog in Tampa, FL, you’ve first got to get a feel for the Channel District, where you’ll catch an occasional celebrity sighting in the midst of wild dolphin cruises, maritime oddities and the Amalie Arena. It’s a small community inside a busy district of young renters, out-of-towners and business professionals.

Tucked in the highrises of Florida’s Gulf Coast, The Modern Paws is a warm and friendly surprise, with bright lights and soft pastel accents. Owners Ben and Lisa Prakobkit balance their slick store with warm smiles and genuine sit-down friendliness.

“People come visit us very often,” Ben says. Customers come through every other day to pick up a quick treat or say hi. “It gives us a chance to ask, ‘How is his foot doing?’ and ‘How long did the treat last?’ I think it makes a big difference. When you can have a great conversation, just hearing about their day, it shows more of a family and friend community versus just a store.”


To beat the big-box stores and online competition, they offer free weekday delivery and get out into the community every chance they get. “In this day and age, it’s about who you work with,” says Ben, who is originally from Chicago. “It’s not work, it’s connections. The community, at the end of the day, will support.”

The Modern Paws grew from an e-commerce site that delivered pet food throughout the Tampa Bay area to a grocery-store partnership.

“The owner of the grocery knew what we were doing with the e-commerce side of things and said, ‘What if I sublease some square footage to you from our store and you could sell your product out of the store?’” he says. “And we were like ‘Yeah, that’s wonderful.’”

The day after Christmas 2018 they opened their first storefront — 1,628 square feet — and it’s become a popular pet store and grooming spot for Tampa Bay’s young and mostly childless crowd.

Friends and Neighbors

The couple is from “up North,” and Lisa’s Michigan friendliness is warm even in Hillsborough County, a neighborly area often voted one of the best places to live in the bay. “Even here people are like, ‘Wow, you’re so nice,’” she says. “We’re Midwest people, and we are definitely different, even though we’ve been down here eight years now.”

Their dedication to community outreach has helped them develop good relationships in the neighborhood, where they both live and work. Even though it’s a young crowd that loves to shop online, they get repeat customers because people want to support a local business.

Their store is in a downtown location, so they take their show on the road, working with rescues and showing up at apartment complex popups and dog park grand openings to share food and treat samples, chat with friends and let people know The

Modern Paws is out there, offering free delivery to anyone in the county.


“That’s how we let them know we’re located here, and that we do grooming, have self-dog wash and do delivery,” he says. “It’s just getting to talk to the residents.”

In December, a miniature of The Modern Paws opens in a PODS moving container at a holiday festival.

POD People

Every year in December, around the anniversary of their store opening, the Prakobkits pack up a best-selling selection and set up a tiny pop-up at Tampa Bay’s popular Winter Village festival.

As the temperature hangs around 70 degrees, the city gives this palm tree paradise a snowfall feel with an outdoor ice skating rink, holiday concerts and Christmas-themed movies. Handpicked by festival planners to represent boutique shopping in downtown Tampa, The Modern Paws is one of the select vendors to get an 8-by-8-foot moving container to build out as a satellite store. From Day One of the festival, they drew a line around the block.

“The moving company that supplies these moving containers ended up doing an article about us and the success we’ve had using the PODS. Out of majority of the PODS pop-ups, we’re probably one of the busiest,” Prakobkit said. The tiny space can fit about two dozen shelves and a few standing displays, but not much else. It’s 1/25 the size of their brick-and-mortar store. “It’s 64 square feet. We’ve mastered the small space.”

Owning the Phone Tech

People who live in the area are younger professionals who more often have pets instead of kids. “They’re tech-savvy. They shop online,” Ben says. “We’re that type of customer, too, and when we price things out we keep that in mind.”

They counter the one-click ease of Amazon with their own perks, like same-day delivery Monday through Friday. “It’s hard to beat. However we do actually beat it — we have a lot of our customers take advantage of that,” he says. They also offer frequent-buyer programs, rotating discounts and buy-one-get-one sales.


“Our big thing is nutrition. When we’re able to help pet owners get their dogs healthy or keep them healthy, it’s a rewarding feeling,” he says. “When people say, ‘The new food really took care of all the skin allergies’ and things like that, it’s definitely a good feeling.”



