A new breed of coffee shop is sweeping west across the globe from Japan, where the hottest place for animal lovers to take their tea is inside a cat café.
The first Japanese restaurant to provide its customers with a roomful of feline companions opened in 2004; there are now hundreds of copycat establishments in Tokyo alone. The craze exploded in Asia, before cafés in East and then Central Europe opened their doors. Last year it was Paris, last month London, and by the end of the year the United States is scheduled to have its first cat café, in San Francisco.
Onerous health and safety regulations, which differ from country to country, have ensured the trend took longer than a grumpy cat meme to go viral, but the thirst for coffee with a side of petting shows no sign of slowing down. Of course the Internet, where the cat is king, has proved a fertile breeding ground for these ventures. The British café raised more than $180,000 online, while a U.S. project successfully crowdfunded almost $60,000. “We were incredibly lucky!” Courtney Hatt, one of the founders of San Francisco’s KitTea, told the Daily Beast.
The concept is simple: not everyone who loves animals has the space, the time, or the money for a pet of their own. By popping into the local cat café, where animals roam among the tables, you can satisfy your appetite for a cuddle during the lunch hour.
At Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium, which opened in London’s hip East End last month, tables are fully booked until July. Amid the purring and pawing this week, Maggie Tolmie, a mezzo-soprano from the town of Sudbury in Suffolk, was quietly savoring a cup of tea. “I'm not a God or a Jesus person at all,” she said. “But I got sent a link to this place randomly this morning by a person who didn’t know that my poor cat, Bella, died on Friday. The timing was uncanny, and this place is perfect.”
When the tall, red-headed classical singer explained that her “best friend of 17 years” had passed away, the owners allowed her to skip the line and spend an afternoon surrounded by a reassuring chorus of meows. Tolmie, 40, who is registered blind, was told to sign up for a guide dog but she’d rather stick to the cats. “Another cat may come in time, but it’s like when you get a divorce—you don't launch yourself back on to the market straight away,” she said. After a peaceful afternoon of reflection, she was ready to book a repeat visit.
Most of the other patrons were simply at Lady Dinah’s to play silly games, and laugh with the cats, but co-owner Anna Kogan said spending time with the animals could be therapeutic. “I think everyone benefits from some contact occasionally because it relaxes you. Cat purring has been found very beneficial for health,” she said.
Kogan, who was born in Russia, is a trader at a bank in the City of London. Her investment in the café has been rewarded by an extraordinary level of interest and a stampede by members of the public who completely crashed the booking site in its opening weeks.
The café, which is named after the kitten in Alice in Wonderland, is not Kogan’s first foray into the animal world. At the age of 30, she has already set up a charitable foundation for animals, which has branches in more than 20 Russian cities. “We help cats, dogs, and the occasional bear or lion,” she explained, with a deadpan expression that belies an evident passion for her work. “There are always cubs abandoned after the cruel Russian bear hunts,” she said. “In comparison, England is a paradise. It has a culture of animal welfare that started more than 100 years ago when the RSPCA [Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] was set up, but there are always surplus animals wherever you go.”
All 11 cats living inside the two-floor café are rescue animals and the staff says that the well-being of the animals takes priority over the visitors. The food and table service for the humans certainly did seem patchy.
Despite Kogan’s noble intensions, today’s RSPCA is far from sold on the cat café trend. A spokeswoman explained that they did not recommend keeping a lot of cats in the same place, and said some of the animals would not enjoy being handled by strangers. “The RSPCA has concerns about the keeping of cats in this way,” she said. “We would recommend people going to their nearest rescue center and stroking a few cats instead, if they can’t have one themselves.”
Lady Dinah’s cat caretakers insist there’s no need to worry about their enterprise, which obsessively monitors the mental and physical health of the animals. “In Japan it's very different—in this sized space they would have 20 or even 50,” said Sara Cioffi, an Italian with 20-years experience in animal welfare, who moved from Naples to work in the London café.
She said the Japanese places often locked the cats in cages overnight so they would give up their natural nocturnal tendencies and stay awake for the customers during the day. The pure breeds on show in Japan are often for sale rather than being rescue animals. “We wouldn't sell our cats or give them up for adoption—if the cats keep changing it's very stressful for them,” Cioffi said.
As we spoke, a cat named Biscuit suddenly leapt away from one of the customers who was playfully teasing her with a piece of string. “Are you wearing perfume?” Cioffi asked. “Yes, she hates that. A lot of cats do, they have a very strong sense of smell, so when you reach towards them they go ‘Oh, my God! What’s that?’”
Cioffi and the other members of staff take turns waiting on the tables, looking after the cats, and helping the customers to play with them (although not on the same day to ensure the kitchen is kept clean).
There were originally a dozen cats, but one of them, a Persian named Lucy, has been re-homed after finding the constant attention tough going. “She was gorgeous, so whenever she appeared everyone rushed around her, and she didn't like it,” Cioffi said. “If we had a business mind, we would have kept her, she was everyone's favorite. But the cats are the top priority. She was ok, but she was not really happy, so we found her a new home.
“I guess there will be a cat café in every city in the end, but it's not easy. It's not easy to open a café with cats’ welfare in mind.”
Among the cooing clientele was a middle-aged couple who moved to London from Chicago seven years ago, along with their three rescue cats. As connoisseurs of the cat café movement, they had also visited the one in Paris, and they were confident that a café in the U.S. would also be a huge success. “It’ll be even more of a novelty in the U.S. because we don’t have anywhere like the British pubs where you can take your dogs,” said Rebecca Holt, 58.
The American reluctance to mix animals and food preparation has been a stumbling block for planned projects in Boston, Oakland, and San Francisco. Courtney Hatt said KitTea had settled on a variation where the food and drinks would be served in an adjoining room and it would be up to the customers whether they wanted to take their beverages through to the petting zone.
“Our focus is really on educating the public, helping our partnered rescues save more cats from high-kill city shelters, and building a zen wonderland for our patrons and felines,” she said. After several delays the zen wonderland is now penciled in for an opening at the end of the summer. “We are really crossing our fingers for September,” she said.
While local authorities in cities all over the world grapple with a new licensing dilemma, it’s clear you can’t hold back the tide forever; the cats are coming.