Cats and coffee may seem like a strange combination, but it’s been a recipe for success for New Zealand’s first cat cafe, The Cat Lounge. Elly Strang paid it a visit to see how it all came together.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, a cat cafe is a cafe where customers pay a small fee to go watch and play with cats provided by the establishment.
The Cat Lounge co-owner Mike Jones said he became fascinated by the idea years ago when he saw a friend’s photos of a cat cafe in Tokyo, Japan.
He wondered why none had opened in New Zealand yet, but it was a fleeting thought.
When he saw a cat cafe open in Melbourne in late 2014, he decided to grab friend and co-owner Vicky Chapman and embark on what they’ve dubbed a “crazy cat adventure”.
“The Melbourne one made the papers over here, so I was thinking if someone was to open a cat cafe in New Zealand, no doubt you’d also get in the papers and get free marketing and that’d help you get off the ground,” Jones says.
He got to work by spending weeks poring over online reviews of overseas cat cafes and making lists of what people liked and disliked about them.
Chapman and Jones then approached the SPCA, suppliers and real estate agents, but many had no idea what a cat cafe was.
“Real estate agents thought we were pranking them,” Chapman says.
“We wanted to see one of their properties and [the real estate agent] never called us back. We chased him up a couple of weeks later and he was like ‘Oh, you were serious?’ I thought you were joking!” Jones says.
Others thought a cat cafe was a place where you take your own cat for a cup of tea, he says.
There was also the hurdle of New Zealand’s health and safety regulations surrounding food premises.
“Up until last year every food premise was going under the laws made in 1976 that said you are allowed one cat on your premises for the purpose of rodent control. I was like ‘yeah, one cat’s not going to cut it,’” Jones says.
The updated Food Act 2014 became law in March this year. It rules animals aren’t allowed in the area where food is handled, but they may be allowed in customer areas so long as food on display is protected from contamination.
The Cat Lounge runs its food control plan through the MPI and has the cat room kept separate from the kitchen and cafe.
“They’ve finally realised that not every food premise is the same and every one is run differently,” Chapman says.
People are able to take food and drinks through to the cat area if they wish, but Jones says they have to keep an eye out for the crafty felines who have been known to work in teams to steal food.
To get The Cat Lounge up-and-running, the co-owners put cat lovers to the test and fundraised over $36,000 through a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.
Media pounced on the extraordinary story, which led to cat food company Friskies contacting the pair and offering to help out with the fit-out, supplies and sponsorship.
The Cat Lounge also partnered with Auckland-based cat rescue organisation Lonely Miaow to find the right residents.
Great care was taken to handpick cats that would relish non-stop attention, pats and socialising.
Lonely Miaow’s foster carer then trialled having the 15 chosen cats live together in her spare room, which meant they became familiarised with one another months
before the opening.
When looking for the right property for The Cat Lounge, Jones and Chapman encountered several problems.
They had promised various features like wheelchair access to customers on the Kickstarter campaign, so it was hard to find a site that ticked all the right boxes.
The other issue was not every landlord was keen on the idea of 15 or more cats calling their premises home.
Jones and Chapman finally found a 200 square metre site in Glenfield on Auckland’s North Shore.
Friskies recommended design studio Lovelace & Co, which has previously worked on Ponsonby’s Little Easy and Kingsland’s Citizen Park, to help with the fit-out.
Jones says they wanted to ensure the cafe design was well suited to all walks of life.
“The designers were tasked with coming up with a room where whether you’re three or 93, you walk in there and go, ‘Wow! This is cool!’” Jones says.
Inspiration was taken from overseas cat cafes for the design, but a lot of the features were born out of the co-owners’ imaginations.
They requested a giant tree somewhere in the room, a walkway for the cats above head-height and an outdoor area with fake grass.
Jones says the nature-themed outdoor greenery and wooden tree make the cafe “a bit more Kiwi”.
Another focus for the design was ensuring any bad smells were kept to a minimum. An extractor fan was put in to take away any odours. Litterboxes are kept within a room only the cats can access, out of sight of customers.
“A lot of thought has been put into minimising the bad points,” Jones says.
There are endless nooks and crannies that the cats can escape to if they need a break, from outdoor hanging planters, wall boxes emblazoned with ‘No dogs allowed!!’ to cosy climbing frames on the floor.
Because Jones and Chapman went to such efforts to pick the right cats, The Cat Lounge’s residents aren’t up for adoption – but one wall advertises cats that are over at Lonely Miaow.
In contrast to the cat area, the cafe section’s design is far less busy, but the feline theme continues throughout. Cat pictures adorn the menu, sugar containers and sofa cushions.
There’s also a tribute on one of the walls thanking all of the Kickstarter donators who made The Cat Lounge possible.
Since it opened in November, the cafe has had an endless stream of people through its doors eager to meet its furry inhabitants. Weekend visits tend to be fully booked days in advance.
Chapman says its popularity comes down to a visit to the Cat Lounge being such a unique experience.
“We see people come in and they’re literally bouncing on the balls of their feet to go into the cat area and have a look. We also have a few regulars that come in three to four times a week.”
Jones has been approached by several people wanting people to set up franchises, but for now he says he’ll see how it goes.
In time, they’d like to fulfil cat lovers’ dreams nationwide and expand The Cat Lounge to Wellington and Christchurch.
As for how the cats are coping with all the attention, Chapman says they miss being petted on their day off.
“They get lonely on Monday when we close. I come in to get my time with them in the afternoon and I get swamped,” she laughs.
- This story originally appeared in the June/July edition of NZ Retail.