Trend Meets Altruism in America’s Cat Cafes

In April 2014, a Mashable article – “On the Greatest Day Ever, America’s First Cat Cafe Opens in NYC” – publicized a pop-up event sponsored by Purina that offered a trendy-but-temporary cat café experience. The cat coffee shop was filled with adoptable kitties, feline-themed lattes, and a new craze waiting to pounce its way into hearts across the country.

Although the concept was something of a novelty to Americans, cat cafes have been around in Taiwan since the 90s. Taipei’s Cat Flower Garden, which began in 1998 and is now known as Cafe & Cats, was the first cat cafe to receive publicity and helped the concept land on its feet in Taiwan before it spread to Japan and beyond. Now, there are cat cafes in London (Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium), Paris (Le Café Des Chats), and New Zealand (The Cat Lounge), just to name a few.

A cat café is meant to provide a place where patrons can enjoy a beverage and possibly some food while petting and playing with the establishment’s felines. However, American cat cafes must navigate strict health code requirements that can make it difficult to get the concept approved. Most cat cafes in the United States also incorporate an animal rescue component by adopting cats from local shelters or partnering with local organizations to act as a foster home for adoptable cats.

Cat Cafe in Denver

Visitors play with cats at the Denver Cat Company.

To learn more about operating this nontraditional restaurant model, we spoke to Sana Hamelin, the owner of Denver Cat Company, and Courtney Hatt, the founder of KitTea Cat Café in San Francisco.

A Paws-itive Impact

Hamelin quit her job as an attorney to open the Denver Cat Company, which was the Mile-High City’s first cat café and one of the first in the country when it opened in December 2014. She credits Mashable’s coverage of Purina’s pop-up event for providing her with the inspiration for the career change.

“At that time, there were no cat cafes in the US and I had not heard of the concept,” Hamelin says. “I didn’t realize they were very popular in Japan and elsewhere. So, as soon as I read that article and saw the pictures of cats in a coffee shop, I just became obsessed with the idea. I hadn’t quit my job yet and had no immediate plans to do that, but I just kept thinking about cat cafes and how awesome they sounded.”

Hamelin ultimately decided to open a cat café because it gave her the opportunity to leave behind a desk job and work in animal rescue.

“I’ve always loved cats, but I’ve always been too scared to work in rescue because it’s such a heartbreaking line of work in so many ways,” Hamelin says. “If you’re just as soft about cats as I am, you can’t have a pragmatic head about euthanasia when it’s needed and making difficult decisions about who to rescue and who not to rescue because you can’t save every animal. When I heard about the cat cafe concept, I just thought that was the perfect balance between working with animals and not having to deal with the heartbreak of rescue directly.”

KitTea Cat Cafe

The entrance to KitTea Cat Cafe.

KitTea founder Hatt was also motivated by a desire to give shelter cats better lives. Despite being the first American cat café project announced, KitTea’s opening was pushed back to June 2015 after delays largely caused by the Bay Area’s notoriously competitive real estate market.

Since opening, the cat café has helped find adopters for more than 160 cats by fostering one or two adoptable cats at a time and providing a home to 11 resident cats.

“I started KitTea because I saw a need for a more social cafe experience that also had a positive mission,” Hatt says. “The environment is very nurturing and enriching to the cats, with all of their needs for hunting and play, climbing, healthy feasting, and love and attention being met. It’s also a great platform for adoptions, since many cats – especially senior and adult cats – are overlooked at shelters and rescues, and we can really make them shine at KitTea.”

Hamelin, who also partners with local rescues and has helped facilitate the adoption of nearly 300 cats, agrees that the interactive aspect of the cat café helps potential adopters fall in love with cats that may not otherwise stand out.

“There’s nothing that just attracts a person to a 5-year-old cat in a shelter setting,” Hamelin says. “Kittens go fast and pretty cats go fast; then there’s this tabby who’s five and just an ordinary kitty. What’s so special about this ordinary kitty? Maybe when you hang out with her in the cat cafe for two hours, you’ll figure out her little quirks that make you love her.”

Business Unusual

When Hamelin and Hatt were still in the process of planning their cat cafes, there were few, if any, business models they could look to for guidance. However, after opening, Hamelin quickly learned that she would need to charge an entry fee to bring in revenue.

“The first year I didn’t make any money,” Hamelin says. “We weren’t even charging an entry fee at that time because I was very worried about how people would react to that since nobody [in Denver] was familiar with the concept at the time. That was an error because the entry fee is the primary source of revenue and it was a mistake not to charge it. I don’t know that I would do it differently because people were very hesitant to pay it in the beginning, but other cat cafes from the beginning have charged a lot more and many of them have done just fine with that. That’s something I’ve experimented with quite a bit.”

Sana Hamelin at her cat cafe

Sana Hamelin, owner of the Denver Cat Company.

The entry fee at Denver Cat Company was implemented gradually, and visitors currently pay $5 for both weekday and weekend visits. Paying to interact with the cats is standard practice among cat cafes, although Hamelin says there are still passersby who don’t understand why they have to pay to hang out in the shop.

“There are still a lot of people who walk in the door, see the fee, and walk right out,” Hamelin says. “Some of them laugh. Although a lot of people walk in and are very attracted by the product and by the concept, they’re not willing to part with money for it. They’re obviously thinking it’s worth something, but $5 is too much.”

Most cat cafes in America charge hourly rates, rather than a flat fee for entry. At KitTea, the hourly rate is $20 on weekdays and $25 on weekends, although they offer a $15 “Happy Meowr” rate on Thursday afternoons.

