Liam was quite happy and so were his owners.
The 5-year-old husky mix bounded about with his newfound friends while his owners, Richard and Ashley Weber, nursed a pair of IPAs.
Nearby, Hazel, a lab/shepherd mix fetched a tennis ball from his co-owner, Michelle Malkasian. The other owner, Bill Malkasian, sipped a cup of wine.
This is not your typical beer garden, dog park or redevelopment project.
A former salvage yard in an industrial area on Madison’s East Side has undergone an $800,000 transformation to create a destination that gives dogs their freedom to run while their owners take full advantage of the beer garden and the occasional food cart, on this night El Alegre’s, which served up tacos, burritos and other Mexican fare.
There are scores of dog-friendly bars, beer gardens and breweries in the Madison area where leashed hounds are welcome, but the Boneyard, 1018 Walsh Road, behind the Walmart near Highway 30 and Stoughton Road, comes with its own off-leash area.
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This is where dogs mingle, do their business and sniff new arrivals. And for those who don’t have a dog, it’s a welcoming place as well thanks to a separate seating area where leashed dogs are allowed, and there’s a large lineup of craft beers, prepackaged cocktails, wine and coffee drinks from, of course, Rusty Dog Coffee in Madison.
There is no charge for those without a dog to enter, but it’s $8 per day for up to two dogs. The Boneyard also offers a 10-pack for $70, and a yearly pass is $230. And with hours that extend until 10 p.m., the lighted two-acre parcel means owners don’t have to rush from work to catch the last few minutes of daylight at other dog parks.
“It’s an innovative idea,” said Bill Malkasian, who made his first trip to the park last week and has plans to buy a yearly pass. “It’s not often we get wine at a dog park.”
10 years in the making
The business, which opened Sept. 1, is the creation of Jeff Kuhl, a longtime realtor for First Weber, and Steve Ritzer, who owns his own construction business. Kuhl had been thinking about the project for about 10 years and had traveled to Texas to study similar businesses.
Meanwhile Ritzer, who has a mastiff and boxer, visited similar venues in Louisville and Atlanta. In June 2020, the pair purchased two acres of land, most of it covered in weeds, along Starkweather Creek.
The redevelopment project includes a 60-foot-by-40-foot Cleary building with indoor seating for 68, bathrooms, a bar and two overhead doors that can be opened during warmer months. The building is also home to two dog-washing stations that can be used without an extra charge. Towels and soap are provided at no additional cost.
“I think it’s going to work because I think the Madison community loves beer and a lot of people own dogs,” Kuhl said. “I think after you’ve spent the whole day at work and you’ve come home or you’ve worked at home all day and ignored your dog, maybe you want to grab a beer with friends but you don’t want to leave your dog behind. It’s like a nice way you can please everyone and yourself and let your dog run.”
The property is also tastefully decorated with soft lighting and artwork including two 8-foot-tall and 10-foot-long steel dogs created by Dale Rogers of Massachusetts, who Kuhl had met at Art Fair on the Square. There are also welded steel sculptures by artist Jim Sauer of Slinger and murals by the Midwest Marauder. His work includes spray-painted images of the Dude from “The Big Lebowski” in the men’s bathroom and Marilyn Monroe in the women’s bathroom.
“I think each time Steve and I were faced with a decision on whether to do it this way or that way we sort of erred on the side of doing it nicer, “ Kuhl said. “We thought that if we’re going to do this. Let’s do it well.”
Getting energy out
On Thursday evening, about 20 dogs were in the off-leash area while their owners stood or sat at tables or on one the many blue and white folding lawn chairs provided. Yard attendants were also on hand to monitor and interact with the dogs.
The beer garden at one point had about six groups of people, two with leashed dogs; the other four, some with children, came for the drinks, food and atmosphere. The business is just west of the free, city-owned Sycamore Park Dog Park.
“I think it’s worth the money,” said Ashley Weber, as she watched Liam scramble about. “It’s really cool to have a new place to go for him to get his energy out and for us to have fun.”
Dogs are welcome at places like Wisconsin Brewing Company in Verona and the beer garden at Olbrich Park on Lake Monona’s north shore, but they must be kept on a leash.
The Boneyard is similar to Bark & Brew, which opened in 2017 in Suamico near Green Bay and is believed to be the state’s first combination beer garden and dog park. Kuhl, however, is modeling his business after Mutts Canine Cantina. The growing company has locations in Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth and Allen, Texas, and is adding franchises in other parts of Texas, Arizona and Colorado.
Some private dog parks charge up to $14 a session, but Ritzer said that would be too steep for Madison.
“We don’t want it to be a deterrent,” Ritzer said of the Boneyard’s fee structure. “There’s a lot of potential for people to come and sit whether they have a dog or not.”
Both Mutts and the Boneyard are cashing in on a pet industry that includes the sale of collars, food, health care and daycare facilities. In 2020, sales topped $103.6 billion, an increase over 2019 of 6.7% according to the American Pet Products Association. For 2021, APPA estimates total sales of $109.6 billion.
Not part of franchise
Kuhl and Ritzer are not part of any franchise and are feeling their way through the opening weeks. They had no problem finding employees, as 150 people applied for 20 positions that include bartenders, yard attendants and hosts who check in arrivals and explain the rules. Dog owners must also sign a liability waiver.
“The guys are great, the atmosphere is great, and the music they play is great. Everything is good about it,” said Tom Koren, who in 2013 founded Rusty Dog Coffee, which has a nitro version of its coffee on tap at the Boneyard. “Madison needs this. Especially this part of town. This shows people what can be done to a street that has nothing on it. We’re excited to be partners with them.”
The Boneyard also has plans for live music and host events involving local breweries, the Dane County Humane Society and dog rescue groups. This winter, the fence closest to the beer garden will be placed near the building to allow owners to stay inside or be under outdoor heaters as their dogs play. The business may be tucked away, but it’s easily accessible and drawing customers from throughout the area.
“We would have spent $400,000 to $600,000 on the land in other more obvious spots maybe, but we thought being in an industrial pocket as we are we can turn the music up louder we can have dogs barking and maybe improve a piece of Madison that needed it,” Kuhl said. “Obviously the land was at a good rate for us to spend some money on other aspects of it.”