Five Cool Things About The Modern Paws

1. Stories as a Secret Weapon: A silly skit or a quick talk on nutrition in an Instagram Story brings in a ripple of business. “We try to spice it up and do a few different things,” Lisa Prakobkit says. “We don’t want to bombard them with dog pictures.”

2. Four-Legged Foot Traffic: Located in the bottom of a residential building, The Modern Paws draws in almost every dog in the building. “We have dogs that will literally pull their owners to the store,” Ben Prakobkit says.

3. Phone-Friendly Tech: In a nod to clientele who rarely put their phones aside, customers can instantly book grooming appointments with a swipe up on the store’s Instagram Stories. Because their customers prefer to text, they’ve developed communication streams through text rather than calls.

4. A Tiny Staff: The small but mighty staff includes just two part-timers outside the groomer and two owners. Everybody has a specialty, like training or creating great social media content, and the size gives shoppers consistency in staff. “Customers get accustomed to seeing familiar faces when they walk in,” Ben says. “You can refer back to something you talked about in a previous visit, and it makes them feel like, ‘Wow, they remember me.’”

5. Huge Online: The store’s website is clean, fast and easy to navigate. Customers also check out products online before shopping in-store, or opt for same-day delivery in the area. For those farther away, The Modern Paws offers free nationwide shipping.

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America's Coolest

Splitting the Ps: How One Couple Shares the Load to Create a Cool Store

How Deborah and Mark Vitt use their corporate experiences to rock their micro economy.




Mutts and Co., Dublin, OH

OWNERS: Mark and Deborah Vitt; ; FOUNDED: 2007; OPENED FEATURE STORE: 2007; EMPLOYEES: 6 full-time, 7 part-time ; AREA: 5,000 square feet; FACEBOOK:; INSTAGRAM:

Mark and Deborah Vitt have hit upon the magic sauce of management by splitting duties based on their skills and interests.

DEBORAH AND MARK VITT OPENED Mutts & Co. in Dublin, OH, as an 1,800-square-foot-store, half services, half retail. Right away, they realized the footprint was off.

“We were cramped in there with just enough room for a few products, some cookies and a few treats,” says Mark. “It was like going to the dentist’s office, where you can buy a couple of toothbrushes.”

They didn’t want to be like the dentist’s office, so they took over the space next door, expanded to nearly 5,000 square feet and doubled the grooming area. Many remodels later, they’ve got a ratio that works. “There are only so many dogs you can groom or bathe in a day,” Mark says, “but every dog has to eat.”

The Science of Shopping

The Vitts brought complementary marketing and retail skills to their first pet store, and as a team they’ve learned how to draw in traffic, stock the right products and staff a good team — all by splitting up the Ps. Deborah fields purchasing, product assortment, procurement and pricing, and Mark handles personnel, new store placement and promotion.


Deborah’s executive training and keen insight about what makes people buy is what sets this store apart. “She’s parlayed that into owning a business that takes advantage of her retail knowledge and keen sense of merchandising,” Mark says. The store’s floor plan keeps customers crossing paths with bones, treats and toys on the trek for the items they came in for. It’s not a forced journey, but a thoughtful layout.

“We’re trying to make it so people see the full breadth of the products that are available,” he says. “It gives us an opportunity to talk about them, cross-sell and up-sell. ”

A Design to Match the Mission

Head to tail, this store has an old barn feel. Antique barn wood covers the walls and cash wraps, and wooden bins hold the bulk items. Chalkboard headers, held in handmade wooden frames, identify each product section. Out front, original artwork promotes the day’s sales.

“It’s become something of a badge of honor to be one of our elite chalkboard graphic artists,” Mark says. All these human touches give the store a natural appearance, which aligns with natural products and a homemade line of specialty items by

The Pet Foundry: candles and clothing that support the area’s foster and adoption community.


This store is known as the go-to place for natural pet nutrition, and they take their product selection seriously. Mutts & Co. recently stepped away from a few larger pet food brands that went into big-box stores, mostly through mergers and acquisitions.

