How the rise of the 'fur baby' is changing Australian cafes, pubs

Anthony Colangelo
Jinkee the poodle (@lifeofjinkee) settles in for a treat at Grub Cafe in Fitzroy, with owner Sofia Levin.
Jinkee the poodle (@lifeofjinkee) settles in for a treat at Grub Cafe in Fitzroy, with owner Sofia Levin.  Photo: Christopher Hopkins

Australians are increasingly treating their dogs as human members of the family and one of the big winners are pet-friendly cafes. 

While not every eatery might welcome a four-legged friend there are plenty of pet-savvy places around willing to host dogs and their owners. 

Wide, open spaces and dog treats like special biscuits and "dog-a-chinos" are in hot demand , as owners increasingly move away from run-of-the-mill treats and products for pets, and more to higher quality offerings. Cafes and even pubs are capitalising on it.

The Stables of Como has a dedicated "dog bar".
The Stables of Como has a dedicated "dog bar".  

In Melbourne there's Vinomofo's Puppies and Pinot events, the "Dog Bar" at the Stables of Como, Welcome to Thornbury, which always welcomes dogs and the Great Northern, which loves pooches so much it has a Dogs of the Great Northern Hotel (@dogs_of_gnh) Instagram account. 

Animal Medicines Australia reports on pet ownership numbers and trends in Australia every three years and its 2016 report found 3.6 million Australian households had a dog, accounting for 38 per cent of homes. That's 20 dogs per 100 people in Australia. And it seems they're more pampered than ever before.

"Australians are spending more on premium products, services and insurance to manage and enhance the wellbeing of their pets," the report states.  "Dogs and cats are much more than mere companions – they have become a part of the family. There has been a marked change in the role dogs and cats play in the household."

The Stables of Como dog treats.
The Stables of Como dog treats. Photo: Supplied

That's backed up by research from IbisWorld, which found that the pet and pet supply retail industry in Australia has grown by almost 7.5 per cent from 2014 to 2019, and will continue to grow to 2024 largely because of pet "humanisation and premiumisation" trends.

"As pets become increasingly humanised, households are spending more money on them in the form of premium food, dietary supplements and vitamins, pet accessories and treats. This has translated into higher expenditure per pet owned as households spend more on premium products and services," the report reads. 

Grub Fitzroy is one of inner-city Melbourne's favourite dog-friendly cafes thanks to its spacious outdoor, yet covered eating area.

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Co-owner Tim Mann says he has welcomed dogs and served puppy treats since the cafe opened seven years ago, and in that time has received only one complaint about the dogs.

"I always say in some ways the dogs are better served than the customers because the water bowls and treats are all there ready to go," Mann said. "They know their way around the place just as well as their owners.

"They're members of the family, part of the community and they are a binding source of inspiration.

"We are a neighbourhood cafe with a huge local following. You come in through the outdoor area, it's the opening, and because of that it becomes a natural pathway and it's very dog-friendly.

"I have noticed other cafes doing it more. I think it's a thing but our set up really allows for it.

"Occasionally we get a little scuffle but it's rare. One person hasn't liked it, one Facebook commenter, but other than that it's all positive." 

Food and travel journalist Sofia Levin is mother to Jinkee, a poodle and Lort Smith therapy dog, with more than 78,000 followers on Instagram (@lifeofjinkee). 

Levin says a dog-friendly cafe is more than one with outdoor seating. 

"A place that's truly dog-friendly has modified the cafe setting to suit pooches as well as people," she says. "That could be as simple as baking dog treats and a water bowl on site or having designated dog blankets. Service is important, too. If staff aren't dog people, your cafe isn't dog-friendly."

The Stables of Como in South Yarra is also famous for its dog-welcoming touches, not least the "Dog Bar" which serves canine treats. 

"There's have doggy biscuits for sale and our most loyal dog, Lucy, gets a Schmacko [dog treat] on the side of her dad's long black every day," Stables of Como event manager Beth Collins says.

"We started the dog bar about four years ago and people love getting photos with the line-up of cuties on the door.

"We are situated among five acres of heritage gardens, it's only natural to bring your dog here to enjoy the beautiful grounds."