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Restaurants for rescue

At pet-themed Virginia cafes, restaurateurs pursue their passion for animal welfare

From Animal Sheltering Magazine January/February 2013

Fun, colorful murals—like this one showing dogs cooking up a pizza (and some bones)—adorn the walls of the Lost Dog Café and Stray Cat Café in Arlington, Va., co-owned by Ross Underwood and Pam McElwee. Diners at the Stray Cat Café and the Lost Dog Café help create profits that the restaurants' owners funnel to animal rescue. The Stray Cat Café and its neighbor, the Lost Dog Café, have become fixtures in their Arlington neighborhood.

On a wall at the Stray Cat Café in Arlington, Va., a giant kitty rendered in blue, green, and yellow with mauve eyes stalks toward the viewer, a big, white feather in his mouth. An enormous cat eye peers from inside the doorway of a building, one huge paw extended to rake in a football-size chunk of kibble that spills from an overturned trash can.

Meanwhile, the pooches are having a great time at the Lost Dog Café: roasting bones and a pizza over a roaring fire, or playing a game of pool (sorry, no dogs playing poker).

But all this is more than just amusing imagery. It also tells you what’s foremost in the hearts of the owners—aside from slinging great food—and where they like to spend their hard-earned dollars. The restaurants help financially support the lifesaving work of the Lost Dog & Cat Rescue Foundation and its Lost Dog & Cat Ranch, set on 61 acres in Sumerduck, Va.

The foundation, established as a nonprofit in 2001, rescues abandoned or displaced dogs and cats from overcrowded shelters and other at-risk situations, and puts them up for adoption. Every pet is spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and given any needed medical care before going home.

Each weekend, an army of volunteers (the rescue has about 2,400 in its database) transports dogs and cats to 10 adoption events at PetSmart and PetCo stores in Virginia and Maryland. The rescue estimates that it has rescued and rehomed about 18,000 dogs and cats—more than 2,400 in 2011 alone.The driving forces behind all this are Pam McElwee and Ross Underwood, co-owners of the restaurants and co-founders of Lost Dog & Cat Rescue Foundation. The pair have been friends and business partners for almost 30 years; married for 10 of them, they are now divorced.

The two have been splitting their time between running restaurants, and pulling cats and dogs from shelters on the side, for much of that time. Each year, they contribute a total of at least $100,000 to support the rescue’s efforts—and sometimes much more. In 2011, McElwee estimates, they donated about $220,000 to the rescue. Improvements to the ranch in recent years have cost about $300,000, Underwood says. There’s no legal relationship between the cafés and the rescue; the restaurants are businesses, and the rescue is a nonprofit. Nor does the rescue receive a set percentage of the restaurants’ profit. “What we do is, Ross and I both contribute financially—personally—a lot to keep the rescue going,” McElwee explains.

It’s the perfect arrangement for them. “The bigger we have grown, the more money we make, the more we’re able to help more animals,” McElwee says.

Diners at the Stray Cat Café can order items like Cats-a-Dillas, Mouse Tails (curly fries), and Avo-Gato Salad. The Lost Dog Café’s menu boasts more than 250 kinds of beer, and you can order a wide variety of pizza pies, such as The Whippet, The Catahoula, The Pit Bull, The Pointer, and The Shelter Dog.

Prominently displayed merchandise—T-shirts, hoodies, ball caps, and mugs bearing the logos of the cafés and the rescue—helps make the connection between the restaurants and the rescue.

Many regulars know the cafés support Underwood’s and McElwee’s efforts to save animals. This is especially true in the North Arlington neighborhood that’s home to the Stray Cat Café and the original Lost Dog Café.

“Now it’s really funny, after 27 years in Westover, I walk up and down the street, and see [people with their] dogs coming, and I’ll say, ‘Oh, hi,’ and they’ll go, ‘We got him from you guys,’” McElwee says. “So we’ve kind of saturated this neighborhood. Probably six out of 10 dogs are from the rescue.”

Success is on the Menu

The pair’s interest in finding homes for needy pets goes back decades. They would pull one or two dogs at a time from local shelters, take them home, and place adoption ads in the Washington Post.

They went into business together when they bought the Westover Gourmet Pizza and Deli—a name that stuck until 1994, when they were able to buy the space next door. That’s when they expanded the restaurant, changed it to the Lost Dog Café, and launched with a new, dog-centric décor.When an old bar four doors down from their café closed, they bought it, thinking it could relieve the wait for seats at the Lost Dog Café. It became the Stray Cat Café. That was in 2005, and both restaurants are still going strong.

In May 2009, four men who’d grown up working for McElwee and Underwood at the Lost Dog Café opened a franchise of the Lost Dog Café in South Arlington.

The men followed that with two more franchises in nearby Virginia communities, all of which share the same menu and have been decorated with murals by Arlington artist Jessica Lovelace.

But don’t expect to see Lost Dog Cafés popping up in your neighborhood anytime soon. McElwee and Underwood have turned down offers from people who wanted to open their own outpost. “I don’t think I could sell a franchise to someone whose heart wasn’t into the dogs and cats, and it was just a business to them,” McElwee says. “If you want to have the name Lost Dog Café, then you have to give back to the animals."

About the Author

Jim Baker is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.