“We knew the quality of the product was going to degrade so we went out and found alternatives, knowing that we’ll have to convince customers to trust this lesser-known brand,” he says. “When you can start to find it in Kroger or Target or other big-box stores — not even pet retail stores — that’s not special anymore.”

Standout Staff

The Vitts ask a lot of commitment from their staff, a mix of full- and part-time workers. They train almost exclusively in-store, and in addition to manufacturer training, they do bimonthly training sessions to focus on particular products, general industry trends, categories, and best practices when talking about nutrition.

That’s why they focus on getting the right people, getting them the right training and offering the right products to address all of these potential concerns.

“People come to us because they know we’re there for their pets’ well-being and not just the sale,” Mark says. “We have to give folks a reason to come to us and that’s why we focus on health and wellness for the pets, and that starts with having good products and good people.”


Ultimately, you’re talking to a pet parent whose dog or cat is part of their family and you’re making a health recommendation for the wellbeing of one of their family members, he says. “We take that very seriously.”

Their staff members are prepared to point customers in the right direction on whatever health concerns come in. “That can be the toughest but most rewarding part, customers who come back and say, ‘My dog had a terrible condition and your recommendations have really helped turn it around.’ But that takes a lot of time and training.”



Five Cool Things About Mutts and Co.

1. Adopt Don’t Shop: Mutts & Co. just sponsored its fourth adoption event called Fetch A Friend, where hundreds of animals are befriended at the Columbus Fairgrounds Expo Center in a one-day adoption extravaganza. Deborah Vitt coordinates the event through a local advocacy group.

2. Efficient Grooming: Baths and trims are modeled after hair salons for people, with a centralized booker who keeps the door rotating. Dogs are in and out quickly, no kennels necessary. “We felt it would be a better approach to reduce the stress if we keep them there for the minimum amount of time,” Mark Vitt says.

3. It’s Always Social Hour: Instead of hiring a trainer in-house, they bring in professional trainers for in-store pet training, and invite cats and dogs to come into the store to hang out.

4. Cats and Dogs Exclusively: Two years ago, they eliminated fish, small animal and birds because the market just wasn’t there. “There’s just a smaller pool of customers, and it was harder for us to stay on top of those trends when it was such a small portion of our business,” Mark says. “We felt like it was almost doing a disservice by letting small animals just kind of exist, so we cut it out.”

5. Generous Delivery Options: Customers can order curbside pickup or home delivery. “Online sales are going to be the most critical part of business going forward, because it is becoming just a staple in the pet shoppers’ mentality,” Mark says. “We knew we had to have it, so we created that channel for customers to shop with us in that convenient way.”

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America's Coolest

America’s Coolest Pet Stores 2019 Winners Announced!



We’re reporting live from PETS+ HQ to bring you results from the 2019 America’s Coolest Stores Contest. It was a tight race this year, with some of the most impressive campaigns we’ve seen yet. We wish every business could win!

To narrow the field to first, second and third place, plus nine honorable mentions, a team of editorial staff and independent pet industry judges evaluated the entries, which included mini-essays on a variety of topics, photography and media.

The top three winners impressed judges with their ability to transform a traditional pet business model into something truly special in their communities.

Let’s get to it!

3rd place
Barker’s Lane


1st place


2nd place
WAG Central


First place — Bar K in Kansas City, MO. Dogs and humans alike love going to this activity-packed dog park and restaurant that spans 2 acres on the Missouri River’s south bank.

Second place — Wag Central in Stratford, CT. This doggie day care and boarding facility also invites pet parents to join in on the fun, with an indoor dog park, training classes and cafe.

Third place — Barker’s Lane in Davie, FL. Not only do dogs get the spa experience at this upscale grooming salon, every square foot of space serves as a stylish backdrop for Insta-worthy pet portraits.

We hope their stories — as well as the nine Honorable Mentions appearing in upcoming issues — will inspire you to break with tradition yourself. What better way to compete with big-box stores and the internet than to offer what they can’t in new and exciting ways. Bonus: If you do, we just might be reporting about you on these pages next year!

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