In San Francisco, wealthy techies are spoiling their pets rotten and even turning workplaces into doggie havens.
Walk into Le Marcel bakery on San Francisco's ultra-posh Union Street and you are transported. Lavish cakes and brownies and biscottis and cookies line the display case. A baker is engrossed in his task, squeezing icing from a tube into a perfectly crafted message atop what appears to be a coconut and chocolate birthday cake. Except it's not chocolate. It's carob, a vegan substitute. In fact, there is no chocolate on the premises at all because it could, literally, kill Le Marcel's clients.
Le Marcel is a dog bakery. In any other place this would be patently ludicrous. Paying US$30 (about $45) for a cake full of peanut butter and kibble and inscribed with the message "Bye-bye, balls"? (I would assume that if I were being neutered, the least I'd ask for is a cake.) Yet San Francisco is not any place.
This city is ground zero of the future, home of tech giants from Airbnb and Pinterest to Uber. It is also a place where canines outnumber children. According to the most recent census, there are 118,000 people under the age of 18 in San Francisco, versus an estimated 120,000 pooches.
Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have Beast, a mop come to life. The Instagram founder Kevin Systrom's pooch Dolly has accrued nearly 20,000 followers but only follows six accounts herself, two of which are her parents'. Very selective.
The city's canines are pampered to within an inch of their lives by techies who are, generally, young, have money to burn and are having kids later — if at all. There are dog masseuses, dog gyms and, yes, even dog nuptials. Aki, the smiling man behind the counter at Le Marcel, says the most lavish creation he can remember the bakery making was a five-layer wedding cake for a "dog wedding".
Live in San Francisco long enough and none of this fazes you. Well, almost none of it. Not long after I moved here for this newspaper in 2016, a female tech company founder, making small talk after an interview, happened on the subject of dogs and their charmed life here. "Oh yeah," she recalled casually, "one of my investors just paid US$100,000 ($151,000) to clone his two poodles."
This is a thing. ViaGen Pets is the only company in America that clones pets, which it started doing in 2015 after previously sticking to livestock. Melain Rodriguez, ViaGen's client service manager, tells me that since they started offering the service, the tech capital has become a hotspot. "We have a lot of clients in San Francisco." (If you're interested, it's US$50,000 ($75,000) for dogs and US$25,000 ($38,000) for cats.)
The transformation of dogs from being just pets to the centre of people's lives began as a quirk, but has become something else entirely, as tech's laid-back approach to the office has met a generational shift. According to Grand View Research, about 75 per cent of millennials either own or are responsible for a pet.
"They say that this is the loneliest generation, so a lot of them try to break that social isolation by getting a companion," says Collette Bunton, CEO of Whistle, which makes a US$130 ($200) Apple Watch-style dog tracker and "wellness" gadget that compiles a weekly wellness report on everything from your dog's steps to "daily licking, scratching and sleeping".
For some job-seekers, a canine-friendly policy is a must. Anne Wojcicki, founder of the DNA-testing company 23andMe and ex-wife of the Google co-founder Sergey Brin, created a "big dog area" at her business premises. She told an interviewer in 2015: "It makes it better. It is just part of the culture."
Brian Chesky, the 38-year-old co-founder of Airbnb, is followed around the company's headquarters by Sir Richard Parker, his golden retriever. Airbnb's converted warehouse has been turned into a virtual kennel. Anyone can bring in a dog, as long as the pets are vaccinated, not aggressive and, importantly, wear an identifying Airbnb "dog tag". Having visited the building several times, I can attest that the security is exacting.
Animals have become a key part of the social scene. Google workers convene lunchtime play dates for their "Dooglers". The absence of children and family — lavish salaries mean that much of the city's population is made up of incomers — have turned "fur babies" and their "humans" into a subsociety all its own, with brunches and "yappy hour" at restaurants, with special dog menus.
It raises a question, though. In San Francisco, the most expensive city in the world, where the median house price is US$1.7m ($2.5m), what does it cost to keep your canine comfortable? The short answer is: a lot. Citizen Hound, the city's top-rated dog-walking service, charges US$500 ($760) a month for hour-long walks every weekday. Its boss, David Levin, 35, says he is simply meeting a demand. "Our clients get these animals that have high needs. All they want is your time, but their owners work a lot and are often commuting to Mountain View [Google] or Cupertino [Apple]. That's where we come in."
When Levin took over Citizen Hound in 2011, he tried to convince a few friends from his native Texas to move to the West Coast and help him. They turned him down. "It didn't make sense to anyone outside this area," he recalls. "But here there is a normalisation around spending US$500 on a dog." And that's just for walking. In the posh neighbourhood of Noe Valley, a members-only, US$1,500-a-month daycare club, Doggy Style, opened last year. The site is part co-working space, part gallery, where members can hang hand-painted murals of their pooches. (Doggy Style has since said it is "rebranding". No word on whether the murals will remain as part of its "innovative dog experience".)
If you want a well-behaved beast, you'll have to enrol it in the best school. SF Puppy Prep offers a package starting at "kindergarten" and going all the way through "high school" and continuing education. The "magna cum laude" package, which includes socials and "parent-teacher" conferences, runs at US$2,450 ($3,700).
And if you are constantly on the road and a dog-sitter just won't do, there is, of course, The Pawington, a five-star "luxury resort" designed to evoke a lodge at Lake Tahoe. Grand suites go for up to US$180 ($270) a night and include orthopaedic trundle beds, a 32in flat-screen television, personalised "light accents", nightly New York steak and a "bedtime belly rub".
It beggars belief — unless you live here. Levin, for example, is shocked by nothing, except when "parents" are not, by his estimation, appropriately engaged in the wellbeing of their animal. "I would meet these people, and they're so easy-going about it. If I was interviewing a dog-walker, I'd be asking them more digging questions. I want to know that they're the right person," he says. "If it were my dog, I'd be low-key spinning a knife in front of me on the table while I'm talking to the potential dog-walker. Just, you know, a subconscious threat: do not let anything happen to this animal. This is my life." Quite.
I heard it on the dog vine
Bby Kate Spicer
• "I'm checking out giving my puppy plasma infusions so that it lives longer — kind of like the Ambrosia project that Peter Thiel is trying to do."
• "So we've been giving Tibet microdoses of ayahuasca for assertiveness — the dog shaman told me and, hey, it worked for me — but now I'm just worrying he'll have a bad trip, poor baby."
• "I took Truffle to the Menlo Park dog park and I'm sure he was sniffing Beast's butt. I was certain Zuckerberg was walking him."
• "We paid the Fat Jew to do our Blondie's Instagram account, and after she got a ton of likes for her last #tongueouttuesday she's kinda gone viral and, you know, I don't know how I feel about that. The selfie situation at work is getting kinda weird. Like, dude, leave my f****** dog alone."
• "I've told my yoga instructor she has to include Java, Ruby and Python in our class. You should see Ruby's downward dog. It's insane."
• "I think my dog is a little heavy. He's been on a species-appropriate keto/paleo diet, but he misses his junky, carby pup treats so much, I feel totally guilty. There's quite a bit of silent fat-shaming at the office dog park."
Written by: Danny Fortson
© The Times of London