Earlier this month, New Yorkers awoke to the news that the city would soon get its very first cat cafe. Out of nowhere, Christina Ha, the owner of Macaron Parlour, and her business partner Emilie Legrand announced that they'd unleash Meow Parlour on Hester Street on December 15. With the opening date rapidly approaching, Eater sat down with Christina (who owns Macaron Parlour with her husband) to learn more about the cafe every cat lover in New York has been waiting for. Read on to find out just how many cats we're talking, why the Health Department is totally on board, and why cat cafes are suddenly such a thing.
When did you decide you wanted to open a cat cafe?
Emilie, who's my partner with this, and I have been joking about this for a really, really long time. Then one day the store across the street from here freed up and we were sitting here joking about it and were like, "Can you imagine, you'd just get off of work and run across the street and hug all the cats, and they love you because you smell like cookies." And then it just stopped being a joke. I don't know when we transitioned out of that, but it was a joke and then it was real.
When did you find the Hester Street space?
We actually found that pretty recently, but we had been looking for a couple months. Surprisingly we've been pretty lucky in terms of talking to landlords. We thought the hardest part was going to be getting someone to agree to have cats in their space. But Emilie and I would meet with these landlords, and they can see that we're real people, we're a legit business, we have A grades, we're not dirty people, I'm not a hoarder.
What about the Health Department? How did you get them on board?
I met with them over the summer. Even before I started really looking at spaces I got in touch with the executive director. She had me come in and we talked about rules and regulations, and how it has to be totally separate facilities. It's not like other cat cafes around the world where the cats are here and the food's right there. So we made that very clear by saying, "It's gonna be either on a different street or at a different address" Because if you literally have to cross the street to get from one to the other, there's no chance a cat is going to get into the cafe. Unless it's a stray or something, and that's a different problem.
So you actually have two different spaces?
They're separated. So it's two different storefronts, one on Hester Street, and we're not announcing what the other one is, but it's right around the corner. All the food will be able to be delivered to the cat space, or you just can stop in at the cafe. The Department of Health actually helped me out with that one. They were super nice and super helpful because they were like "I really appreciate that you're trying to do this the right way."
Did you look at other cat cafes or go to other cat cafes?
I haven't. Emilie has a lot more traveling experience and she's been a cat owner for much longer than I have, so she's been to ones in Asia and in France. Emilie's actually in France right now.
She's doing cat café research?
Yeah. It's really interesting, because culturally it's very different. In Japan, you sit on the floor a lot, so the experiences are really low in Japan. And in France, they have tables, so everyone sits at the table like this [leans sideways] because they are trying to look at the cats. So when we developed our space we did different levels. There's seats if you want seats, or you can sit on the floor.
How many cats are you going to have?
We might start with a slightly lower number, but on average 12. Sometimes it might be a little less because they got adopted, and it takes a bit of time to transition new cats in. But that's the big "Hooray!". It won't be like "Oh, I only had nine cats today."
Are you nervous that there's going to be this overwhelming crush of people?
Always, but that's a good problem. And that's why we developed a booking system. I'm actually a huge fan of going to restaurants where you put down a name, and then they give you a time estimate, and then they call you when a table is being cleared out. So yes, you can reserve online, but if you do walk in, we'll be able to take your information and we'll call you when the space opens up, instead of forcing people to wait on a line when it's 10 degrees.
Why have cat cafes have become such a big thing?
I think the bigger question is why are cats such a big thing? I was thinking about it: 2013 was the year of the cats. Like Lil Bub wins at the Tribeca Film Festival? What is that? Could that have happened five years ago? Probably not. Something happened with social media and the internet. Grumpy Cat is famous and has her own line of drinks. There are now like dozens of really famous cats. It's so bizarre. In other countries it has been a thing for a decade to go and play with cats. Like I was talking about it with my old roommate who lives in Taiwan now and she was like, "What's the big deal? Every café here has a cat. And sometimes there's a lot of cats." I think that is finally spreading over here. It's a slow migration but it's here.
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It seems like most of the other cat cafes in the country have all done Kickstarters, and built up a lot of buzz before they did anything. Why did you decide to keep your cafe so quiet until the last minute?
I believe if you say it, you kind of jinx it. Its sort of like how you don't announce you're going to have a baby until after your first trimester. I mean, sad but true. When I started looking into it, I saw so many people start this project and then they didn't reach their funding goal, or they didn't do this, or they didn't do that. Reading through other people's crowdsourcing websites, I was like, "This doesn't seem very well thought out." I felt it was important to go through every single step and figure it out first, so that when we got to the point of opening, it was thought out. My husband and I have foster-raised six cats since we started thinking about this. We saw what it was like to introduce cats to each other. We've been talking to KittyKind for months about how this whole thing works, we've been dealing with the Health Department, and I got a certificate to handle animals a couple months ago.
So are you going to have cat specialist staff that are working there?
I think we're gonna do a mix. Its hard to get really good staff. Sometimes you need to work with a really great personality and then train them on how to do things a certain way. So it's important to have good people and it's important to have people who have had cats, obviously. And Emilie and I are going to go through all of the KittyKind training so we can implement those lessons into how we run our business.
For the pastry shop, is it all going to be cat themed? Or will you just have a few cookies that are cat shaped?
We're going to try to do what we can. My team right now is actually working on some items, but you could never get a cat shaped salad. We'll do what we can and what's appropriate, but if we can't do it and can't maintain the integrity of the product, we won't do it. What's important is that it tastes good, it travels well, and if a cat eats it they won't die. There are certain ingredients that are toxic to cats, so we're trying to make sure no one brings in their own food.
Would you ever open any more cat cafes?
There was one that opened in Paris last year, and they opened the second one in eight months because the demand was so great. The thought of that is terrifying to me. Especially because of the way we need to do it with the Department of Health, it's not opening a cat café, it's opening a cat place and a bakery. It's two businesses, and it is like its own logistical nightmare. Part of me dreams of having a big warehouse and this giant gym, and all the cats are everywhere, and of having so much fun, and the other part of me is like "That's a horrible idea, why would you do that? There's going to be thousands of cats in the ceiling and whatnot." So first we have to open, cross our fingers, hope for the best, and see how things go. Simon and I always said we were never going to open a bakery, and now we have two. And then we're going to open a cat one, so we're crazy.
Anything else I should know about this cat cafe?
Some of cats that we'll have at our cat café are ones that have been in cages for a really long time because they're not getting adopted. They're at a no-kill shelter, so they're growing older in cages, but they deserve to be loved. I told KittyKind, "I want you to give me some old cats and give me some black cats." I also asked for a three-legged cat, but they said three-legged cats get adopted instantly. So do pirate kitties. So we'll get seniors and black cats and cats that are hard to find homes for.
Meow Parlour, 46 Hester Street, Lower East Side