NEW YORK CITY — Frances Clift always dreamed of finding true love in a coffee shop. On a Saturday afternoon in March, her wish came true when she met Sherry.
“It was something magical,” she said. “Something you can only imagine happening to you in New York. You walk into a café with the intention of getting coffee and a crescent, and you end up falling in love.”
Within a few days, Sherry had a new name and was living in Clift’s apartment. The two have been inseparable ever since.
“She’s the queen of my apartment castle,” laughed the New York City resident who works in public relations. “It’s now Pearl’s studio in Greenwich Village.”
Until her recent adoption, the 2-year-old calico cat was a resident of Little Lions, a cat café located on Grand Street in SoHo.
Wildly popular in Japan and other countries, the concept has begun to gain traction in the U.S. with feline-focused bistros cropping up in San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, Portland, Denver, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and more scheduled to open in other cities later this year.
In the past 18 months, three have opened in New York City alone, including Little Lions that began welcoming patrons in February.
“It’s a place where people can go and interact with adorable rescue cats, drink coffee, tea, and anything else found in a traditional cafe,” explained owner Erin McShane. “And you might find one that you really bond with and want to adopt.”
While finding forever homes for rescue cats is the underlying premise, it’s not the sole purpose of the cafe. It also serves as an inviting hangout and eatery for cat aficionados that is stylishly decorated with oversized, plush couches, conversation nooks and chic lighting.
At any given time, a dozen or so cats — provided and vetted by Best Friends Animal Society, an animal welfare organization in New York — call the cafe home and can be found lounging on the furniture, playing with toys and peeking out from under tables.
According to McShane, people from all walks of life come to visit with them.
“It depends on the day and time,” she said. “We get kids in the afternoon, people on their lunch hour. On the weekends we get tourists, couples, and single people.”
They come for a variety of reasons. Some find it relaxing to interact with the animals. Others come because landlords forbid pets or they live with someone allergic to them. Still others visit because they don’t have the means, financial or otherwise, to own a cat themselves. Most people, however, come simply because they like cats.
“People who come for the first time don’t know quite what to expect,” McShane said. “But then they hang out for an hour, pet a bunch of kitties and come out refreshed.”
Adhering to health and sanitation regulations, Little Lions, like most other cat cafes, is separated into two distinct spaces. One is reserved for the cats and the other is a cozy cafe that offers a comprehensive menu including various coffees and teas, breakfast fare, French sandwiches, cookies and pastries.
Guests can come to dine or just interact with the cats, but most do both and it creates a relaxing environment where cats and people can spend time together, hopefully leading to more adoptions.
“Putting the cats in a homey environment where they can get acclimated and bringing people into their space really seems to be working,” said McShane. “A lot of these animals don’t have back stories. Sometimes they come from a hoarding situation, someone who passed away or fell on hard times and can’t take care of them.”
And when they are given the opportunity to be themselves outside of the largely antiseptic animal shelter setting, it allows prospective adopters to get a sense of their true personality increasing the odds that they’ll be placed in permanent homes.
Meow Parlour, the first of the cat cafes to open in New York, has been operating since December 2014 and in that time has overseen more than 100 cat adoptions.
Emilie Legrand, along with co-founder Christina Ha, decided to open Meow Parlour after Legrand visited a cat cafe in Paris and was intrigued by the concept.
“I told Christina about the experience,” Legrand said. “She really wanted to visit one herself and started fantasizing about opening one in New York City, and soon enough the joke became a reality.”
Within months the two combined their love of pastries and cats and opened Meow Parlour on Hester Street.
Cat Cafes Open Slowly
Since opening they’ve generated a significant amount of traffic; Legrand believes that, in part, it’s because, contrary to dog owners, cat lovers don’t really have a place to socialize with other cat lovers.
“So very often people show us pictures of their cats and start talking to other customers,” she said.
With the explosion of cat videos on YouTube, cat games, and increasing number of cat accounts on social media, it’s obvious that felines are becoming just as popular, if not more, than their canine counterparts.
“It looks like something has really changed in the past years with the booming popularity of cats online,” said Legrand. “The cliche of the ‘crazy cat lady’ is turning into a ‘cool cat person’ thing.”
While bringing people and cats together in a cafe setting seems like a relatively straightforward undertaking, there are some significant roadblocks to opening one, which might explain why there aren’t more cropping up.
After living and teaching English in South Korea, Rhode Island residents Sarah Brown and Zack Durkin returned to the U.S. in the fall of 2015 with the intention of opening a cat cafe similar to the ones they’d frequented while living abroad.
“We are both big cat lovers,” said Brown. “And we saw how busy they were, how prevalent, and we looked at each other and said, we love cats, it looks like a thriving business, can we bring it back with us when we move back home?”
Before leaving South Korea, Brown and Durkin began researching and creating a business model for their proposed café, The Purrfect Cup Café and Cat Room, which they planned on opening in Providence later this year.
Shortly after arriving stateside and initiating plans to get the cafe off the ground, they found themselves faced with a number of hurdles.
“The biggest trouble was finding a place that would allow us to have animals with food,” explained Durkin. “You have to separate the business physically, which made it that much harder to find a place.”
He went on to say that many landlords were reluctant to rent to them since the space would be occupied by cats and others struggled to understand the basic concept.
“One landlord asked us if the coffee was for the cats,” Durkin said.
After looking at nearly 20 sites, talking to real estate brokers and potential partners, Brown and Durkin have put their cat cafe plans on hold.
“We really want to do it,” he said. “We still get emails, people can’t wait until we open, students want to volunteer; we want to make it a reality.”
But for the moment it seems that The Purrfect Cup will have to wait. “It all comes down to hearing about a possible partnership,” said Brown.
“And a miracle,” added Durkin.