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2017-18 Issue V Editors' Picks Local

Frisky Business: Cat Cafes Pounce on New Markets

The cats make the rules here. Signs at the front prohibit patrons from feeding the residents or disturbing them with flash photography. An ominous placard reads “pet at your own risk.” The space is cozy, stuffed with bean bag chairs and scratching posts—but cats have already claimed most of the available spots. The shelves are stocked with board games: Herding Cats, Feed the Kitty, and Cat-opoly.

Since Oakland Cat Town launched in 2014, cat cafes have cropped up across the U.S. New Haven’s first cat cafe, Mew Haven, experimented with a pop-up for several weeks in November and December of 2017, and will open for good in the spring, at a date yet to be determined. The concept is straightforward: Most cafes charge five to ten dollars for an hour-long reservation, plus the cost of food and drink purchased by visitors.

Many cat cafe founders are patrons of existing cafes inspired to strike out on their own. Angela Pullo and her husband, the co-founders of Mew Haven, visited their first cat cafe in New York City in 2015, after their own cat died.

“We kept visiting cat cafes until we decided to open one,” she said, “but we knew if we were going to do it, we couldn’t do it in New York—the rent is astronomical.”

The couple spent two years researching and then moved to New Haven in August 2017.

Cam Tucker, founder of Baltimore’s Charm Kitty Cafe, first visited a cat cafe in Vienna, Austria. “It was unlike anything I had ever done,” he said, “as a cat person, it was exciting.”

A few years later he visited Crumbs and Whiskers, a large cat cafe in Washington, D.C., and was inspired to bring the idea to Baltimore. “I started to think, why can’t Baltimore have our own cat cafe?” Tucker explained.

Amanda Bennett visited her first cat cafe on a visit to Montreal. “For years I joked with my best friend that it was my dream job, that when I won the lottery that’s what I wanted to do,” she said.

After working in design for an education technology company, she decided it was time for a change of pace. “I decided now is the time to do something more in line with my passion for animals, and my friend brought up the cat cafe again,” she said. “I thought maybe this is the time.” Bennett is in the process of setting up Neko no Cafe, Baltimore’s second cat cafe.

If most cat cafe founders are former patrons, where did the idea begin? The idea of the cat cafe dates back to at least 1998, when Cat Flower Garden opened its doors in Taipei, Taiwan. Business was lackluster, until the novel combination of coffee and kittens began to draw media attention. But cat cafes did not truly pounce on the market until 2004, when the first opened in Japan. Since then,150 cat cafes have popped up across the country, with almost 60 in Tokyo alone. Apartment buildings in Japan often ban or restrict pets, and animal cafes—primarily cat cafes, but also rabbit, goat, and snake cafes—fill a void for those unable to keep a pet at home.

Mew Haven.

Cat cafes in countries with more relaxed pet restrictions, like the U.S., fill a different niche. Here the cafes are primarily filled with adoptable rather than permanent cats. Charm Kitty, Neko no Cafe, and Mew Haven are all partnered with local animal shelters, which provide the cats. While this arrangement can be difficult for shelters to pull off—it requires manpower and time from shelters already chronically underfunded and stretched to their limits—it can pay dividends in successful adoption rates.

“[Charm Kitty] has a quicker turnover rate than the shelter,” Wendy Goldband, Marketing & PR Director at the Baltimore Humane Society, said. “Absolutely, no question the cat cafe is worth it. If another one pops up we’d be happy to join.”

In the three and a half months that Charm Kitty has been open, the cafe has facilitated 41 adoptions. And when I visited Mew Haven on the last day of its pop-up opening, all the cats there had already been adopted.

At the cafes I visited, none of the visitors owned his or her own cats, but all had plans to adopt in the future. Some were actively considering the cats at the cafe; others wanted a chance to interact with the felines, to see how it felt. Carolyn Sacco ’19, who visited Mew Haven during its pop-up stint, sees the cafe as a chance for a respite. “I feel like it’s a really good stress-reliever for college students,” she said. I really wanted to be around animals because we don’t get to be around animals a lot at college,” Sacco said.

