The Social Detective

By staff October 1, 2007

What was a bigger issue for many Sarasotans last summer than the botched Sarasota Congressional election of 2006, the threat of terrorism, and the war in Iraq? Nope, not universal healthcare, although health has something to do with it.

And not art cuts in the schools, rising insurance costs, property tax, or even the city manager candidates’ sexual orientation and possible spousal abuse. Doggie dining was the issue and cause célèbre of Jennifer Saslaw, who could probably stop the wars of the world if she put her mind to it. I called her in Chicago to ask her to run for public office, until she told me she’s a rabid Republican. And yes, politics does have a lot to do with this story.

Jennifer, who’s a board member of Florida Studio Theatre and big advocate for affordable theater as well as a trustee at Manatee Community College, where she’s a big advocate of affordable education, describes her canine culinary consciousness-raising this way: "It’s such a silly thing and doesn’t even make it to the top hundred in the grand scheme, but somebody had to take care of it." Jennifer enlisted vitamin promotion queen Deb Knowles (who just made her first commercial); Tana Sandefur, real estate company owner; pet-friendly real estate broker Bryan Guentner; Eileen Curd, who travels the world with her Maltese; senior citizen Dena Arbitman; Roberta Druif from Animal Rescue Coalition and dozens of others to fix it.

Doggie dining, for those who do not come from the epicurean dining centers of the country, is not your mother’s cooking. It’s a law allowing dogs to accompany their human companions to the outdoor restaurants that choose to permit it. One wonders why a law for this should be necessary. Doggie dining advocate Jeff Metcalf says, "This should be a basic personal freedom for restaurants." But no such luck.

Restaurants didn’t always have the right to put tables on the street, either. Back in the ’90s then-city commissioner Nora Patterson promoted sidewalk dining to bring new life downtown to Sarasota and it worked. Now the city looks alive, and we’ve been bringing our dogs along with no questions asked ever since.Who knew it was illegal?

Restaurant owners like Betsy Nelson of Metro Café, Suzann and Bob Soran (who own O’Leary’s and Marina Jack), and J.P. Knaggs, owner/chef of Bijou Café and vice president of the Sarasota-Manatee Originals (a group of independently owned local restaurants), have always known that dogs are good for business. Allowing dogs attracts tourists from the dog-friendly Ritz-Carlton, Indigo and Hyatt hotels as well as dog-loving locals. But they also knew that having dogs on the premises could get them cited with a $500 fine.

"Restaurant inspectors tended to wink on the whole thing until Gov. Jeb Bush tried to do us a favor on his way out and make doggie dining legal," Jennifer explains.

Turns out that just like other well-meaning Republicans who start something with unforeseen consequences, Jeb made a complete mess with his Dixie Cup Clary law that gave local governments the right to choose whether or not to allow dogs in outdoor spaces. "It meant that every county and city had to pass a law to permit the restaurants to make the choice if they want to," Betsy Nelson told me. The problem was that if Sarasota didn’t pass the law to allow the choice, we couldn’t have one. It’s a negative-positive kind of thing.

Betsy and the Sorans started telling customers that the inspector from Fort Myers was now threatening to cite restaurant owners who allowed dogs. Apparently they could pass through sidewalks but not sit on them. Suddenly, Minnie Saslaw, who’d always had her dog birthday parties at O’Leary’s, was faced with never going out again. Deb Knowles’ Chiquita, the most photographed dog in Sarasota, would practically be under house arrest, and Rocky Glass wouldn’t get out much anymore, either. I happen to love Rocky more than anyone, so I wrote a fiery e-mail. Oh, the passions all this aroused, the organization it spawned, the drama, the hearings. It was BIG.

In July, I sat in Metro Café on Mound, eating a vegan tree-hugger cookie, and heard all about it. Betsy Nelson is a psychologist and golf-pro-turned-restaurateur who worked at the Wellness Community for 10 years before opening her coffee bar, which also serves actual food along with dessert. It’s also where real estate moguls gather to sign multi-million dollar deals when the market is good.

Deb Knowles pushed a second cookie at me, and Betsy promised it had no sugar. "First, recalcitrant commissioners had to be convinced the matter merited their attention," Deb said. "Then we had to have two hearings, one for the county and one for the city."

It was raining outside, and a squirrel leaped on a patio chair while Betsy filled me in on the regulations for cleaning areas with special disinfectant where dogs have been.

"They don’t require that on airlines." I said. There was once a cat under my seat, and I almost had an asthma attack over Washington. Or for bird droppings. You can sit at Columbia on the Circle and be dive-bombed all through your meal. No one cares about that.

So Jennifer Saslaw got the arguments and animal facts together and was a crazed general about the testimony. Since commissioners tend to glaze over if advocates repeat themselves, everyone had to be entertaining, reasonably coherent and brief. J.P. Knaggs testified that dogs increase business, and that means more taxes for the city. He also said restaurants deal with tons of regulations already and a few more wouldn’t put anyone out. Eileen Curd said the whole thing shouldn’t even be an issue; dogs are allowed at the Farmer’s Market and the Ritz, aren’t they?

Bryan Guentner had the facts on the positive impact a dog-friendly town has on the real estate market, and Deb brought up the Fair Housing and Americans with Disabilities Acts, which allows service dogs in all types of community residences. But it was Dena Arbitman, Deb’s mother, who brought both the county and the city commissioners down. She lives in a retirement home where she interacts only with other seniors and misses her dog. Dena said that people with dogs in restaurants enjoy sharing them, and for her and her friends to get the chance to talk about and play with dogs whenever they go out is second best to owning one. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

So the doggie dining law passed twice. But guess what? Now restaurant owners have to apply and pay for licenses and put up signs for dog-designated areas. And face double inspections. It makes a dog lover want to cry.

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