The announcement came last November in a tweet from 24-year-old University of Maryland grad Kanchan Singh: “GUYS. A cat cafe in DC. We’re making it happen!”
An onslaught of media interest followed. Everyone from DCist to the Washington Post wanted to know more. A cafe? With food? And cats? Riding the wave of attention, Singh launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowd-source the seed money for her business, Crumbs & Whiskers—where patrons could sip espresso while playing with cats up for adoption through the Washington Humane Society. When the online fundraising closed April 7, she had raised more than $35,000.
But even savvy marketing, coupled with animal lovers’ cheerleading (and cash), doesn’t make the project a sure thing. Six months in, with lease negotiations tentatively under way for space in Georgetown, Singh is piecing together what comes next.
The idea for Crumbs & Whiskers was sparked on a trip Singh took to Thailand, where the novelty is popular. She thought the concept would be perfect for harried type-A Washingtonians: “We have so many people who want to spend time with pets.”
The former consultant quit her job and dove into navigating zoning rules. Others were doing the same in places such as Denver and San Francisco. American entrepreneurs have reworked the cat-cafe model—which started in Taiwan—for US audiences by partnering with rescue programs that provide adoptable pets. (In Asia, the cats simply live at the cafes.) The thinking is that people looking to adopt can spend time getting to know the animals in a lounge-like setting.
At Crumbs & Whiskers, the Washington Humane Society would help train staff and provide shelter to cats it deems outgoing enough for the hands-on environment. Cat experts give the concept their blessing, too. Local veterinary behaviorist Marsha Reich says it’s a win-win for adopters and animals.
Noble intentions aside, there are roadblocks. Singh worked with DC’s health department and zoning board for months to determine whether the idea was possible, finally gaining zoning approval in March. The cat show would go on—but with a major caveat: Singh is still awaiting health approvals. So far, DC’s health department has okayed only a shop where people can bring their own snacks; it has yet to approve Singh’s idea to sell food and coffee alongside animals. Some city officials are squeamish about the concept of felines mingling with food. Singh’s design includes a closed-off room where the cats would relax and take care of litter-box business.
Though she plans to charge patrons an hourly fee to play with the cats (she doesn’t yet know how much), nixing food sales would strip a big revenue stream. Singh won’t discuss her business plan because it’s still in flux.
But others are already testing the cafes. Cat Town Café in Oakland, which claims to be the first in the US, opened last October. It has since adopted out more than 150 animals. While the cafe—which sells food and charges $10 for hourlong reservations—is succeeding in its mission, cofounder Ann Dunn isn’t sure how the place will survive for the long haul: “We are, in truth, a little worried about our financial position.”
Christina Ha, co-owner of New York City’s Meow Parlour, advises against putting “all of your eggs in one basket.” Meow Parlour, open since December, sells sweets and hosts private parties for $500 to $650 per event. Ha says her shop is profitable.
Cafes throughout the US have devised health-code work-arounds. At Meow Parlour, a separate nearby location houses the bakery; customers then bring their cookies and coffee to the cat zone. In Oakland, the cafe is separate but in the same building as the animals.
Whether Crumbs & Whiskers will work in Washington is unknown, but that hasn’t hampered Singh’s enthusiastic tweeting. After the zoning-board win this spring, she fired off: “WE DID IT!!! DC’s cat cafe is officially official.” Well, almost.
This article appears in our May 2015 issue of Washingtonian.