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OPENING A CAT CAFÉ is not as easy as one might think. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the more difficult businesses to open because it’s a new concept and with any new concept you need to educate people, including governmental officials, in order to obtain the necessary permits. Since opening The Orlando Cat Café in September 2016, I receive two to three inquiries a week from people who have either visited and have fallen in love with it and want to emulate the concept, or people who have heard about us and want to open a cat café in their hometown.

One might think that catering to kitties all day would be an easy job. However, it’s still a business and thus needs to be run like one. If you are interested in opening your own cat café, here are four steps to get you going.

Orlando Cat Cafe

Strategic Partnerships

If you get nothing else right, you need to have a strong restaurant partner and a strong animal partner. The Orlando Cat Café works under an operating agreement with Axum Coffee to run our café operation and The Animal League, a no-kill shelter in nearby Groveland, FL, to handle everything cat-related. A lot more goes into it than throwing a bunch of cats in a room and hoping for the best. I count on The Animal League to send me cats who are well socialized and will do well in this type of environment. (Not every cat is a candidate to live at the coveted Orlando Cat Café.) Cats must be healthy and up to date on their vaccinations. When you have cats together like this, it is very important to conduct routine preventative health checks as well as to follow a strict regimen of cleaning.

Strong partners are a big key to the success of Orlando Cat Café. Since I am not worried about sourcing beans for the coffee and not worried about calling a reference so I can process adoption paperwork, I am free to actually run the business.

In our case, we charge entrance fees ($8 for adults and $4 for children) and sell merchandise (mugs and T-shirts). From those fees, we pay the kitty portion of rent. The coffee shop pays rent on its portion of the space, and we share costs on utilities. We also pay the cat staff from those proceeds. All adoption fees go directly to The Animal League.

Lay the Groundwork

Cat cafés are a new concept, and not everyone is familiar with them and how they operate. It is imperative to start by meeting local governmental officials to obtain their support. The Orlando Cat Café took 22 months to navigate the complexities of local, state and federal regulations. Most of that time was spent educating people about the concept. I can almost guarantee that when your local health department hears the words “cats” and “food” in the same sentence, its answer will be to deny permits. Because a cat café is likely unique to your area, and every municipality and state has its own regulations, the bureaucratic hoops you will jump through will be unique to your area as well.

Know Your Market

We are fortunate to be located in Orlando, just about five minutes west of Disney, and so we have a big tourism market that makes up a large segment of our customers. Our customers come from three different segments: people wanting to adopt, locals who like the vibe at the café, and tourists who are on holiday and missing their own cat at home. Several tourists have ended up adopting!

Build It Right

We looked at every detail, down to the air conditioning and ductwork. The cat café has two separate air conditioners — one for the kitty play area and one for the coffee side. This reduces the chance of cross-contamination. The coffee side has a large picture window that opens onto the cat play area so that patrons who like cats but maybe don’t want to actually be with the cats can enjoy watching them play. There is also a double-door vestibule entry system from the coffee shop to the cat play area, which serves a double purpose: We use it for a small gift shop selling mugs and T-shirts, and it prevents cats from escaping to the coffee shop side. Last, there are no doors that open directly onto the street front, also for safety reasons. Everything we did, we looked at from the cat’s point of view and to provide for their safety. That’s always our No. 1 priority — it’s all about the kitties!

Not Ready for a Full-Blown Cat Cafe? Try This Instead.

Now you know: Opening a cat café proves complicated, more so than a regular pet business because of the multiple partnerships and the preparation of human food.You can still add elements of a pet café — adoptable dogs like hanging out, too — to your business. Here’s how:

1. Create a lounge area.

The Green Spot in Omaha, NE, did exactly that. Spot Lounge features comfy seating and a “coffee bar.” Documentaries such as “Pet Fooled” play on a TV.

“Customers can come in and relax and socialize with their dogs,” co-owner Whitney Kamish says.

The area also serves as a waiting room with free Wi-Fi, complete with a sign asking for likes of the store’s social media pages.

“We encourage our grooming customers to browse through the store or relax in our lounge area while their pet is being groomed,” Kamish says. “Or during busy times, customers can wait there with their dogs until one of our self-serve tubs becomes available.”

Rescues hold adoption events and meet-and-greets there as well.

2. Host pets who need a forever home.

Dog Krazy installed three adoption suites in one of its Fredericksburg, VA, locations. The local SPCA drops off pups on Tuesdays. Foster-based rescues such as Old Dominion Humane Society bring in adoptables on other days.

“It really helps the dogs in foster homes get seen more,” owner Nancy Guinn says.

Customers can spend time in a suite, and even take a new friend for a walk — they must leave an ID and bring along an employee as well.

3. Offer refreshments.

You’ve got pets covered with water and an array of treats. Why not offer their humans something, too? In the Spot Lounge “coffee bar,” customers find an automatic maker, pods and stir-ins. Such a setup, whether you give away pods or sell them, does not require a special license.

If you want to sell adult beverages, follow Shop Dog Boutique owner Ellyn Suga’s lead. She obtained a wine license for her Sioux Falls, SD, store, which will make it even more of a destination for pet lovers.

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