What started in Asia in the mid-90s has now made its way to West Michigan: cat cafés.
You’ve probably heard of this concept from a well-traveled friend — maybe they’ve visited the first American location (Cat Town) in Oakland, Calif., or they’ve explored one of the many cafés across Asia. The idea is simple: a traditional café that is also home to cats.
Happy Cat Café, owned by Kati Palmurkar, is an innovative new space located on South Division in Grand Rapids. The idea to open a cat café stemmed from a broken leg. Seriously.
“I had just taken an entrepreneurship class at GVSU, and it just clicked that this was the business for me. I’ve worked in the service industry for 10-plus years and have a biology degree,” Palmurkar said. “After breaking my leg playing hockey in early 2015, I was really bored sitting around the house. One night I was just playing around and I made a crude logo, website and Facebook page for ‘Happy Cat Company & Café.’ I invited my friends and wanted to gauge what kind of response I would get.
“It was insane, we had 2,500 likes in three days.”
So in August 2015, Palmurkar launched a Kickstarter to turn that Facebook dream into a reality. Backed by 549 people, Happy Cat Café found a home in February 2016. And a full year later, she finally got the permits to begin construction, with the cat room being finished in March. Palmurkar said the goal of the cat room is to create a feline paradise with “stimulating activities for the cats and comfortable areas for people to interact with them.”
The first purpose behind the cat café is simple: “To give people that live in apartments in densely populated areas a place where they could spend time with cats,” Palmurkar said.
But as the idea spread throughout the United States, more and more cafés began pushing a deeper mission.
“The cafés started teaming up with local shelters to help get the cats adopted as well,” she said. “The guests can socialize with others and cats in a relaxing atmosphere while the cats get to really show their true self by not being in cages. This increases their likelihood of being adopted. I think a cat café will work in any community, but specifically in Grand Rapids because the city really cares for animals and likes to support small businesses.”
Carol’s Ferals, a local TNR (trap, neuter, return) shelter in West Michigan provides the cats to the café.
“(We) originally reached out to Happy Cat Café to let them know how much we’d like to have our cats at their establishment,” said Carol Manos, owner of Carol’s Ferals. “I’m so happy we did. We were chosen. There are many good cat rescues in West Michigan and to be picked is really an honor and a wonderful opportunity to get cats out in the public eye in a completely different way.”
Palmurkar, who originally planned on partnering with the Humane Society (which is also a great organization), said she loves the TNR mission at Carol’s Ferals.
“I just have a special place in my heart for street cats,” Palmurkar said. “Carol’s Ferals doesn’t take any owner (surrendered cats) at the moment. These cats are scrappy. They’ve had hard lives, and I really want to give them a second chance.”
In April, Happy Cat Café launched Cat Yoga to help support the financial burden of opening. The event was incredibly successful with more than 500 people interested on Facebook. “Cat yoga is definitely here to stay,” Palmurkar said. “The cats love it! They get sick of just seeing me every day, so they are excited to cuddle with anyone new that comes in.”
Future events may include cat movie night, painting with cats, cat wine social, speed dating with cats and much more. And as for the cafe itself, that depends on a variety of factors, of course. But Palmurkar says the end is in sight.
“We just got approved for a home equity loan to finish the kitchen, so there is a light at the end of tunnel,” she said. “We hope to open fully in July.”