One for the Dogs
Ruff Draft is Wilmington’s first and only dog park attached to a bar.
At the end of a long day, grabbing a drink with friends at the bar is always a great way to relax and unwind. Here in the Cape Fear region, there is certainly no shortage of options when it comes to the local drinking scene. As more bars and restaurants continue to open and invigorate the Port City’s hospitality industry, one of the area’s newest watering holes is marking its territory as a place where everybody knows your name … and your dog’s name, too.
Ruff Draft, Wilmington’s first and only dog bar, is the brainchild of Sam Steger. Owner of the successful burger restaurant Mess Hall in Wilmington’s Cargo District, Steger came up with the idea last year while planning for his eatery’s location change and expansion.
“Mess Hall opened in July of 2020, and we got busy very quickly,” Steger says. “I’d wanted to do breakfast at the old location but couldn’t because we didn’t have enough space, particularly in the kitchen, which was only 160 square feet. Even without serving breakfast, though, we’d outgrown that spot in about six months.”
Steger and Mess Hall Manager Stone Tippett began scouting out a new space and soon settled on a building with three attached lots at 2136 Wrightsville Avenue. With the idea of adding a dog park to his restaurant already in mind, the property seemed at first like the perfect spot to create his vision.
“The location is really cool because it’s in the middle of Wilmington and has about 13,000 square feet of grass area, which isn’t common in the middle of the city,” Steger says. “I’d seen a few dog bars before in other areas, and thought it would be something very cool to do with that lot.”
Steger’s plan of adding a dog park to Mess Hall’s new location soon hit a road block, however, due to logistical limitations with zoning and permitting. He became impatient with the long process, so when the building right beside the new spot came up for lease last May, he recognized an opportunity in front of him.
Steger discussed the idea of creating a separate bar with Tippett, asking if he wanted to come in as a partner, and before long the two men got to work bringing both venues to fruition.
Although Mess Hall’s expansion is still underway, Ruff Draft officially opened its doors and welcomed its first two-legged and four-legged guests in September 2022. The 2,000-square-foot inside space serves as the bar and open play area, with seating along the walls and a standing bar in the middle of the room. Dogs are welcome to run around off-leash both inside and out, with 13,000 additional square feet of outdoor space situated between the building and the new Mess Hall next door. The play yard features a separate small dog area, picnic tables, bar tops along the fences and a complimentary dog-wash station for owners wanting to rinse their pups off before heading home.
“We also just finished building a pass-through window at Mess Hall, so guests can come up from the dog bar and order food to go, then just take it back over,” Steger says.
Ruff Draft’s dog park is membership based, with monthly passes available for $30, yearly passes available for $150, and discounts offered for owners with multiple dogs. Visitors not wanting to purchase a membership can opt instead for a $5 day pass. All dogs must be at least six months of age, spayed or neutered and have proof of rabies, Bordetella and Parvo vaccines. Aggressive dogs will be given a warning, with repeat offenders asked to leave.
“Overall, people seem to like to see the regulations we’ve put in place, since public dog parks don’t have a lot of regulations,” Steger says.
For the humans, Ruff Draft serves eight local drafts on tap plus an assortment of seltzers, ciders and canned beers (and even beer for dogs.) The bar also has a full liquor menu and a selection of wines, nonalcoholic beers and kombuchas. Until Mess Hall reopens, food trucks come out to serve guests on the weekends, and Steger and Tippett also host local events and popup markets on the weekends.
“As more people find out about us, our crowd’s becoming more diversified and seems to be a really good mix,” Steger says. “We have a lot of people in the neighborhood that come even if they don’t have a dog, plus non-dog owners who come with their friends, because it’s fun to come out and just play with dogs for a bit. It’s entertaining because dogs are funny.”
Dog lovers themselves, Steger and Tippett agree that one of the best parts about owning Ruff Draft is getting the chance to be around pups all day long. They understand the appeal of a dog bar and the need their business is addressing within the dog-centric community.
“I think a lot of people feel bad going out, getting drinks and leaving their dog at home, so with Ruff Draft you can go out for drinks with friends and still have your dog with you,” Steger says. “Plus, the dogs have a lot of fun too, and it’s great to see them all running around together and playing nonstop.”
Looking ahead, Steger says his primary focus is to get Mess Hall open before the summer and then to have some time to settle in with both spaces up and running simultaneously. After that, he hopes to start brainstorming ways to utilize the extra space he and Tippett now have available to them on the building’s second floor as well as within the new Mess Hall space.
“It feels good knowing we have the ability to expand in the next few years, and I’m sure we’ll be doing a lot of expansion,” Steger says. “We don’t know the details yet, but depending on what’s new and exciting at the time, we’ll just chase after something and do it.”
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2144 Wrightsville Ave, Wilmington
Photography by Leigh Roberts