Last Monday, my usual morning routine was interrupted, then taken over, by one thing and one thing alone. Ca$h Cat$ had just announced their upcoming exhibit in Oakland, and something about the venue caught my eye: Cat Town Oakland. I knew it was a non-profit, but I didn’t know it had an actual physical location… and then I lost my mind.
“Did ANYONE ELSE know that cat cafes are about to be real actual things in America?” I asked the world at large (aka the Autostraddle team). The art exhibit won’t go up until early December, but Cat Town Cafe — the first permanent cat cafe in America — was set to open this past Saturday, and it was within public transit distance from my house. After years of anticipation, of wishing I lived near any popup cat cafes, of getting my hopes up for cafes that ultimately couldn’t get permits, I had to witness this. For Journalism. The Autostraddle Press Pass was made for this exact situation.
Saturday dawned. I roped my friend Linden into coming with me (by texting her, CAT CAFE. LET’S GO), and we made our way to 29th and Broadway, where we could buy coffee from the cart on the corner and watch cats frolic in the Cat Zone through the windows. We chose to go inside for the real deal. Reader, I thought I was ready for the cat experience (cats-perience), but once I crossed the threshold I realized that I was not.
About 5% of the words I’ve used in this piece so far have been “cat,” and it’s already starting to look like a nonsense word. If this cafe were an article, 95% of the words would be “cat.” There was plenty of Cat Town merch: t-shirts, hoodies, mugs, cat-head-shaped pillows, watercolor paintings by Megan Lynn Knott, framed photos of cats behind the coffee bar, and an old-school sticker machine. There was a painting of cats climbing all over the city of Oakland. The women in line before me wore matching velour wedges with cat faces on the toes, and the women behind me were plotting all the places they could put their newly-acquired cat stickers. The cafe sold fish-shaped cookies. It was a feline extravaganza. A cats-travaganza.
In accordance with health standards (which, I learned, were the biggest regulatory hurdles that Cat Town Cafe had to overcome), the Cat Zone, where the cats hang out, is a completely separate room from the food and coffee area. It was at capacity when we arrived, so we killed some time people-and-cat watching.
“This coffee is really good. I feel like that’s important and sometimes overlooked when talking about cat cafes,” said Linden (Bicycle Coffee is great, and it’s local).
“What percent of women here are queer, do you think?” I asked her.
At last, we could enter the Cat Zone. The massive room is an entire cat city. Specifically a Cat Oakland, in tribute to the community (cat-munity) that helped foster and fund Cat Town Cafe. It was, as you might expect, heavenly. Few things bring me more pleasure than a good coffee and lounging with a friendly cat, and there were nine friendly cats in the Cat Zone.
I also got to talk to Ann Dunn, the president and founder of Cat Town, the non-profit behind the cafe. She’d started the organization as an alternative to traditional shelter-based cat adoption. Shelters tend to be stressful for shy and undersocialized cats, which in turn hurts their chances of adoption. Cat Town launched a foster program for such cats in 2011, allowing them to flourish in bigger, more private environments and show their true personalities before finding them new homes. Expanding the organization into a cafe space felt like a logical next step. The cats would have room to thrive, their spots at the shelter could go to other cats, and potential adopters could meet them in a homey setting.
“I used to talk to people who’d say, ‘I’ll give you a call when I’m ready to adopt,’ and then they never feel ready. The cafe is a more natural way to interact with cats than at a shelter, and it’s easier to picture yourself adopting and actually living with one of the cats,” said Dunn. Once a cat has been adopted, another shelter cat — chosen by volunteers based on their reactions in the space and around other cats — will take its place at the cafe. The model seems to be working. Cat Town Cafe has some of the mellowest cats I’ve ever met, and as of opening day afternoon, six of them had been adopted.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest challenge in opening the cafe was food safety regulation. For example, Dunn told me, they were required to get a grease trap, even though no food is made on site. As I mentioned earlier, to keep the cats away from the food, Dunn and fellow cafe cofounder Adam Myatt (the man behind Hoodcats) divided the space into the cafe and the Cat Zone, separated by a set of double doors. They even rigged up the air-conditioning so that air flows away from the cafe into the Cat Zone, to minimize contamination (cat-tamination). Once you’ve bought your coffee, pastry or vegan treat (from another local source, S + M Vegan Chefs), you’re welcome to bring it with you into the Cat Zone. They just can’t serve it to you in an area where cats roam free.
Cat Town Cafe may be the first permanent cat cafe in America, but it definitely had competition on the way. Here’s a list of cat cafes slated to open soon, maybe near you:
If you know of another cat cafe opening near you, tell us in the comments!
One last cat photo, because I am weak: