by Nancy E. McCarthy
Cat cafés provide feline fans with an inviting space to watch or interact with socialized, adoptable cats while enjoying food and drink. The concept originated in Taipei, Taiwan, where the very first cat café opened in 1998. Especially popular with Japanese tourists, the business model eventually spread to Japan and then worldwide.
In 2014, Cat Town Café in Oakland, California, was first to open in the United States, and Manhattan’s Meow Parlour quickly followed. A recent CNN article estimates more than 125 cafes in the U.S. That’s a lot of cats, coffee, and cuddles!
To the Rescue
Alley Cat Cafe (ACC) in Ithaca is the Finger Lakes Region’s first cat café, opening in June 2018. ACC owner Kristin O’Scammon, a self-described “cat person” who fosters felines and has four cats at home, showcases kittens and cats from the not-for-profit Browncoat Cat Rescue (BCR), which she also founded in 2012. BCR began as a network of volunteers who fostered unwanted or feral cats and placed them in loving, adoptive homes. The café provides the physical space to house some BCR kitties in a cage-free environment and has facilitated over 100 placements – even with a four-month adoption pause and capacity restrictions since reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While individual foster homes are nurturing environments, it’s inconvenient for those searching for a new feline family member. The café provides an opportunity for visitors to meet up to 15 cats and kittens at a time without needing to schedule with a foster family or drive to more than one location.
There is, however, no expectation that customers visit with adoption in mind. “I was attracted to the concept of being able to cuddle with cats since my landlords have not allowed pets in the apartments I have rented,” says Jake Simon, a weekly visitor. “The coffee is also great.” Simon now volunteers as a cat room monitor.
The $5 fee to enter a cat room for 30 minutes underwrites food, litter, and other costs. The High Energy Room houses up to 10 younger cats and playful kittens (previously fostered and socialized) and is open to children and adults. The Low Energy Room, for visitors 8 years and up, has up to five low-key felines, plus resident cat Marigold, a pretty orange and white tabby. “We have a professor whose weekly therapy is lying on the couch in the Low Energy Room for an hour with a cat over her heart,” says O’Scammon. The two rooms are visible through glass for those who prefer to just observe.
Customer Astara Light was initially drawn by the cats and cat rooms. “But because it has such a fun and cozy coffee shop environment, it quickly became my favorite off-campus study and work space,” she says. Café “purristas” serve vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free sandwiches, baked goods, snacks, coffee, and tea. Cat-themed merchandise, bags of coffee, and bulk tea are available to purchase. The space also hosts BCR outreach programs, classes, stand-up comedy, and music performances.
“We love community engagement,” says O’Scammon, a passionate cat rescue advocate. The café business model serves her mission well. “The mix of food, drink, and adoptable cats is brilliant. The knowledge that you are adopting a cat who has been rescued from a life that they might not have survived is a heady and altruistic thing.”
Shopping for Cats
Lisa Cragle was strictly a dog lover until a tenacious kitten with tuxedo markings followed her daughter home one day and pawed its way into her heart. Years later, during an Orlando vacation, they visited a cat café for the first time. “I absolutely loved the concept,” Cragle says. Opening a cat café would be a welcome career change for the former pharmacist. She and husband Todd did their research, including visits to ACC in Ithaca and Purrfect Café and Gallery in Buffalo, before they opened Purrs and Paws Cat Café (PPCC) in Victor’s Eastview Mall in February 2020.
“Being in a mall attracts customers who wouldn’t otherwise visit or be familiar with cat cafes,” says Cragle. Some visitors don’t know what a cat café is. “Many just ask ‘What do I have to do to go sit with the cats?’” Thanks to the steady stream of foot traffic, a dozen cats were adopted in less than two weeks after opening, but the entire mall shut down in March due to the pandemic. Cat-astrophic for many businesses – but PPCC was able to re-open in July and averages an adoption a day.
Rebecca from Henrietta stumbled across PPCC while shopping with her daughter. After a snuggling session with two kittens, they decided to adopt them. “We loved it,” she said. “What a great idea to get animals off the streets and into homes.” Even PPCC employee Skye Carter couldn’t resist adopting a young calico kitty she fell in love with.
PPCC partners with Keller’s Kats Rescue (KKR), a Rochester-based not-for-profit foster network. KKR provides eight-15 healthy, socialized kittens and cats for PPCC’s homey, cage-free cat lounge, where they reside until finding their fur-ever home. The café sells coffee, tea, and other beverages, as well as sweet treats (with gluten-free and vegan options) and cat-themed merchandise, including many handcrafted by local artisans. For-sale feline artwork decorates the walls, while games, puzzles, and coloring books help keep young visitors occupied. Customers can view the cats through a large window or pay a $5 fee for a 25-minute visit to the cat lounge. Ages 8 and up can interact with the adoptable kitties.
Kelly Burke of Rochester works near the mall and visits regularly. With a dog and two birds at home, she doesn’t plan to adopt, although it’s tempting at times. “The cats are truly the stars of the show and the reason I go,” says Burke. “They’re all adorable balls of love, fluff, and socialization.”
PPCC hosts impromptu birthday visits (once three in one day!) and even a bachelorette party stopped in before heading out for a wine tour.
Cragle, with two cats at home, thinks the café is the perfect place for cat lovers. With more people working from home and an increased awareness of the therapeutic benefits of pets, it’s a great time for a new furry friend. “Interacting with the cats in a cage-free environment where you can see their personality shine and learn their temperament makes the process of choosing a new family member so much easier,” she says.
In other words, cat cafés are simply the cat’s meow!