Alexandria is well known for being a "dog friendly" city. It has been written about in publications worldwide. Dogs appear in all Alexandria parades and dog parks get more than their fair share of attention on the political scene.
"Doggie Happy Hour" at the Holiday Inn Select on King Street has not only gotten national, but also international coverage by being touted in European travel publications. Its been referred to on various television news shows, such as "Good Morning America."
One of the prime suggestions in Alexandria's recently completed "King Street Retail Study" is to encourage more sidewalk dining and to have retail merchants remain open longer to coincide with restaurant hours. Many of those merchants also display signs "Dogs Welcome."
So why have City Health Department personnel decided to become the city's personification of "Scrooge." They have issued edicts to Ireland's Own, Holiday Inn Select Old Town and Chadwicks — No dogs and people eating together, even though it's done in an outside area.
The crackdown brought immediate response not only from the restauranteurs but also from dog owners — both local and, a necessary element of the city's financial life blood, tourists.
In a counteroffensive, Pat Troy, owner of Ireland's Own has called for a citywide protest on Saturday, April 17.
"I am calling all dog owners to assemble at Tavern Square at 11 a.m.," Troy stated in his announcement circular. "I have been serving dog owners and their dogs on the patio for 24 years... we are no longer allowed to do this. Why?" he queried.
As Troy explained, "The city passed an ordinance in 1999 prohibiting the intermingling of food service and dogs in the same area. But it has never been enforced in outside locations. Now the Health Department people show up, out of the blue, and say we can't do it anymore. Why now?"
That was also the question raised by Timothy Ruth, food and beverage director, Holiday Inn Select, 480 King Street. "It all started about two weeks ago. They [Health Department personnel] just showed up and told us you can't do that," referring to serving food during the hotel's successful "Doggie Happy Hour" which is held in the courtyard area on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from April through October.
Holiday Inn Select is probably the most impacted by the new enforcement because the courtyard is surrounded. Health Department officials also imposed the restriction 365 days a year, whether dogs are present or not.
"We are not allowed to have any service people wait on customers seated in the courtyard at any time. That applies to both food and beverage service," Ruth explained.
IN ORDER FOR customers, including hotel guests, to enjoy a meal in the courtyard they must place their order inside themselves. The hotel gives them a paging device which signals when their food is ready. They then must go back inside, pick up their food, which must be served in a plastic to-go container, and take it back to their table in the courtyard.
The same applies to all beverages. There can be no table service. Customers wishing to enjoy the courtyard must order their drinks from the outside bar and take it to the table themselves. Again, it must be served in a disposable container, not a glass.
"The emphasis here is all geared to public health and food service," said Dr. Charles Konigsberg, Jr., director, Alexandria Health Department.
However, why the ordinance has not been actively enforced until two weeks ago he could not explain. He did note, "There was a discussion with the Holiday Inn in the spring of 2001" concerning "Doggie Happy Hour."
Frank Dickman, environmental health supervisor, Alexandria Health Department, who attended a meeting on March 29, along with Robert Custard, the city's environmental health manager, and other department personnel with Ruth and Melvin Nichols, the hotel's general manager, couldn't explain the timing either.
The purpose of that meeting was to hammer out a Memorandum of Agreement regarding dog service in the courtyard. That agreement, dated April 5, 2004, states,"Doggie Happy Hour...would be allowed to continue with the following modifications to the guidelines agreed to in 2001."
*Guests using the indoor salad bar or buffet must use a clean plate each time and employees must monitor that requirement.
*A beverage service bar may be located in the alcove area but all drinks must be served in "closed or covered" containers.
*All customer tableware and utensils used in the courtyard must be disposable.
*Food or beverages will not be served to the public in the courtyard at any time (applies to all days and times of the year.)
RUTH CONCEDED that most of his customers have taken the heightened restrictions in stride so far. "But there can be a point where more and more rules might force the end to not only a very popular event [Doggie Happy Hour] but also one that has done a lot of good by raising funds for charities throughout the community," he warned.
"We can't even open a can of beer for a customer in the courtyard area," he said. "Just to be extra careful when someone orders a Corona, I put the lime in a zip lock bag and hand it to them."
Ruth explained that during the March 29 meeting, Tom Fairchild, the city's newly hired business advocate, "Tried to get the Health Department personnel to not enforce the restriction on a 365 day schedule but only on Doggie nights. He got nowhere with them."
When contacted as to his input on the subject, Fairchild deferred to City Manager Philip Sunderland. Sunderland admitted he did not have a solution at this time. "However, we want to have this type of outdoor dining up and down King Street. It's part of the Retail Study. We are making efforts to move more toward these type of activities."
What makes the Holiday Inn situation more perplexing is that guests are allowed to have pets in their rooms and can receive room service. There are no restrictions.
In analyzing business development in Old Town, the Retail Study compared King Street plans to what has evolved in areas such as Shirlington, Pentagon Row, Clarendon and Georgetown. Those comparisons where also cited by Barbara Sibson, general manager, Chadwicks Restaurant.
AS OF LAST SPRING, that eatery at 203 S. Strand Street installed their first outdoor seating. Three tables are situated immediately to the left of the main entrance and another two are on the right.
"I don't have any problem with people bringing their dogs and sitting outside. It's actually a very friendly community approach," Lots of restaurants in the area such as in Arlington and elsewhere allow it," Sibson said.
"I just want a level playing field. If its illegal in Old Town it should be illegal everywhere. Why would people come here if we don't allow it and Shirlington and other areas do allow people to have their pets with them. It's one more example of how we are hurting business in Old Town," she said.
Sibson, just as Troy had done, requested a variance to the "Food and Food Handling Code" of Alexandria. Also, just as Troy, she was denied by Custard.
However, she and Troy were given an out, by having customers keep their dogs off restaurant "premises" while customers are being served at the outside tables. Dogs could be situated in the public area adjacent to each restaurant. As Custard noted in his denial letter, "as that area is not under your control and no service is provided in that area."
In Troy's case, the outdoor food service area is cordoned off by a wrought iron, waist high fence. Beyond that is the rest of Tavern Square which is not part of his "premises" or under his "control." It is a wide area secure from vehicular traffic and allows pedestrian traffic a wide area to avoid any contact with the dogs.
Sibson faces more of a dilemma. The area just off Chadwick premises is the public sidewalk which abuts the street. There are both vehicular and pedestrian traffic with which to contend.
Custard, in his hand delivered April 5 letter to Troy, stated, "As we discussed, customers may keep their dogs just outside the railing enclosing your patio area (i.e. - "off premises") while they eat at the tables just inside the railing (i.e.-"on premises).
Ordinance No. 4093 received final passage by Alexandria City Council on November 13, 1999.