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"This is our city, our town, our government. You're in our hierarchy now. You’re in the city of Ocoee.”

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Norine Dworkin

Founding Editor

Thursday, September 23, 2021


Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli

Chews A Puppy owners Nick and Crystal Grastara, who settled one lawsuit in February and have another one pending for selling puppies that died shortly after purchase, address commissioners at the Sept. 21 Ocoee City Commission meeting.

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In a win for home rule, the Ocoee City Commission Tuesday night opted not to comply with Orange County's Humane Retail Pet Ordinance, passed in June, that bars pet stores from selling dogs, cats and rabbits. Instead, the commission voted 4-1 to rework its own ordinance that will allow the only store selling puppies within city limits — Chews A Puppy — to continue animal sales but with some measure of oversight and regulation for 24 months. Commissioner Richard Firstner, who said he’d been asked to support the Orange County ordinance, voted against the action.

The commission will vote again on the revised ordinance once new language is drafted. It’s unclear what oversight and regulation would entail — City Attorney Scott Cookson said research was needed — and no timeline was given for the ordinance to return before the commission. To prevent Ocoee becoming a mecca for other pet retailers, commissioners made it clear that this carve-out was a one-off, and no other retailers would be permitted to sell animals.

A beaming Crystal Grastara, who co-owns Chews A Puppy with her husband Nick, embraced supporters in the lobby of City Hall after the vote. When asked for comment, she initially demurred, then said she wouldn’t describe herself as “happy or sad, just ready for the next chapter, ready to see what we’re gonna come back to the table with.”

It was a lengthy process to reach even the decision to revise. For more than three hours, commissioners and a standing-room only crowd — many wearing sea green T-shirts emblazoned with “I HEART Chews A Puppy” — heard testimonials and discussion both for and against Chews A Puppy. And this was only one item on a packed meeting agenda.

Numerous past and current Chews A Puppy store employees spoke of a family-like workplace and life-changing jobs that allowed them to leave toxic relationships and put food on the table. In a presentation, Crystal Grastara emphasized the company’s roots in Ocoee, its support from the Ocoee Police Department, its support for the Ocoee Fire Department and the cheerleading squads of Ocoee and West Orange High Schools. She even dangled a $20,000 scholarship for Ocoee High School students.

Meanwhile supporters of the Orange County ordinance, which included District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson, Orange County Florida Democratic Party Chair Wes Hodge, and representatives from Pet Alliance, decried the inhumane conditions of puppy mills and urged the Grastaras to refocus their business on food and accessories while hosting animal adoption events with shelters and rescue organizations.

“We hear that suggestion a lot, however, that’s not what we want to do and that’s not what we’ve been trained to do,” said Nick Grastara, who added that he has 16 years in “purpose-bred pets.”

“Even that suggestion shows they still don’t get it from our perspective,” he said, adding “It’s all or nothing” for him and his wife.

Several Ocoee commissioners voiced concerns about the "predatory lending practices" that the Grastaras use to finance high-priced puppies, with interest rates that can drive a tenfold increase in a puppy’s price. Commissioners also pressed the Grastaras about whether they were purchasing their puppies from puppy mills and the litany of complaints against the company, which has an “F” rating with the Better Business Bureau, several pages of negative reviews on Yelp and two lawsuits seeking redress for puppies that died shortly after purchase.

The Grastaras claimed they have no control over the high interest rates charged by the third-party finance companies that they rely on for financing assistance. They denied buying from puppy mills.

But Orange County Commissioner Wilson emphatically rebutted that assertion. “There is very clear data that the pet retailers in Orange County, including the pet retailer here in Ocoee, import from the major puppy mills in the Midwest,” she told the city commission. “This is data that is substantive, it’s been researched and it’s traceable.” She offered to share the findings with anyone who wanted to see it.

Nick Grastara brushed off the volume of complaints against the store, telling VoxPopuli the complaints were “all generic and there was no way we could answer ‘generic’ in a public forum.”

