Old Town Beer, Wine and Dog Festival launches this weekend

Old Town Beer, Wine and Dog Festival launches this weekend
From left to right: Alex Benbassat, Benbassat’s dog Rex, Justin LeGore’s dog Brewski and LeGore. (Photo credit: Brewski's Barkhaus)

By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

Two young entrepreneurs will host the Old Town Beer, Wine and Dog Festival this Saturday in hopes of expanding the concept to a per- manent dog bar by 2020.

The event, which will take place at Waterfront Park from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., will feature food trucks, locally sourced craft beer and wine, live music and adoptable dogs from local shelters.

The festival is an opportunity for Alex Benbassat and Justin LeGore, two Virginia Tech roommates-turned-business partners, to prove to the public and potential investors that Brewski’s Barkhaus, their concept for a dog bar, would be a perfect fit for Alexandria.

Opening a dog bar has been Benbassat and LeGore’s dream since the two first discovered dog bars in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The former college roommates both moved to Charlotte in 2017, Benbassat for an internship at an architecture firm and LeGore to work at a solar energy startup. After work, the two friends would take Benbassat’s German shepherd, Rex, to a local dog bar, a concept they immediately connected with.

“What a dog bar is, it’s an all fenced-in area, indoor and outdoor, and they have small dog areas and they have a communal dog area where your dog can just run around and play,” Benbassat said. “It’s all leash-less and then they have a bar connected to it. That way you can literally sit there, enjoy a drink [and] talk with your friends while your dog is being socialized, which is a huge thing for dogs because they’re naturally pack [animals].”

Similar to a dog park, the presence of dogs helped enhance the bar’s social atmosphere, Benbassat said.

“It was super easy to meet people, to talk to people, and it’s already like you know everyone because your dog is already running around playing with everyone’s dogs,” Benbassat said.

Eventually, LeGore moved to Washington state with the startup. But after a year across the country, LeGore said he missed the east coast and decided to move back.

“I began to put together a business plan for my own dog bar because I still thought that was a really cool idea,” LeGore said. “There was nothing like that back in my hometown.”

Alex Bonbassat and Justin LeGore raised Rex, Bonbassat’s German shepherd, together and regularly visited a dog bar in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo credit: Brewski’s Barkhaus)

LeGore moved back in with Benbassat, who had moved to Alexandria to finish up his architecture thesis at the Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center.

It seemed like perfect timing, LeGore said. Alexandria, a famously dog-friendly city, had been on his list of potential locations for the dog bar. Unbeknownst to LeGore, Benbassat had also been pursuing the idea of a dog bar for his thesis. 

“I decided to use the concept that me and Justin wanted to do but also add a twist of an animal shelter with it as well,” Benbassat said. “I wanted to be able to design it in a way that it would just bring a whole other wave of people to adopt these dogs even quicker and just get these dogs known. And even if they’re not adopted, they could be socialized and become more behaviorally sound.”

The name of Benbassat’s thesis project was Brewski’s Barkhaus, a riff on the Bauhaus architecture movement and Brewski – LeGore’s dog’s alcohol-infused name.

Both friends quickly realized they had been working on the same idea from different angles and agreed to combine their concepts under the Brewski’s Barkhaus name.

They expanded upon Benbassat’s shelter idea and decided Brewski’s Barkhaus would feature a doggie daycare where local shelters could bring dogs for free daycare, exposure and socialization.

In January, the two friends-turned-business partners reached out to the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, a community resource that provides counseling and training for small businesses.

Bill Reagan, executive director of the SBDC, and Gloria Flanagan, assistant director of the SBDC, took notice of how committed the two young entrepreneurs were.

“These are two very smart guys and they realized that before they sort of jumped in the deep end, they’ve got to do a lot of research,” Flanagan said. “They had checked out a couple places where they were like, ‘Ok, what don’t we know? What do we need to know?’”

Any business concept that involves alcohol, food or animals sets off a red flag, Reagan said – let alone one that involves all three. But the Barkhaus boys remained committed, and the SBDC helped connect them with the Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control licensure, real estate agents and other local dog businesses.

During their meetings with the SBDC and Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, Benbassat and LeGore came up with the idea of hosting a festival, a pop-up version of their business model, to gauge public interest and potentially attract investors. Currently, the venture is funded by only close friends and family.

“We figured there’d be no better way than to host this event and start spreading the word and hopefully try to find some investors,” LeGore said.

Thus, Alexandria’s first Beer, Wine and Dog Festival was born.

Since May, the two business partners have been noses to the grindstone, working to make the festival a reality, and it hasn’t been easy. It required putting aside planning for Barkhaus, which they still expect to open in fall 2020.

Alex Benbassat and his German shepherd, Rex. (Photo credit: Brewski’s Barkhaus)

Tickets for the festival are $10 and include access to live music, breweries, wineries, tents with different activities and food trucks, including one for dogs called Woof Bowl. The festival will also feature about 10 foster dogs from Arlington-based Lucky Dog Animal Rescue to represent Barkhaus’ combined-shelter concept.

All proceeds will go toward local shelters, including Lucky Dog Animal Rescue, the Social Dog Movement, the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria and the Animal Welfare League of Arlington.

Two hundred people have purchased tickets already. With more than 2,000 people “interested” in attending, according to Facebook, LeGore said the event could be bigger than he and his business partner originally thought.

“It’s definitely a new type of festival, especially for this area, and a new festival in general, just having those three concepts into one,” Benbassat said. “It’s a great thing to have and it’ll be a great way to get the word out about Brewski’s Barkhaus and to help the foster dogs find their homes.”

The Old Town Beer, Wine and Dog Festival is Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Waterfront Park. Tickets are available for advance purchase at www.oldtownbeer- wineanddog.com.