Editor’s note: Startland News selected 10 Kansas City firms to spotlight for its annual Startups to Watch list. The following is one of 2021’s companies. Click here to view the full, ranked list of Startups to Watch — presented by sponsors Husch Blackwell and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
Starting as a pop-up idea that combined cocktails and canines, Bar K quickly became a cult sensation in Kansas City — with more than 700 dogs in attendance at its first event, said Leib Dodell.
Elevator pitch: Bar K is reinventing the dog park experience by creating a joyful destination for people and dogs. Bar K’s unique space for dogs, combined with a bar and restaurant for people, makes for a brand new type of experience.
• Founders: Leib Dodell, David Hensley
• Founding year: 2016
• Amount raised to date: $2M
• Noteworthy investors: Purina
• Programs completed: Pet Care Innovation Network | Powered by Purina
• Current employee count: 80 (25 full-time, 55 part-time)
“It showed us that we were creating something special,” Dodell said about founding Bar K — a bar and restaurant fused with a dog park — with his co-founder David Hensley. “Then in 2017, we opened our temporary location in a warehouse in the West Bottoms, which we called the Bar K Lab.”
The Bar K Lab was open for only a couple evenings during the week and on the weekends, but always at capacity, Dodell noted.
After a second successful trial, the duo launched a permanent location on the Berkley Riverfront in August 2018. The two-acre space includes a vast open area and multiple interactive courses for dogs to play, as well as a bar, restaurant and performance area for humans to enjoy.
“You definitely do not need to be a dog owner to come here,” Dodell said. “We have a really great food and beverage experience. We have art; we have music. And of course, if you like dogs, you can go out into the park and get your fix.”
For dog owners who wish to bring their pet, Bar K is membership-based and currently growing by about 100 new members a month, Dodell stated. Bar K also offers daily passes for owners, and it’s entry is free for those without dogs to come eat, drink, work or dog watch.
While many restaurants and businesses in the hospitality industry have struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bar K’s business model has allowed it to thrive, Dodell noted.
Along with the acres of outdoor space and seating making social distancing possible, the new work-from-home culture has elevated business, he said.
“If you’re working from home and you have a dog, you can grab your laptop and come here,” Dodell said. “We have Wi-Fi and coffee, and your dog can play while you work. We like to think of it as a great co-working space.”
With their rapid growth and success in Kansas City, the duo decided to bring the one-of-kind experience to other Midwest cities in the second half of 2021.
“We’re going to open in St. Louis in September — I was just out there; it’s going to be absolutely spectacular — and then Oklahoma City will be a couple months behind that,” Dodell shared.
To finance its expansions, Bar K is in a capital raise for roughly $2.5 million that is expected to close by the end of January, he added.
Click here to read more about Bar K’s expansion goals.
Bar K has partnerships with such national brands as Nestlé Purina and Seresto, but it also strives to create community with other small businesses in the Kansas City metro area, Dodell said.
“We’ve partnered with Westlake Ace Hardware, and they helped us build a really unique jungle gym for dogs,” he noted. “… We partnered with Sporting KC, our local Major League Soccer team, to create a little environment out in the park called No Other Pup. The list goes on and on with about a dozen different partners that have created installations in the park.”
Bar K also works with various local dog adoption agencies for “Adoption Saturday” every weekend. All dogs adopted at the event come with a free membership to Bar K, Dodell added.
“We’ve gotten dozens and dozens of adoptions — we found that if we give people a puppy and a cocktail, we can close the deal very quickly,” he shared, laughing.
The Kansas City Startups Watch in 2021 list is made possible by presenting sponsors Husch Blackwell, a value-driven law firm with offices in Kansas City, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, though independently produced by Startland News.
Startups to Watch is now in its sixth year, thanks to ongoing support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.