Have you ever gone to a café, ordered coffee and the sole employee tells you that the coffee at the café up the street is better?
That’s what happened to me recently when a friend and I went to a café on the main street of a university town in the Southern U.S. It was a rainy, chilly day and we were out walking the main strip and shopping. We had eaten at a small family-owned restaurant for lunch, rummaged used records in a small shop, and looked through windows at university memorabilia. We had been walking a while, wanted coffee to warm up and saw this place.
“Isn’t this a café?” I asked, after my coffee order was rejected.
I looked around the room and didn’t see any other customers here. I saw a counter with the cash register to my right. To the right of the register were wall mounted hooks with toys in packages hanging down. Below the hanging items was a glass-top freezer with sliding doors. I peeked in and saw individually packaged ice cream and popsicles. Long plastic poles with elastic coils were standing upright in two boxes on the floor in front of the counter. Behind the register was another counter against the back wall with two large, stainless steel coffee carafes with pumps and at the end of that back counter was a tall refrigerator with glass front doors that held small containers of soda, juice and water.
But to get a better sense of the scene at this café, let’s go back to the front door.
Introduction to the Cat Cafe
As we approached, a large, orange tabby inside stared at us and pressed the top of his head against the glass front door. So instead of trying to open the door, I knocked. A few seconds later, a woman walked down a spiral staircase inside. The side of the building was clear glass. She unlocked the door, gestured with her palm for us to wait and then lured the cat to the back of the room with a toy. Then, we quickly entered and closed the door.
“So, the cats are all sleeping now,” she said. “This is their break time. They get an hour. They’re like our employees, so they need a break.”
We were all wearing our pandemic masks, so my confused facial expressions were hidden.
I looked at the orange tabby – a sentry — standing guard while all his troops were sleeping. The employee, Linda (name changed), said he had already had his nap today and that he had meowed to alert her that someone was at the door, before she had even heard our knocking.
“Let me tell you how it works. For $10 an hour, you can visit with the cats.” She told us about the local rescue group they worked with and the application process. Then, she repeated that the cats were all sleeping, and we would need an appointment to visit them. Linda said their focus was on giving the cats a relaxed environment outside a shelter for potential adopters to get to know them.
I could see the downstairs cat room on my left. A glass wall separated them from us. My first experience dropping by a cat cafe was not what I expected. Instead of a room of cats pouncing on toys, clawing at scratching posts and jumping on furniture, I saw no movement. All of the cats were sleeping. An all-white cat, two grey tabbies and a white cat with black and brown splotches– all conked out. Curled up on chair cushions, on sofas and on fluffy, oval cat beds on the floor. As I looked in, she said the cat room had a second floor and they had 12 cats in all. A group of people had just left, she said, so the cats were tired.
Coffee Not Recommended at the Cat Cafe
Three green, wooden stools were at a rectangular pub table in this front room, against the cat room wall. That was when I said we could just sit at this table with our coffee and look at the sleeping cats. It was the only place to sit in this front room.
“I’ll make you coffee, if you really want it, but if you want good coffee, go up the street,” she said, mentioning a specific café that had just opened.
I wasn’t sure how to take her response to my ordering coffee. Was the coffee that bad or did she just not want us here? I tried to remember if I had actually seen the word “café” on the sign outside.
“Are you looking for a cat?” she asked.
I told her I already had cats and my friend said the same. Linda explained how this cafe was a way for cats to get out of shelters so they could relax and find people to adopt them.
Awkwardness at the Cat Cafe
Feeling like an uninvited guest caught crashing a private party, I began looking at the various cat toys for sale and decided to buy a few things to support their cause. I had never felt uncomfortable ordering coffee before. But I sensed she judged us as pleasure-seekers interested only in warming up with coffee and looking at pretty cats, ignorant of their serious mission. This was obviously a cat sanctuary, and the beverages were for serious customers who pay for hourly visits and wanted to find their soul-mate cat.
Linda was holding a three-foot plastic pole with a long, coiled cord with multi-colored six-inch strands attached. As she swung it back and forth, the orange tabby in this front room chased it and lunged at the strands. My friend asked her to tell us about this cat. “He’s a biter,” she said. “He needs an experienced cat owner.”
I can’t remember the cat’s name, so let’s call him Jake. I wondered about his label as a biter. Was that only with people or with other cats as well? How did he become the watch-dog cat? I noticed she avoided touching him when her wand could corral him from the door. Jake didn’t show any interest in us. He wasn’t an affection-seeking cat who rubbed his body on your leg or collapsed in a heap in front of you. And he wasn’t a talker. At least not to us.
I put my chosen cat toys on the counter and Linda came to the cash register.
But Jake was the typical young feline combination of hunter and toddler. When the lure was stored out of reach, he looked for a new adventure. He jumped on the ice cream freezer and rubbed his whole body against the glass doors. Ginger Jake was fun to watch, but she thought I was judging her sanitation practices.
“The health inspector doesn’t have a problem with us because everything is single serve,” she said, speaking quickly.
“I just wondered why he wanted to be on a cold surface,” I said.
“Probably the vibrations,” she said. Next, Jake stood up and began swatting and biting on the plastic packages of the cat toys that hung above the freezer. Now, a toddler exploring with his mouth and arms, and testing the boundaries.
Linda scurried over, gently removed the toys from his mouth, put them out of his reach and softly told him not to do that.
Leaving the Cat Café
Our short visit was over, and she gave us instructions for leaving. After she unlocked the door, we wait for her to lure Jake to the back of the room, before we open the door.
We snuck out while Jake was entranced again by the magic wand.
And that was my first experience at a cat cafe. I left without coffee or ever touching a cat.
I did learn a lot during my visit. This business has helped over 350 cats get adopted in the last two years. Rescue cats can relax and let their personalities come out in settings like this, outside of cages, when foster homes aren’t available. And that some cat cafes, like this one, are focused on the cat adoption side of the business. Serving coffee drinkers was not its purpose.
And I learned that a plastic pole attached to an extra-long, eight-foot stretch cord with a colorful lure gives your cat extended running distance. My orange feline host showcased this for me – an excellent sales-cat employee. My two 12-year-old cats approved of my purchase. And now I’m learning to wield my new magic wand to entice the dormant hunter out of my sleepy, feline friends at home.