Transport Brewery in Shawnee is not a dog-themed taproom per se. A better way to describe it might be “dog forward.”
There’s a large collage on the wall with pictures of dogs and their owners, and that’s next to a calendar featuring glamor shots of some of the canine regulars.
• State regulators have told Transport Brewery that it can’t have dogs in the building anymore.
• Dogs have been a fixture in the taproom since it opened nearly four years ago.
• Transport staff are concerned that the change may end up having a negative effect on business.
A small basket hangs further down the bar with disposable bowls for patrons’ pooches, as well as doggie toys – all ready to hand out to all the waggly-tailed pups brought in by people looking to try a craft brew and spend a few minutes unwinding with friends once the place opens in the afternoon.
Missing, as of this week, will be the actual dogs. They’re not allowed inside Transport anymore because of a new state regulation that forbids them indoors in “food preparation” areas. They will be allowed in the patio space outside, but it’s limited.
Transport owners sent out an apologetic notice this week and put a sign on their door, along Shawnee’s main square. Even though the canine friendliness is a point of pride the business is known for, there will be no dogs inside the taproom for the foreseeable future.
“The hardest part is just to look a customer in the eye and say we want your business but unfortunately we can’t have them,” said Christie Merandino-Jackson, operations manager.
Taproom regular William “Rusty” James, who was known as the owner of “Charlie” until that dog died recently, puts it another way. “It’s ridiculous. This is a perfect example of why it’s hard for small businesses to thrive.”
Why Transport Brewery had to stop allowing dogs inside
What exactly was the change that led to this is still a little murky. State Rep. Cindy Neighbor was looking into it on Thursday, but said she thinks it may be an administrative interpretation of a law the state legislature passed last spring that didn’t draw much attention at the time.
What Transport managers know is that for the better part of four years, they were fine with the state for having dogs in the building. They were fine since opening three and a half years ago, fine with a health inspector who saw a dog on the premises during a visit last February .
Fine until July, when they weren’t.
Merandino-Jackson said that the July health inspection was the first they knew of changes in the state law. No dogs are allowed indoors, and permission is required to have them on an outdoor patio, with certain restrictions. The business tried for a variance, but was denied.
Perhaps most frustrating is the fact that Transport doesn’t serve food. The business doesn’t have a kitchen, although customers can bring in food from food trucks outside.
It is considered a food preparation business because of its beer brewing. That operation is in the back, behind locked doors that require a passcode. No customers, let alone dogs, can go back there.
Since being told by the state they had 30 days to work something out, the business has not been able to come up with a way to appeal, she said.
The canine connection at Transport
Transport’s connection with dogs started with Stella, Merandino-Jackson’s, 50-pound mixed breed. Transport was just opening with the aim of having a place downtown to bring people together over beers and preserve the 100-year-old building, when she applied for a job, she said.
Merandino-Jackson asked whether dogs were allowed when she first interviewed to work at Transport. Since there is no kitchen, the owners told her it was okay. “I was working long hours and I couldn’t leave her at home.”
Stella endeared herself, becoming the official greeter of the establishment. “Stella became one of the more known things about Transport Brewery. Before our beer was even talked about, it was that we were the brewery with the brewery dog,” she said.
People started asking if they were dog friendly and things went from there, she said.
Dogs became a big part of the Transport Brewery experience and downtown Shawnee in general. The business started hosting pet adoption events and fundraisers for dog rescues and shelters. More than 36 dogs were adopted and $7,000 raised in the past year.
Stella wasn’t the only mascot. Rusty James, a retired Lenexa police officer, began bringing his boxer mix Charlie, who quickly became a canine celebrity in his own right. Rusty and Charlie were there together so much that people asked about Charlie when Rusty came alone, he said.
Many were heartbroken when Charlie died suddenly about two weeks ago of an apparent heart attack, Merandino-Jackson said.
How will lack of dogs affect Transport’s business?
It remains to be seen how the indoor dog ban will affect business. She estimates about 40 percent of the patrons come because of the dog-friendly atmosphere. More than once, a person walking a dog on the sidewalk has stopped in on a whim because their furry pal was welcome, she said.
Transport has outdoor seating on the sidewalk in front, and Shawnee has a common consumption area, she said. For that reason, she believes outdoor dogs are okay. And the city has been very supportive of the business, she added.
James blames the taproom’s dilemma on government’s insistence on applying blanket rules to business when they should be looking deeper.
Merandino-Jackson’s theory is that craft breweries are new enough that Kansas regulators don’t know quite what to do with them, so they’re lumped in with dissimilar businesses. “My hope would be that everything is evaluated on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “There’s got to be a way to make this work.”
But that might take a while. There appears to be no appeals process, she said, and trying to work out a variance or exemption is risky. Do it wrong, and the business could be shut down.
So Transport is asking its supporters to get in touch with their elected officials about the problem. The hope is for better regulations that will work for all the taprooms being affected by the regulation, not just Transport, she said. They’re calling it “Charlie’s Cause.”
But Merandino-Jackson acknowledges it may be a long road. State lawmakers won’t return to Topeka until January and it could be May before any change could be approved. In the meantime, no more dogs inside.
James says that’s a shame. A lot of regulars here come in to socialize in an atmosphere he compares to television’s “Cheers.”
“You know, on a bad day it’s just really nice to pet a dog.”