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In the face of financial troubles, dog lovers unite to save a Gainesville bar

 Shannon Jackson (right) laughs while holding her blind dog, Pearl, at Lebowski’s Pup Pub Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024. (Alissa Gary/WUFT News)<br/>
Shannon Jackson (right) laughs while holding her blind dog, Pearl, at Lebowski’s Pup Pub Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024. (Alissa Gary/WUFT News)

As the only dog bar in Gainesville — the nearest alternative being in Jacksonville — Lebowski’s offers an all-in-one private dog park, beer garden and bar. Patrons sit at high-top tables and sip on drinks as their dogs dart across a fenced-in, artificial turf lawn off Main Street.

It was Saturday night, and the bar teemed with life. A labrador propped its paws on the counter and tilted its head at the bartender, asking for a drink on the house. Huskies mingled with pit bulls and doodles, some donning sweaters on the cold and cloudy night. A tussle broke out between two of them, but a bouncer equipped with a spray bottle quickly broke up the fight.

Katie Crozier, 42, watched the dogs play from a bench on the corner of the lawn, where she sat with three other regulars. Although the Gainesville resident has been coming to Lebowski’s Pup Pub since its opening in December 2021, she still knows more dogs’ names than human names, she said. “It’s like dog ‘Cheers,’” Crozier said, referring to the 1980s sitcom.

But just two years after opening, financial stressors from the COVID-19 pandemic put Lebowski’s at risk of closing. “If things don't change for the better, we will have to close down soon,” the bar wrote in a December 18 Facebook post. “We hope to continue as best we can and can’t thank you all enough.”

As the only dog bar in Gainesville — the nearest alternative being in Jacksonville — Lebowski’s offers an all-in-one private dog park, beer garden and bar. Patrons sit at high-top tables and sip on drinks as their dogs dart across a fenced-in, artificial turf lawn off Main Street.

“I have never really been a regular at a bar,” Crozier said. “But I feel comfortable coming here. Just a solo human. Just me and my dog.”

Keeping the bar afloat

By Dec. 19, Geno Schmelke, one of the bar’s five owners, organized a GoFundMe page dedicated to saving it. Lebowski’s customers have raised more than $7,100 as of Jan. 20.

Although the GoFundMe has only raised 70% of its $10,000 goal, the bar confirmed on Facebook it would try to stay open as of Dec. 23. Donations will be used to pay bills and make renovations to the park, according to the GoFundMe page.

As patrons filed in, Schmelke, 39, poured a draft beer into a clear plastic cup. The bar is named after Schmelke’s dog, Lebowski, and one his favorite movies, 1998’s “The Big Lebowski.”

The owners, including Schmelke, were former bartenders at midtown and downtown bars before founding Lebowski’s, he said.

The idea for the pup pub was born from the desire not to leave their dogs at home while working long hours on University of Florida game days, Schmelke said.

“We want to bring a place that we can make a community bar, not another sports bar,” he said. “We can bring our dogs to work and just relax.”

Although Schmelke and his partners acquired the property in August 2019, they only opened it to the public in December 2021, after the pandemic delayed their permits. Paying rent over two years with no revenue depleted what funds they had to start the bar, he said.

Even so, they adapted. The owners did much of the construction, carpentry, plumbing and electrical work themselves, with the help of YouTube, Schmelke said. “We did what we could to make it a dream come true,” he said.

“We want to bring a place that we can make a community bar, not another sports bar. We can bring our dogs to work and just relax.”
Geno Schmelke

The bar did well for the first year and a half, Schmelke said. But in summer 2023, he noticed bars and restaurants across the city closing permanently.

Restaurants , including Sweet Dreams, Swamp Boil and Formaggio’s Bistro and Wine Bar, went under in 2023. Halo Potato Donuts, which was open for six years, closed all three of its Gainesville locations in December. Schmelke suspected rising costs and the city’s focus on developing west Gainesville was at the root of the problem, he said.

Of the 24 development projects under construction in Alachua County, three are to the east of Main Street and 21 are to the west. A plan to build a Bravo supermarket on Hawthorne Road fell apart in 2022. Residents of east Gainesville have said they’re forgotten. Empowering east

Gainesville is among Mayor Harvey Ward’s goals, according to his City of Gainesville biography.

Yet, Lebowski’s breaks even. None of the owners take home a paycheck, Schmelke said. “We knew we were never going to get rich off this,” he said. “It was just one of those things, just to do something cool.”

The regular crowd

Gainesville resident Libby King, 63, and her husband, Pete King, 64, have visited the bar at least once a week since December 2022. Sometimes they bring their two black labrador mixes, but on others, they come alone. “We’re not bar people, but we’re this bar people,” Libby King said.

The Kings prefer to bring their dogs to Lebowski’s, as opposed to public dog parks, because the space lends itself to more responsible dog owners, they said.

“We’re not bar people, but we’re this bar people.”
Libby King


Dogs must be fixed and vaccinated to enter Lebowski’s. “BOWncers” — or staff members who watch the dogs while their owners socialize — ensure both dogs and humans stay safe, said “BOWncer” Hannah Seiken.

Seiken, a 22-year-old UF international studies senior, has worked as a “BOWncer” since August 2022. She said she enjoys spending quality time with the dogs, especially because her dogs stay in Colorado with her family while she attends college.

“I love it here,” she said, water spray bottle in hand. “I can't believe I get paid to be here. That's such a dream.”

Since the GoFundMe went live, Seiken said she noticed the bar was busier than usual. “We feel so loved and supported,” she said. “And I think we’re a lot more optimistic for the future.”

Building a community

While a normal day draws a crowd of about 25, Lebowski’s business varies with the weather. A white tent, fans and space heaters fight rainy, hot and cold days when dogs and their owners are less likely to come out.

Gainesville resident Mark Spangler, a Lebowski’s regular, thinks the bar could benefit from a more weather-proof space, he said.

“When it rains all weekend, or hurricanes, it ruins our weekend,” he said, petting his goldendoodle Brody behind the ears.

Spangler, 62, said Lebowski’s has helped Brody socialize better with other pups. While Brody usually “attacks everything,” he’s learned to comingle more peacefully at Lebowski’s, Spangler said. “He comes in here, and he’s a different dog,” he said.

Brody and his brother, Winston, bounded across the dog park, stopping to take a sip from a kiddie pool filled with ice cubes. The larger of Lebowski’s two off-leash parks is about 3,500 square feet, slightly more spacious than a tennis court.

Gainesville resident Robin Lamerson, 52, said she visits Lebowski’s just as much for her dog as for herself — she’s created a community of friends in the almost two years since she started coming, she said. At the thought of the bar closing, she teared up. “I don’t want to think about it,” she said.

Gainesville resident Shannon Jackson, 48, cradled a blind dog named Pearl. Wearing a tiny green knitted sweater dotted with buttons, Pearl serves as Jackson’s emotional support animal. The dogs, patrons and bartenders at Lebowski’s have become friends, Jackson said — she’d be sad to see the place go.

“There would be such a loss in my life,” she said. Ultimately, Jackson said she knows Lebowski’s will be there for her when she needs a friend. “It’s just a nice place to come,” she said. “Everybody here is so friendly and good and seem to be part of the genuine collective of what Gainesville is.”

Copyright 2024 WUFT 89.1. To see more, visit WUFT 89.1.

Alissa Gary