A huge blue water bowl outside Coffee Labs Roasters on Main Street in Tarrytown is frequented by dogs that stare into its huge window, or look through the door, unable to cross the threshold. Its website tells visitors “DOG WAIVER PENDING — check back soon.”
After nearly three years of letters, emails, phone calls, meetings and site visits to the cozy neighborhood coffee nook owned by Mike Love and Alicia Kelligrew-Love resulted in a letdown when the Westchester County Health Department, under Commissioner of Health Dr. Sherlita Amler, said it will not allow canines in Coffee Labs. Specifically, the department refused to consider a waiver to Section 14-1.183 of the New York Sanitary Code that allows patrol dogs to accompany security police officers and guide dogs to accompany blind persons.
“It’s hurting business instead of promoting small business,” Love said after hearing the news. “How can you give us guidelines, and when we comply, you say no?” Kelligrew-Love agreed, “This doesn’t seem like a way to help small businesses in the community.”
“Protecting the health and safety of residents is the Health Department’s paramount concern,” Director of Public Health Information and Communication Caren Halbfinger said. The shop “was always subject to NYS Sanitary Code and never had permission to allow dogs to enter the establishment,” which Love admitted. “It’s part of who we are. It’s our identity. It’s our brand,” he said two years earlier.
Partially named after their pets, the award-winning coffee house had allowed dogs inside its 1,000-square-feet space since opening in 2003 — until the Health Department said Love needed a dog waiver, outlining a list of concerns that needed to be addressed before the department would consider the waiver request. Prior to this, there were no violations, incidents or complaints at Coffee Labs pertaining to dogs since it opened.
Thus the Loves began to work on the requirements until personal issues demanded their attention; when they were able to move forward again, the answer was different.
“They gave us a ‘yes,’ and when we didn’t follow up right away we called them, and they said it never happened,” Kelligrew-Love said. Phone calls to the Health Department in September 2011 resulted in phone tag — and the department’s change of heart. “We have the paper that says ‘yes’ to the waiver. Needless to say, we are upset!”
“The department had ongoing dialogue with Mr. Love regarding these pending concerns, but the concerns were never addressed,” Halbfinger said. No other jurisdiction allows non-service dogs inside restaurants, it determined “after a comprehensive search, and discussions with several health departments across the country.”
Coffee Labs’ owners were hopeful in June 2010, when the Westchester County Board of Health — nudged by the public’s overwhelming response and a 3,000-signature petition created by Coffee Labs employees — agreed to meet with them to discuss a waiver to the aforementioned code.
The independent body of 12 people reviews all complaints and approves or denies any waiver to Health Department rulings.
Then Acting Westchester County Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Archibald told Love, attorney Andrea I. Castro, and the 10 to 15 supporters that the June 2010 meeting was “to inform the board of all the information related to this request.”
Frank Guido, MPA, RS, Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Public Health Protection, said at the time that the situation at Coffee Labs will set a precedent and that the variances to the New York State code are being considered to minimize risks to staff and customers. “It (Coffee Labs) is a low-risk establishment, which means there is a low potential for food-borne illness,” Guido said. “The store has pre-made muffins, and the staff cut open bagels that they spread with cream cheese or butter.”
Posted on Coffee Labs’ door and window were signs indicating dogs are allowed inside, and that they (dogs) had to be licensed, leashed and vaccinated. Since none of the board’s 12 members had even been to Coffee Labs, they visited before the following month’s meeting.
“They looked the place over,” Kelligrew-Love said. “Things we had done for many years, they said were a violation. We thought we had it all worked out, and it was a go.”
An email to Amler received no reply, and a phone message left for Assistant Commissioner of Health Peter DeLucia, who the Loves said had been assisting them, was forwarded to — and answered by — Halbfinger.
Coffee Labs rallied support via its Causes.com page, Help Coffee Labs Become the First Official Dog-Friendly Coffeehouse, and Facebook, including canine fans who kept asking when they’d be allowed to return.