Love at First Meow
Back in June, during the soft opening of KitTea, San Francisco’s first cat café and Japanese teahouse, co-founder Courtney Hatt relished every moment of watching people interact with cats in the space—which she described as a very Zen, calming environment. It is exactly what she envisioned when she embarked on the project two years ago after becoming burnt out from her career as a marketing specialist for a tech startup.
“You could just feel the serotonin,” Hatt said with a laugh. “People coming out of the space had big wide smiles—it was like they recharged for the day after getting to hang out with cats in a nice relaxing environment. It’s really a nice mixture of two differ-ent concepts.”
Hatt is referring to being inspired by Japanese cat café concept that took off in the early 2000s—most Japanese landlords do not allow pets so cat café enabled pet deprived people to enjoy the company of felines—but also wanting to do something about the large number of homeless cats in California.
So unlike cat cafés in Japan, the main mission at KitTea and other cat cafés that have popped up in America is to facilitate cat adoptions. Cat Town Café in Oakland, Calif., which opened in October of 2014, is the United States’ first cat café.
KitTea is partnered with the San Francisco-based rescue Give Me Shelter, which rescues cats from around the state. KitTea was open to the public for less than two weeks and already had facilitated 10 adoptions.
“It’s been stressful but now it’s paying off in terms of all the people I have met in the community, all the support I have received and just the happiness it’s brought to both cats and people” Hatt said.
Among the challenges Hatt faced was finding a location accessible to locals but also near public transportation for people coming from out of town. Another was determining state and city regulations about animals and food and complying with them as well as dealing with the timelines involved with applications and approval.
At KitTea the felines are in a lounge separate from the teahouse but connected through a vestibule, and guests can observe the felines through a window or bring their tea, which comes from a small tea farm in Kyoto, Japan, into the cat space. No food is prepared on site but prepackaged items, such as pastries and sand-wiches are available for purchase.
The cat lounge at KitTea can house 15 cats (felines live at the cat cafés until they find their forever home), and 12 humans per hour. The hourly price is $25 per person, including unlimited refills of premium teas.
At Denver Cat Company, which opened in Colorado in December of 2014, felines roam around a community space, where art and book-lovers can come together over coffee to buy or exchange books, appreciate art, take painting classes or hold meetings and events. Owner Sana Hamelin is allowed to serve drip coffee and tea but can’t make any specialty drinks. She also can’t prepare any food on site, but she can serve prepackaged
items. An area at the back of the café is reserved for cats to retreat to if they need a break from the attention.
Meow Parlour, New York City’s first cat café, which also opened in December of 2014, sells homemade pastries, macarons, Blue Bottle Coffee and Harney & Sons Tea out of a neigh-boring storefront called Meow Parlour Patisserie. Visitors to Meow Parlour can order treats from the Patisserie with delivery to the Parlour for no additional charge. The space houses a dozen cats at a time provided by rescue group and partner KittyKind. Guests are charged $4 per half hour or $30 for five hours.
Co-founders Christina Ha and Emilie Legrand are proud that so far 45 cats have found homes through Meow Parlour.
“Many of the cats we’ve had at Meow Parlour would have had a more difficult time getting adopted in a more traditional shelter setting,” said Ha. “Like Cupcake, who had eye surgery and was a little less traditional looking—he found a home with a wonderful young girl who adores him. Or Ricky, who did poorly in cages. And cats whose age may have prevented people from considering a senior cat, like Fang.”
Ha and Legrand go out of their way to get cats who would benefit most from an environment out of a cage.
“We feel really proud that cats who may have been so shy that they were considered unadoptable are coming to our space, getting comfortable to the idea of meeting new people and finding forever homes with our guests,” Ha said.
Ha admits that opening a cat café requires a lot of planning.
Hamelin’s biggest challenge has been making the café financially sustainable. She instituted a $5 cover charge on weekends a month after opening. Hamelin found she could not meet overhead and make a living if she relied solely on sales as quite a few visitors chose not to make a food or drink purchase. However she doesn’t put any time limits on how long someone can stay in the café.
Since Hamelin opened Denver Cat Co. with her sister Marwa, and barista Erin Wolf, 51 cats have been adopted. They are currently partnered with two rescues. Hamelin, who describes herself as a refugee from the hard-nosed world of corporate litigation, decided to open a cat café after reading about a pop-up version in New York City sponsored by Purina back in April 2014.
“I had never heard of the concept before, and thought it was the best thing I could ever have imagined,” said Hamelin.
And her patrons share her sentiment. Faced with a lawsuit (the plaintiff has since dismissed the lawsuit) over an alleged cat bite, a patron set up a GoFundME page to raise money for the Denver Cat Co. to defend the legal action. The community donated generously, exceeding the crowdfunding goal in just a few days.
“It made me realize how much people love the cat café and wish to see it stick around,” Hamelin said.
Likewise, Hatt’s customers think KitTea is the cat’s meow. “People are like, ‘I am coming back. This made my week. This made my month,’” Hatt said.
From outside the shelter to inside a new home
As a volunteer for Homeward Bound Pet Shelter in Decatur, Ill., Jeanette Skaluba uses her filmmaking skills to create videos to promote adoptable pets. One day Skaluba, who is also a yoga student, was visiting with Oreo, one of the senior cats , and he started climbing all over her—his movement and energy evoking moves from yogis— and the idea for a “Yoga4Cats” adoption event and accompanying video was born. The goal for the event, which was held in June at her instructor’s studio, Yoga at Connie’s in Latham, was to find homes for the six cats who interacted with the class either through the students or viewers of the video.
Skaluba said that meeting cats outside of the shelter gives cats exposure and allows people to really see their personality and envision them as pets in their home more easily. The event resulted in two cats getting adopted, and the money raised from the donation fee for the class — a total of $500— went directly to the shelter. And the video has gone viral since the animal news website The Dodo featured it on its website.
“I had no idea that the story would go viral—a media report showed that this story was viewed over 13 million times all over the world,” Skaluba said, added that she was a bit disappointed that the story took a yoga focus rather than on the need for the cats, especially seniors, to be adopted.
The owner of the yoga studio, Connie Pease, said that she hopes the “Yoga4Cats” concept catches on with other studios as it’s a win-win for students and the cats.
“There are lessons that we learn from cats in our yoga practices—when to be present in your space, when to detach, and also how to focus,” Pease said. “Cats are intensely focused if they hear a bird or something. That simulates meditation in yoga.
“At the same time, we are getting the message out there that the older cats like Oreo need to be adopted, and to bring attention to the shelter itself.”
If you would like to open your own cat café, get tips from Sana Hamelin, owner of the Denver Cat Co. right here!
If you are prepared for the lifetime commitment of owning a cat, Friends of Animals offers a low-cost spay and neutering program, which is an effective means of preventing homelessness. For information, call 1 (800) 321-7387 or visit www.friendsofanimals.org.