Saturday is the busiest day of the week at Famous Fido's Doggie Deli, so owner Gloria Lissner and her staff have already set up for this afternoon's birthday party, still two hours away. One of the two bright blue booths is covered with a checked tablecloth, napkins, plates of various cookies, and a sign that reads "Today's Special: Vita-Loaf." A nearby cart holds party hats, a bouquet of flowers, and a silver water pitcher.
Fifty times a week, Lissner says, she entertains dogs and their owners; the dogs sit in booths and eat off plates, the owners watch. Today the 1 PM slot is booked for an 11-month-old white boxer named Brendan. Brendan will be served a three-course meal his owners picked out from a menu that includes Chicken a la Fido, Steak and Kidney Ragout, and Canine Casserole. He will also get a birthday cake. "Our motto is: we do not serve dog and cat food, we serve food to dogs and cats," Lissner says.
A few feet away from the two booths, long strings of jerky hang from the ceiling above a glass display case. A few trays of homemade bakery items sit inside the case, but most of the goods are piled in plastic bins just in front of it. Among the 40 or so offerings are beef-and-carob cookies (five for $1), fish-and-catnip bars (40 cents each), and liver pie ($1 a slice).
Food isn't the only thing for sale. A mishmash of pet clothing and accessories fills one nook. People clothes--mostly T-shirts--along with cards, jewelry, mugs, and Paws to Remember photo albums fill an entire room. A back room houses toys, supplies--including pet cologne ($6.50 for four ounces)--and more standard pet food. There are also grooming and boarding facilities here.
"In Europe, people go everywhere with their pets," Lissner says. "I've tried to create a department store where people can come with their pets." But few of today's customers have brought their pets. Some just hurry in to buy bags of dog food from the back room and hurry out, looking slightly embarrassed at the goings-on. Others browse, not bothering to conceal their attraction to the place. "The prices are so reasonable," one woman says with feeling.
A man comes into the store and asks where he can find sunglasses for his dog. "We don't have any sunglasses, but we have hats for them right in here," says Nancy, a Fido's employee. The man takes a look through the pet clothing section, eyeing the doggy sweaters; the glittery bow ties; the little jeans; the down, wool, and sheepskin vests, and finally the hats--stocking caps, sequined bowlers, hats made of straw and feathers.
"They don't make sunglasses, huh?" he asks Nancy.
"No, but you can just try regular people sunglasses," she says. "That's what our Fido wears."
Lissner's nine-year-old mutt, Colonel, traipses from room to room, a balloon attached to his collar and a party hat upright--usually--on his head. The finery is a Saturday tradition; most days he roams the store unadorned, followed by a white Persian cat. Colonel was Lissner's model for the cartoon character that decorates the storefront, cookie boxes, and clothing tags. "He is Famous Fido," she says.
A photo of Colonel's predecessor, who Lissner says lived to be 17, hangs on the wall above the blue booths. It's next to a spread on Lissner that appeared in People magazine, photos of customers and their pets, and letters from Famous Fido's fans.
The sunglasses man has been joined by his female companion, and they are picking up and inspecting the hats. "They don't have any elastic on 'em, huh?" they ask.
"I can give you a piece of elastic to put on them," Lissner says. She shakes her head and frowns. "I don't know why they sent them without elastic."
The couple becomes increasingly difficult to please. "You don't have any baseball caps, right? Just what's here?" the man asks.
"Just what's here," Nancy says, nodding.
Lissner opened her first deli a few years back in the building next door. After two years, seeing that her idea would sell, she closed the store and spent some time developing new products before reopening last fall in her current location, 1533 W. Devon.
Lissner considers this store a product test site. "I'm developing product lines that are going to be seen nationwide. I have two product lines now that I'm manufacturing and I'm starting to sell across the country: one is the Famous Fido Cookie, which comes in three flavors. The other product I'm working on is Famous Fido's Funwear"--people clothes bearing pictures of dogs and cats. "There's a morsel from the deli in the sleeve for the pet," she adds. Also in the works: frozen pet entrees, an expanded cat-food line, stores in Lincoln Park and Los Angeles ("50 percent of the pet population is in California," she says), and Famous Fido's Shop-at-Home parties, in which upscale pet products replace Tupperware. Then there's the newspaper column on pet care that she hopes to call "Chewing the Bone With Fido." She shows a picture that she wants to run with the column: Colonel in spectacles sitting at a typewriter. "There's really not been a column where you talk to the dog. I'll go through the dog. I'm also working on a cartoon strip." Lissner speaks seriously and slowly. "What I'm trying to do is something very special for pets," she says. "My purpose is to bring a message to pet owners."
By 1:15 PM, Brendan--the birthday dog--has finished the first two courses of his birthday feast and taken a walk around the store--"to digest," Lissner explains. He now sits in his booth devouring his birthday cake, which she has presented to him on a platter, cut into pieces, and served to him on a plate.
"There's no sugar or salt in the cake," Lissner tells the dog's owners. "It's made out of pure liver, wheat bran, and it's topped with cream cheese."
Colonel and the white Persian lounge nearby, but Brendan's pretty much just concentrating on the cake. "When they know what's happening, they settle in," Lissner says. "It's always like this. I only had one incident where a dog got out of hand."
Lissner says her biggest party was 25 dogs, but most of the time she entertains only one or two at a time. There's an extensive menu for cats, but only one cat has ever eaten at Fido's. Owners accompanying their pets sometimes bring their own food and eat with their animals.
Brendan's owners give him more water, take pictures, comment on his appetite. When he's finished, they decide to pick out some treats for Brendan to take home. "He can sniff out what he likes in the bins," Lissner tells them.
The dog takes a look, inhaling violently, his tail wagging rapidly. "Brendan, you're costing me a fortune," one of his owners says. But on the way out, Brendan gets a freebie: a colored rawhide nugget, dispensed from a gum ball machine. 'Every dog gets one after a party," Lissner says.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.