Drinking with Dogs
Yard Bar founder Kristen Heaney on how a powerful thirst led to a spot where good dogs play while owners indulge in good food, good drinks, and camaraderie.
Written and interviewed by Deborah Hamilton-Lynne
Photography by Summer Maulden Photography
In 2009, Kristen Heaney was enjoying a career as a successful program manager for an architectural firm, and life in Austin was good. After work she would often take her dog, Murray, to Auditorium Shores. And as they watched the dogs play, Heaney and her friends would surreptitiously sip adult beverages from coffee cups and water bottles and wish aloud that a food truck or bar would appear at the dog park.
As she observed the success of the food truck trend in Austin, Heaney could eventually no longer ignore her wish for a drink at the dog park. An idea for a way to quench the powerful thirst of dog lovers took hold in Heaney’s mind. Her vision of building a place where dog lovers could mix and mingle, eat and drink while their dogs had a playdate crystalized over a period of several years. Knowing that if she built it, they would come, Heaney opened the doors of Yard Bar and never looked back.
VV | The story is that while you were sitting at Auditorium Shores drinking beer out of a coffee cup while watching your dog play, lightning struck and you started asking yourself why not put a food truck and a bar in a dog park.
KH | That is true. Food trucks were popular, and I said "why not?" Looking back, I know that was naive. There are a lot of reasons why not. It was a good thing that I didn’t know the answer to "why not" because I couldn’t get the idea that this would work out of my mind. I knew it was something people would respond to: It seems everyone in Austin has a dog, and people in Austin like to have a drink in their free time so why not?
VV | So you couldn’t get the idea out of your mind, but how did you move forward from the idea to actually coming up with a plan to implement the idea?
KH | I did a lot of research. I took an entrepreneurship course at night—Foundations of Entrepreneurship with Gary Hoover at the University of Texas. That course really helped me. It was the place where I wrote my first business plan and the place where I got the structure to do the research I needed to do to see if this was even a viable concept.
VV | It was such an innovative concept how did you research it?
KH | I would go sit in the park with a notebook and count how many people came, how many dogs they would bring with them. Did they bring a drink? How long did they stay? What times of day did they come to the park? I had sheets and sheets of documentation.
I also set up a table at a dog park in Brentwood at a dog fair event. I had a survey that was three pages long, and I worried that people wouldn’t finish it, but I got a lot of good information. Best of all I got email addresses and contact information, and I was starting to accumulate a list of people who might be interested in my idea.
VV | I think that is one of the things that makes Austin unique. Everyone wants everyone to succeed. Everyone loves creative and innovative ideas. No matter how seemingly out of the box the idea, people in Austin say, "That’s a great idea. How can I help?" Did you find that most people were supportive of the idea?
KH | In general, Austin is a very entrepreneurial city. Most people want to know how they can help you and how they can connect you. The people who understand what you are trying to do, open doors all day long. But people in my family and friends who don’t have the understanding of the entrepreneurial pull were more cautious. It terrified them that I might quit my job, and they were afraid of the idea of sharing my plan, thinking someone might steal it. I had to learn who to have the conversations with and who to give the "headlines" to for my well-being and to give myself the oxygen that I needed to support the idea. In spite of my fear that someone might get the jump on me, I learned quickly that the more I talked about my idea and shared it with other people the better it would be for me.
VV | It is so important to have mentors. Did you have people that you called on to help guide you through the process?
KH | Gary Hoover is someone that I still rely on. Early on I talked with Amy Simmons of Amy’s Ice Cream and Terri Hannifin, owner of Home Slice Pizza. Those folks had successful businesses in my area, and those conversations let me know I was on the right track. They helped me keep the fire I felt for the project alive by letting me know that there was nothing wrong with the way I was feeling when I was struggling. It was all perfectly normal.
VV | People don’t realize what goes into opening a restaurant or bar—the unsexy things like permits, things that can make a person question their sanity and give up. How did you cope with the hurdles?
KH | My background in architecture helped because I understood permitting. This property used to be a putt-putt course so it was already zoned for outdoor sports and recreation, and I knew my way around a lot of those conversations with the city. Because it was something new and the city did not have any regulations for private dog parks, I had to find creative ways to navigate those conversations.
As far as speaking to investors, nothing like this existed so I had to show that the concept could be successful. My challenge was to convince investors that this concept was unique and different from the others. I had to convince them to have confidence in me—especially since I had never owned a restaurant or bar before.
One of the things I did early on was start a crowdfunding campaign. We raised $37,000, which was just enough to keep the project afloat. Beyond cash, it really gave me an initial 400 members for the dog park. That was a big boost for investors who could see that there was interest. You just have to take a leap and make a guess. You go for it. And then you adjust and learn. We created a buzz about it, and people were anticipating the opening.
VV | Was there ever a time when you thought you would just give up?
KH | Once the idea got under my skin, I never really thought about giving up. I kept plowing through, raising money. And even during the last week when we unexpectedly needed a lot of money, I just keep going. What is brilliant about the entrepreneurial journey is it is constantly evolving and you are constantly recreating your role and the business and redefining what it all looks like. For me, there have been many different evolutions of who I am personally and as a business owner throughout the journey
VV | How did you clarify the vision and prioritize your goals?
KH | Two things: speaking to other business professionals and entrepreneurs and starting a spiritual practice—taking the time for myself and practicing meditation, making a choice to take 30 minutes out of the day to just be still and grounded with a regular meditation practice. When you have to just keep focusing on your idea being a done deal and you have to keep your team on board with the vision—even if you are terrified, even if have no idea what is going to happen, even if it's two days before the bank loan has to come through and you aren’t sure it will happen—you have to believe it’s a done deal. It has already happened. Begin with that knowing, then step back and look at the steps to make your idea happen. If you can believe what you know will be true, then it becomes true and it happens.
VV | One piece of advice for someone who has an idea for a business that they can’t shake.
KH | Take one small step today that you can take in service of your idea. For me, it was making a commitment to take Gary Hoover’s class. The first day I went to that class I knew that this was my tribe, and I had never felt that before. If you think about all of the things it will take to put together your plan, it can be overwhelming and so just take that first step. I am not leaving the tribe. As Oprah says, "Take one step and then the next step and then the next."