8/11/2016, 11:33 a.m.: See below for comments added from Kathy Barton of the City of Houston Department of Health and Human Services.
Do cats and coffee mix? For some, the idea of a cat cafe conjures visions of floating hair landing right in their warm beverage. To others, though, a cat cafe sounds like the perfect way for would-be adopters to find their next furry family member — and help overcrowded animal shelters in the process.
Renee Reed wants to establish a cat cafe in Houston called El Gato Coffeehouse that will showcase pets from the Houston Humane Society. However, there are significant hurdles ahead, including getting the concept funded, finding a space and figuring out how to comply with some daunting City of Houston rules on animals and indoor dining.
Cat cafes are not a new idea and many cities already have them. The first one in the United States, Cat Town Café in Oakland, California, opened in 2014. Since then, others have followed. There’s Blue Cat Café in Austin, KitTea in San Francisco, Meow Parlour in New York City and many more. Customers buy time to hang out with the cats. Meow Parlour, for example, charges $5 for 30 minutes and $7 for an hour.
The hope, of course, is that patrons will interact and bond with a particular cat and want to adopt it. “There are benefits to humans as well,” said Reed. “The interactions with cats reduce anxiety levels and blood pressure levels. I’d like for people to understand there’s that component, as well as socialization of the cats. Even if they don’t have the intention of adopting, they’re providing a greater benefit to the community just by socializing our cats and preparing them for adoption.”
She first became interested in the idea after moving into a neighborhood that was overpopulated with strays. “No one was doing anything about it. So I had to quickly get caught up on the trap-neuter-release program. HOPE (Homeless & Orphaned Pets Endeavor) lent me some cages, taught me some skills on how to do it and provided some assistance. That’s what fully immersed me in trying to find homes for cats,” she said. (Trapping, neutering and releasing feral cats, called TNR for short, allows them to live their natural lifespans instead of being euthanized as nuisances. If it's done judiciously, the population will eventually dwindle. Stable feral cat colonies are thought to keep rodent populations in check and deter other strays from moving into the area.)
To fund building costs, Reed has established a Kickstarter campaign for donations. So far, $3,202 has been raised as of press time. Additionally, she’s hosting a pop-up at Sharespace on Sunday that includes a lounge for guests to interact with cats — a sort of sneak peek at what the cafe will be like. The event is free (donors get first dibs on spots), but there are no more spaces available. Reed says that more than 900 people were interested in attending. If that’s the case, clearly there is plenty of interest and support among Houstonians for Reed’s concept.
Generating interest among cat lovers is the easy part. The hard part is finding a suitable space to lease and clearing the inevitable hurdles with City of Houston Permitting and the health department. Ordinances currently state that, other than service animals and patrol dogs, “live animals may not be allowed on the premises of a food establishment.”
However, there is an exception. Live animals are allowed in “areas that are not used for food preparation, storage, sales, display, or dining, in which there are caged animals or animals that are similarly confined, such as in a variety store that sells pets or a tourist park that displays animals.”
Reed is working with an architect on a building design that totally separates the cats from the food preparation area. In fact, there’s a window planned for the cat room so that patrons who are allergic to or don’t want to interact with the cats at all can just watch their antics from afar. People who just want their coffee and pastries can grab them and leave, knowing they’re helping support a good cause.
There’s still a mismatch, though, between Reed’s concept and the ordinance. The cats are not going to be caged — because that would entirely miss the point of a cat cafe. With coffee and pastries being sold, the customers will definitely be “dining” while hanging out with the cats. Reed hopes to be granted an exception. “There’s variations on a form you can complete to make business cases for how we can get around certain things and really, that’s going to be making sure guests can bring their coffee and snacks into the cat lounge,” she said.
Updated, 8/11/2016, 11:33 a.m.: Kathy Barton of the City of Houston Department of Health and Human Services says that in order for Reed's idea to work, the food preparation and dining area has to be a facility separate from the cat room. We asked if there would be any issue with people enjoying their coffee and pastries in the cat room. She replied, “People take out their food all over the place. Where you take your food to eat and drink is not our concern. Our concern is the restaurant where it is prepared and if the restaurant provides a dining area for you. Now, it is my understanding with this cat thing that [customers] would go in, purchase their coffee, go out the door and in another door to get to the cats. We would not have any regulatory authority over the cat room because it is a separate, physical facility.”
Barton says that the City of Houston Health Department has been hearing a lot about cat cafes lately. We asked why no one previously interested has been able to open one successfully. “Well, when you tell people what they have to do — essentially lease two adjacent spaces — then it becomes a little more daunting than simply letting a cat roam around your coffee shop," she said. "It is a topic I’ve been hearing about for three or four years, and no one has actually filed the paperwork or the plans to have one approved. We’ll be interested to see how this goes. Our concern is healthy, wholesome food and beverages.”
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We asked Reed what happens to the Kickstarter donations if she’s unable to get the city to approve the cat cafe concept. “That’s a really great question,” she said. “I guess if I couldn’t get the city of Houston, I’d find a neighboring area and see what I could do there. I don’t want to just give up on this mission. I find that to be highly unlikely, and I really would want to open this in Houston. Maybe I would go in The Woodlands and see what I could do there.”
Reed pointed out that some of the Kickstarter rewards were tangible items, such as T-shirts, and once those were delivered, her obligation to the donor was fulfilled. Other rewards, though, like a yoga class with the cats, are dependent on the cat cafe's actually being open for business.
“For gifts where I was unable to fulfill the reward in time, then I would refund the backer,” she said. “I certainly hope that is not the direction this goes and I can make this work with the city of Houston.”
Reed hopes to open El Gato Coffeehouse in the first quarter of 2017.