“The entry fee is so important because we are taking care of all of the cats’ medical, food, litter, toys, [and] bedding [expenses],” Hatt explains. “The cost is high in our city because San Francisco is [a] very cut-throat and expensive [place] to run a small business, especially one where there is such a high overhead to care for living creatures. The hour also includes a bottomless cup of our four loose-leaf Japanese green teas, so it’s a very therapeutic experience for the humans visiting.”

The different pricing systems for the two businesses are a result of each location’s design. KitTea’s visitors enter into the café area and can choose to pay to spend time in the Cat Lounge, but those visiting the Denver Cat Company walk directly into a space where the cats roam free and pay the fee as soon as they enter. These different layouts also impact what the business can and can’t serve.

“We are not a food facility, so we don’t actually have a license to serve food and drink,” Hamelin explains. “There are [items] that are exempted from the food license requirements, so we try to serve as many of those as we can just to give our customers all the options possible. For example, we can’t do open ice, because ice is regulated, so we only do cold bottled drinks. For hot drinks, we’re allowed to do a few things that use boiling water – tea, hot chocolate, hot apple cider, and coffee.”

The café provides single-serve coffee creamers, instead of fresh milk, as well as a variety of prepackaged and wrapped food sourced from a third party, like biscotti, cakes, and chips.

“Nothing is prepared on-site, as far as food goes,” Hamelin says. “Basically you have some options available for snacking and munching on and drinking or sipping. Not too much, but it still serves the purpose of the cafe side. I do like that we don’t have to do the separation that we would otherwise have to do if we had a full food license. It just gives this very organic feel to the space and people do love the fact as soon as they walk in the door, there’s cats everywhere.”

A cat cafe in Denver

A cat is photographed at the Denver Cat Company.

Separating the felines from the food and beverage area is the more common option, as it allows cat cafes like KitTea to maintain a wider menu and prepare food in the shop.

“Our menu options are not restricted,” Hatt says. “We did, however, decide early on that we would never cook with open flame to prevent fires. We are still able fill our menu with a lot of delicious goodies, including sweet and savory Belgian waffles, sandwiches, salads, and soups.”

Niche Market, Mass Appeal

Although the owners of Denver Cat Company and KitTea are on a mission to help cats find loving homes, not all of the visitors to the cafés are looking to adopt. Many customers just want to hang out with the kitties, and the cafes appeal to a wide variety of demographics – including millennials, families, and tourists – for a variety of reasons.

“I think [the popularity of cat cafes] is solidified between two groups of people: millennials and families,” Hamelin says. “Younger families for the most part, [with] parents under the age of 40 and kids anywhere between toddler age to teenagers. There are so many allergies [or] one member of the family who really loves cats and there’s a mom or dad who doesn’t, or they’re not ready to have a pet; they’re able to just enjoy the cat experience since they’re not able to permanently have one at home. And then millennials are huge, because millennials like to go out and be social, and be in hip, trendy places and check out a new cutting-edge concept. [If] they’re college students or living in apartments that don’t allow pets, they’re more likely to seek us out.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, cat cafes also attract tourists who are traveling from a city that doesn’t yet have one.

“They want to see something that doesn’t exist in their city yet,” Hamelin says. “Tourists also come because when they’re traveling, they miss their cats.”

To attract customers who want to hang out in a cat café but may not be willing to pay just to play with cats, Denver Cat Company and KitTea both host special events. KitTea hosts yoga sessions dubbed Cats on Mats, “mewvie” nights, and “caturday” morning cartoons, but also lets customers rent the Cat Lounge and Tea Room for private events.

KitTea Cat Cafe

KitTea’s visitors play with the cafe’s cats.

“Our events are a hit,” Hatt says. “We have designed special events that are relaxing and enjoyable with cats – and that have been tested in our own homes with our own cats. Our space is rented out for private events several times each week. It’s a unique spot for corporate events, co-working events, birthdays and any other celebration you can think of that would be made better with cats.”

Denver Cat Company, which is located in a community that puts on a monthly art walk, has paired with a local gallery to offer “Arts & Cats” on Saturdays.

“We have actually ramped [the art classes] up, and that was just another revenue stream,” Hamelin says. “It’s fun to have activities in a space that is otherwise dedicated to just petting cats. The art classes go over really well for people who are kind of at a loss as to what to do once they get to the cat cafe. Because we have all the paint and equipment and everything you need, we are also able to do open studio sessions.”

Meow Trending

Hamelin dubbed 2015 as “the year of the cat café in the US,” but the concept is still gaining popularity outside of major metropolitan areas. Since cat cafes like the Denver Cat Company and KitTea have proven the concept can be implemented alongside strict health codes in American cities, the trend isn’t likely to slow down.

“I see the trend growing and becoming a great outlet for stress relief and also facilitating adoptions,” Hatt says. “I think it will not be limited to cats in the future, but perhaps [will inspire pet cafes with] dogs and other animals, as well.”

Don’t believe her? There’s already a Dog Cafe in Los Angeles.

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. She moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 12 and later graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in English. Passionate about Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, and all things geeky, she spends her free time playing tabletop and video games, collecting beer caps from craft breweries around the country, and celebrating the Cubs' 2016 World Series win. She is an advocate for animal rescue and lives in Knoxville with her husband and their two adopted pets: a hound dog named Beau and a Maine Coon mix named Vesper.

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