For some people, the idea of a cat cafe gives them paws. But for others, like students, who cannot have their own pets at home, the cafes offer an hour’s worth of interaction. But as I, the owner of two cats, learned, there is not much appeal to spending time with strange cats when you could be cuddling your own. This is the inherent contradiction of American cat cafes: They aim to increase adoption rates, but rid themselves of clients in the process. The business model counts on a steady stream of customers in search of feline companionship coming through the door.  

While there are countless resources on how to start a cat cafe, just a short Google search away, challenges usually arise the form of local quirks. The founders of Charm Kitty, Neko no Cafe, and Mew Haven told me of the extensive research they conducted.

“I knew how to run a cat cafe,” Pullo said. “What I needed to figure out was how to operate in Connecticut.”

Mew Haven.

Cat cafes opening in the U.S. often face two major issues: zoning and health code concerns. Cat cafes operate in a grey area of zoning law, and are often classified as kennels or shelters. These designations are usually not permitted in a chosen location, usually in neighborhood storefronts, and owners are forced to apply for exemptions. Mew Haven has run into issues with its zoning status, which has yet to be fully resolved.

Bennett, owner of Neko no Cafe, was under the impression, based on reassurance from consultants, that her building was properly zoned for kennel use. But she later learned that advice was incorrect. Bennett plans to appeal the decision designating the cafe as a kennel, which usually refers to an establishment that holds more than three cats overnight, and argue that because she is a designated foster by the animal rescue, she has some ownership over the cats.

”There’s no money being gained from the animals there,” she said, “it’s just going towards rent and basic bills.”

Bennett is still waiting on both construction and the zoning appeal to proceed.

In the U.S., strict health code laws also create obstacles for those hoping to combine felines and food. In order to comply with the law, customers must buy their food and drink in one area and then take it into the cat area. These policies require a larger square footage, and often modifications to ensure that the food area and cat area are not directly connected. Paul Kowalski of the New Haven Health Department is skeptical of Mew Haven’s plans.

“If someone wants to go from a licensed food establishment to a room occupied by pets or animals, they can do that, as long as the two are not directly connected,” he said.

Mew Haven is not yet licensed to serve food, he said, and in order to be licensed will need to show it is in compliance with health code by sufficiently separating the food from the  cats.

Cat cafes operate under a variety of business models: some have only a single Keurig machine, while others have baristas make drinks. Charm Kitty Cafe sells packaged cookies, cotton candy, and a few limited drinks. Neko no Cafe will be “a full-blown cafe, separated from the cats,” Bennett said. “People can come in and get food and drink, and espressos, and then if they want they can go see the cats.” Bennett is partnering with a local bakery to provide food. Mew Haven will follow a similar approach, with food made off site by New Haven bakeries, and a barista on site to make tea and coffee. Other cat cafes have both food and drinks delivered hourly to their location.

A recent Wall Street Journal article chronicled struggles faced by cat cafes across the country: escaping cats, scratched customers, and even potential anti-feline vandalism. But all the owners I interviewed said that business was good—Tucker was interviewed but not quoted in the Journal article, which he criticized as bad press for the trend. Mew Haven’s pop-up was successful, with weekends fully booked and five or six other customers there when I visited on a Wednesday.

Charm Kitty has done solid business, too, with so much demand when it opened in September 2017 that it had to turn people away. “Things have evened out now, and we’ve found our spot,” Tucker said.

And while Neko no Cafe will be the second cat cafe opening in Baltimore in under a year, just about a mile up the road from Charm Kitty, Bennett is confident she will profit from the trend’s popularity. Based on revenue projections, it should be under a year until the business is in the black. “The response I’ve gotten in the neighborhood has been overwhelmingly positive about having another cat cafe,” Bennett said.  

For feline-focused establishments, this is only the first of nine lives. Bennett is looking into organizing therapy groups once Neko no Cafe launches. And Charm Kitty is planning expansion this year, building up a Charm Kitty brand and merchandise. Tucker has introduced events like cat yoga, movie nights, and a sold out cat photography class.

“We are trying to challenge the idea of what can and cannot happen in the Charm Kitty space,” he said. “It’s more of a cat creative space.”

Charm Kitty in Baltimore.