The concept of a cat cafe seems easy enough to explain: it’s a place where people can have a snack or a cup of coffee while they play with cats.
And that’s a pretty good definition—for a human.
But from a cat’s point of view, a cat cafe is not only a place to eat and drink and play with people and cats, it’s also a place to sleep and climb and hide and sit by yourself and look out the window.
As cat cafes are sprouting up across the U.S., their owners are working to make sure that the shops are designed to suit their feline residents—usually shelter cats who are eligible for adoption by cafe visitors—as much as they are their human customers. Cafe owners naturally want to see their cats happy, and they also want them in the right mood to make a good impression on customers looking to adopt a pet.
“The end goal is to help more cats find forever homes, and to get more people to fall in love with cats,” says Christina Ha, of Manhattan’s newly opened Meow Parlour. Here’s how to design a great cat cafe.
Places To Hide
“I learned quickly, the first couple of weeks, I need more hiding-hole places—places for the cats to go and chill,” says Ericka Basile, the founder of Planet Tails in Naples, Fla., which opened in December. “I have to keep the quality of life good for them.”
Basile previously worked as a pet product scout for ABC’s Good Morning America and as a pet product buyer for Fab.com, so she says it was easy for her to know what products would help put her cats at ease.
She has installed plenty of spaces for shy cats to hide—even cat houses made from classic, see-through iMac cases. Floor-to-ceiling windows let the cats look out to the street or into the pet supply store Planet Tails, which operates in a separate room.
“They are coming from shelters—they’re in a tiny little cage, and now they’re in this room with a party happening,” Basile says. “You don’t want to party all the time. You want to go home.”
At Meow Parlour, which opened in December on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, an area in the back of the store offers cats a place to sleep and use the litter box in peace. “There’s a tiny door just for the cats to walk in and out of,” says coufounder Christina Ha. “There’s a sign that says employees, cats and Taylor Swift only.”
Places To Climb
Rhonda Lieberman, the creator of the Cats-in-Residence traveling art installation, gives her cat performers plenty of places to climb and explore, including sculptures, networks of boxes, pipes, and apparatuses inspired by modern art.
“They’re entertaining when they climb, so that’s kind of a performance aspect to it, too,” says Lieberman. “You’re wondering when they’re gonna come out, or who’s gonna climb the various climbing elements.”
And cats at Planet Tails have climbing shelves with window views, though they often enjoy scaling the human furniture just as much, Basile says. “The cats like height, so they’ll go up inevitably on the couches and on the cafe tables,” she says.
The More Comfortable The Cats, The More Likely They’ll Get Adopted
The comfortable environment lets some rescue cats thrive that don’t do as well in tiny cages in noisy shelters, Ha says.
“There are a lot of cats who are wonderful cats, but they need to interact with people on their own terms in the beginning,” Ha says. “We give a lot of control and power to the cats in that way—so they are meeting people, and people are seeing the best side of them.” When cats are comfortable, cafe owners say the odds that they’ll bond with people–and ultimately get adopted–increase.
Humans Need To Be Comfortable, Too
Making humans comfortable matters, too. The happier the visitors, the more likely they are to adopt a cat, or so the reasoning goes. But what constitutes a comfortable environment in one part of the world might feel downright awkward somewhere else.
Ha says her cofounder Emilie Legrand had visited cat cafes overseas, and found that in Japanese cat cafes, customers generally took off their shoes and sat on the ground level with the animals in accordance with Asian dining customs, while in a French cat cafe, they sat at traditional European-style tables.
“They were having a very difficult time enjoying their meal because they had to keep looking at the ground to see where the cats were,” Ha says.
The founders sought a compromise, knowing American visitors to Meow Parlour wouldn’t all want to sit on the floor.
“Some people prefer to actually sit at a table and eat, and we weren’t going to force everyone to be like the Japanese and sit on the floor and eat,” she says. “It was a very, very conscious decision to have really high seating and really low seating and to have neutral bench seating.”
But ultimately, everything comes back to the cats, and what makes them happy. Those benches also double as storage—and have cat-sized holes to allow animals that need a break a place to go and hide.
The Hardest Part of Running a Well-Designed Cat Cafe? Saying Goodbye
The more cat-friendly the design, the happier the cats will be, and the happier they are, the more likely they are to find new, permanent homes. But for cafe staff, seeing the animals go is always going to be a bit bittersweet.
Still, Ha says, the ultimate goal is to see as many cats get adopted as can be–no matter how much she and the rest of her staff are going miss them.
“Our friendliest cat is named Liza,” Ha says. “If we were going to stop people from adopting Liza because she’s so friendly, she’s never going to have a single person she falls in love with, she’s never going to get to crawl in the bed with someone, no one’s ever gonna wake up with Liza passed out on their face. And who’s going to take care of Liza when she’s old?””