But VoxPopuli found some very specific complaints on Yelp. A sampling, as they appear verbatim on Yelp just from last week. Reviews have NOT been edited:

From Ana C. Sept. 16, 2021:

“This Place sold me a sick Puppy, the puppy showed sings of illness the same day he came home. I had to take him to the Vet and pay a bill of 1250 USD on treatments, that was not covered by them as promised at the time of purchase. I even took him to their vet to make sure that the treatment and the warranty was covered but they did not reimbursed me the vet bills and made me pay 2000 USD to receive the puppy back. My puppy was vomiting and pooping BLOOD and the store manager said that this was only an upset stomach and for this reason the warranty was not covering me. I'm out 2250 USD and no puppy. Not counting the emotional damage that this whole situation did to my kids that were waiting to have a puppy for years, unfortunately I choose the worst people to deal with. DO NOT BUY A PUPPY HERE, PUPPIES ARE SICK, REALLY SICK. When I was returning the puppy there were 2 other families with the same issue and the only solution that they were giving to all of us was to keep the sick puppy or pay half price of wait you paid. PLEASE DO NOT GO HERE you'll loose your money and the emotional stress will be too much to handle. Thank god they'll be closed in 100 days and that manager Stephany won't be able to scam more people.”

From Winette J. Sept. 16, 2021:

PLEASE READ-DON'T buy anything from this place! They lie to you and have you sign a contract that states "you can't rely on oral representation contrary to the contract". They say you can have the breeders contact info but its on the contract as religious exemption and they tell you he's probably Amish. I'm sure its a puppy mill. The food is $20 overpriced for the same food at Petco. The 3 day return policy states you pay a 50% ADMINISTRATIVE FEE (which everyone knows is paperwork), but to them its the purchase price of the puppy. Then they refer you to a Solutions Dept that does a claim and doesn't get back to you unless you call and harass them for 2 days. Then they switch you back and forth from them to the store and try to tell you that the other dept has to help you. BS Then they make you sign another contract to return the puppy that states you have to pay 50% OF THE PURCHASE PRICE. Plus they charge you tax on the cash you gave them to return the puppy. WTF Check out the complaints on the BBB, they have an F rating for selling sick puppies and not honoring to pay like they are suppose to. Also, on Orange County Clerk of Courts there is two lawsuits for puppies that have died. Go to a breeder for those prices and get quality dogs. Hopefully Orange County will shut them down!

Chews A Puppy was sued twice in 2020 for selling sick puppies that died shortly after purchase, according to lawsuits filed with the Orange County Clerk of Court. One case, which involved a 10-week old Maltese that died days after purchase, was settled for an undisclosed amount in February. The other, involving a puppy that died of congenital kidney disease three months after purchase, has a hearing set for Oct. 6.

Still, Tuesday’s vote appeared more about Ocoee asserting home rule and maintaining sovereignty to determine which businesses operate within its city limits than about protecting puppies. Nearly every commissioner invoked “home rule” at some point in their comments.

This became particularly clear when one supporter of the Orange County ordinance addressed the commission, saying that Ocoee had an obligation to hew to the hierarchy of government and adopt Orange County's ordinance.

“Let me tell you about hierarchy,” Mayor Rusty Johnson snapped back. “Orange County is Orange County government. We’re the City of Ocoee government. We can set our own ordinances in this city. The problem is someone gets to that seat over there and they think they run everybody. That’s not how it works, people. You who live in the city of Ocoee, she’s telling you [gesturing to Commissioner Wilson] that whatever Orange County wants to do to you, they can do, and that’s not going to be what happens in this city," he said, asking hypothetically if barbershops were next up for regulation. 

“This is our city, our town, our government. We have our identity. I was elected, just like the people up here, to do what’s right for the city of Ocoee. And that’s what we’re going to do. But no, we don’t have to look at the hierarchy from Orange County. You're in our hierarchy now. You’re in the city of Ocoee.”

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