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Lost Dog Café Becoming Lost Dog Empire?

What started out 25 years ago as a small neighborhood eatery in North Arlington is blossoming into a full-fledged local chain.

Lost Dog Café, which last year added a South Arlington location on Columbia Pike, is close to signing a lease for a storefront on Colshire Drive in McLean. And they’re not stopping there.

Lost Dog’s expansion is being undertaken not by the owners of the original restaurant, but by four friends who used to work there as teenagers.

Wes Clough, Mike Danner, Jim Barnes  and Mike Barnes are all graduates of Yorktown High School. Their devotion to Lost Dog Café started at age 16, when they started working there as drivers.

That dedication carried over through college, office jobs and marriages, and came full circle when Lost Dog owners Pam McAlwee and Ross Underwood gave their blessing for the friends to start the restaurant’s first franchise.

The Columbia Pike location, across the street from Arlington Cinema ‘N’ Drafthouse, opened in May 2009. McAlwee and Underwood donated the franchise fee to their charity, the Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation.

The new venture has been a success, winning awards and gaining customers at a pace well exceeding the friends’ expectations. Even this past weekend, during the height of Snowmageddon, the restaurant was packed.

Part of the success, says co-owner Jim Barnes, can be attributed to Lost Dog’s focus on serving customers. During the snow storm, Barnes personally delivered phone-in orders in his Jeep Wrangler.

For Mike Barnes, Jim’s brother, the formula boils down to this: quality food at reasonable prices. That kind of universal appeal is why he believes Lost Dog will have no problem expanding outside the safe confines of Arlington. It’s also why he and his partners are setting their sights even further.

After the McLean location opens up, the group will start planning for their next expansion.  So far the likely candidates include Alexandria and Capitol Hill.

The friends may be moving quickly, but their planning is methodical. With take-out and delivery accounting for 50 percent of Lost Dog’s business, the McLean location was chosen specifically to provide a contiguous zone of delivery service. It also helps that nearby Tysons Corner has a huge population of office workers who need to eat something for lunch.

Opening up new stores is risky, especially for four young guys with relatively tight finances, but Jim Barnes is confident that once they find suitable locations, new Lost Dog Cafés won’t have trouble finding clientele.

“A family-friendly restaurant with good food,” said Barnes, “[is] a recipe that will work anywhere.”

For additional information: Check out Lost Dog Café’s absurdly long menu, including 90 different varieties of pizzas, sandwiches, and pastas. Also, take a look at the equally-impressive beer list. Or watch the Arlington Virginia Network’s recent “Food for Thought” feature on the restaurant.

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