An insider’s look inside America’s first cat café, and the line leading up to it.
On the corner of Bowery between Nolita and Little Italy, lines of people curl up and down the path outside of a medium-sized storefront. Pedestrians stop and peer into glass windows, then take out their smartphones to snap pictures. Feet shuffle with anticipation as little by little, folks are let into the building.
From the scene on the streets, one would think the venue contained something of rarity, like unicorns, or Beyoncé. But it’s actually the opposite: the four hour long wait is for a beverage drank by 54% of adult Americans and an animal that lives in over 95 million households.
That’s right. A four hour wait for coffee and cats. Both are adored by many, and for good reason, but no one can claim they aren’t highly accessible. It’s the combination, apparently, that creates novelty, which is why the cat café as a concept has generated such hype.
It was certainly enough to make us curious. They say curiosity killed the cat, but worry not: no cats or reporters were killed in the writing of this article.
Concept: The cat café
The holy combination of cat and coffee has been successful elsewhere. Notably, there are establishments in Paris and Japan that allow your everyday Joe, Pierre, and Takumi to have a cup of joe, café , and kō hī while sharing company with a cat, chat, or neko.
Even London opened up their first in March, 2014. Why not America next?
In Japan, more than 150 cat cafés have emerged in the last decade alone. Besides being the home of Hello Kitty, interest in these establishments stems from cat-loving tourists and locals without the space and time for pets of their own.
But like other Japanese commodities (you can also rent dates and friends in Japan), time with cats does not come without price. Visitors pay 900 yen, equivalent to about $9 an hour for the company of felines, and just 200 yen for drinks.
Execution: 90% Line, 10% Cat food
Cat cafés don’t exist quite yet in the United States, or really, the entire North American continent, but it’s definitely not for lack of interest.
Mostly, it’s health regulations that prohibit animals from food facilities to blame for the unfortunate lack in countries like America. No one wants hairballs in their tea, but the consensus seems to be that some sort of middle ground could work.
North America’s first cat café is a four day long pop-up event, a time limitation that certainly explains the lines. Coordinated by Purina One in partnership with no-kill animal shelter North Shore Animal League America, you could definitely call the café a sort of publicity stunt. Still, it’s hard to be bitter when it comes to connecting animals with “forever homes,” even if it’s for the sake of advertising.
In line for the café on Sunday, though, it was clear that the invitation to “stop by and say hello” was just a bit off in its mechanics. And the four hour quote time was not, as we’d hoped, an over-estimation to dissuade crowding. Props for accuracy.
Amazingly, the staff told us Saturday had been even busier, having peaked at an ungodly 8 hour wait. That’s only an hour less than the average amount of hours an adult sleeps at night or works during the day. We’re glad we brought a kindle.
A cat crazed corner
Herded into line by a man in a Purina One branded turquoise shirt, morale was initially high as persons that had probably planned their day around the event decided to stick out the wait time out of deep devotion to the feline species — a species that frankly would never reciprocate this type of behavior.
These folks included but were not limited to daughters with reluctant fathers, girlfriends with reluctant boyfriends, groups of excitable teenagers, and old ladies donning cat-themed apparel. One woman wore a full purple cat leotard and face paint, looking very much like she came from an amateur production of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats.
So what happens you take a bunch of cat fanatics and stick them in a line on a Manhattan street corner? Mostly, just a lot of waiting. But you also get Charlie, a man sometimes spotted in the area with a cat named Nicholas sitting on top of his head, working the crowd for a couple dollars.
At one point, a slick black SUV pulled up to the side of the road and the driver emerged to beckon Charlie to the backseat window. The tinted glass rolled down to reveal an old woman (“That looks likes Queen Elizabeth,” one man notes) whom could only be described as “tickled” with delight at the sight of the noggin-perching feline. She pulls out her wallet and gives Charlie a wad of money before the car departs.
Cats are enjoyable as heck, but they’re lucrative, too.
As technology becomes ubiqitous, cats do too
It seems that where there is a demand for cats, there is a demand for cat-themed everything, from apparel, to cafes, to smart new gadgets. You can see the evidence all over the web.
The meme-ification of cats is not a new phenomenon, though it’s certainly a persistent one. There have been various speculations on why the Internet is so severely cat obsessed: cat owners have no dog-park equivalent, so the web is their playground; cats’ holier than thou “cattitude” make them ideal for poking fun; kittens look like babies — and lastly, cats think they are gods, so of course we treat them that way.
There’s no shortage of businesses willing to capitalize off this obsession, even aside from Purina One.
For example, a woman representing a startup called Kittyo cleverly approached people in line to inform them about a Kickstarter campaign crowdfunding one cat-related product. It works by letting users interact with their cats when they aren’t home by watching, talking to, playing with, and giving treats to their cats from their smartphones.
The remarkable device can record and share videos of cats remotely, and is equipped with a built in treat dispenser and laser pointer so antics can ensue anytime, anywhere. We’re not so sure cats will like being stripped of prized alone-time, but it sounds like a good way to troll your pet from afar. You can fund the project here.
Happy baristas; healthy cats
It’s nearing 5:00 PM on the corner of Bowery, and the end of the line is finally in sight. One thing is for sure, however — as the line and daylight dwindles, so do the number of cats in the window.
The afternoon sun is long gone, so the brave souls that withstood the chilly wait are ecstatic to finally enter the café. Folks are immediately greeted by cheerful baristas, who take apparent pleasure in crafting free purr-fect and delicious “cat’achinos,” which look great and taste even better.
But here’s the kicker — you can’t drink the coffee and see cats at the same time; one must finish their beverage before entering the cat room. This seems to Curiousmatic like grounds for disqualification from cat café cat-egorization. But that could be the hunger speaking, as it’s been a long time since lunch.
In the next room, we finally reach the creatures we’ve all been waiting for. They are majestic, healthy, playful and cute — but as this is the last day, they are few, which makes for a skewed cat-to-person ratio that even furthers the their already apparent celebrity status.
Cat lovers play with a fluffy orange feline, who attempts to kill a cat toy.
A pleasant conversation with Purina One coordinator Danielle reveals that most of the cats have been adopted, which is excellent news, and of course, nudge nudge, cat owners should take Purina One’s 28 day challenge. Apparently your cat’s eyes will shine brighter in less than a month just from switching brands, though how to measure eye shininess, we’re unsure.
At the end of the day it comes to little surprise that cats have proven once again to hold a tight grip on humanity, commanding amazing crowds willing to wait all day for a little post-caffeine pet and play. While the ordeal may have been a bit PR-y for our taste, not to mention sore on the soles, it was certainly a slam dunk for Purina One and many happy cats and owners.
As far as permanent cat cafés go, the pop-up may have swooped in to steal the continent’s superlative “first,” but with luck, San Francisco’s gourmet tea and cat sanctuary “KitTea” won’t be far behind. We wish it all the success in the world, minus the lines, but with no less passionate friskiness.