City Paper is not for tourists
There’s nothing more than a coat of white paint with bright yellow trim upstairs at the future home of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers, but founder Kanchan Singh is downright giddy as she floats around the room envisioning what it will become. The walls of the Georgetown property, formerly home to a psychic and astrology center, will be lined with shelves so cats may survey the territory. Singh has her eye on an oversized pet bed shaped like a white cat’s head with an entrance through the mouth. For humans, there will be cushion seating on the hardwood floors so they’re on the same level as the cats.
While this room is meant to foster energetic, playful interactions, the street-level area downstairs will have a more laid-back and relaxed feel with an earthier aesthetic. The basement will be restricted to felines (and staff), so the cats can take a break from humans if they need to.
“Just think of a lounge,” Singh says, “but to hang out and talk about cats.”
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Although cat cafes have long been popular in Asia, they’ve only begun to pop up in the United States within the past six months. When it opens this summer, Crumbs & Whiskers will be the first establishment of its kind in D.C. The idea has already sparked an enormous response, including mockery from a camp of people who see it as a sign that the city has reached peak yuppie. But then there are the masses who’ve flooded Singh’s email inbox with support and helped her far exceed her Kickstarter goal. They see the concept as a future model for pet adoption—or at least a way to fulfill their fantasies of petting cute, furry animals while sipping a coffee. And the woman behind it all? She’s a 24-year-old who left her consulting job to dedicate her time to cats.
Singh’s cat cafe was born out of a quarter-life crisis backpacking trip to Thailand to visit an elephant sanctuary. At the time, the University of Maryland grad was working as a consultant for Accenture, a global management consulting, technology services, and outsourcing firm. “I was just in a point in life where I felt very directionless. I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know if I want to keep doing this,’” she says. “I woke up one day, and I was like, ‘No, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to do this.’”
While traveling by herself and staying in hostels, Singh met some guys who told her about a cat cafe in Chiang Mai. They knew she’d like the idea, especially given her fondness for feeding stray dogs and cats. It also happened to be Singh’s 24th birthday. She had to go.
“I walked in there, and I was hanging out, and something hit me,” she says. “It’s really weird. I don’t know how to explain it, but while I was there, my mind had already started thinking about doing it here—actually quitting my job and doing it here. It was something I couldn’t stop thinking about.”
No one visiting the cat cafe was Thai; they were all Americans and Europeans, which made Singh wonder why no such thing existed in the U.S. In fact, America’s first such establishment, Cat Town Cafe, opened in Oakland in November, shortly after Singh began researching the idea. In December, Meow Parlour opened in New York and Denver Cat Company arrived in Colorado. Another cat cafe called KitTea is in the works for San Francisco.
Singh—who lives with her parents and her younger brother in Gaithersburg to save money for the venture—has five cats. “But,” she says, “we share… so really I have 1.25 cats.” She’s also had rabbits and one time nursed an abandoned baby squirrel back to health. “My craziness is not restricted to cats.”
Initially, Singh planned to adopt 20 or so cats from the Washington Humane Society and have them all live at the cat cafe. Then she realized she could use her business as an avenue to actually get the cats adopted. The Oakland cafe claimed dozens of adoptions in its first few weeks, further bolstering Singh’s ambitions.
WHS will be intimately involved in the cafe, helping to train staff to take care of the cats in the same way they train their own staff. The cats will also be vetted by WHS before they move to the cafe. “You have cats that come in and they’re like, ‘Hey, let’s get the party started, I’m here.’ And those will be the ones that we’ll be placing into that environment,” says the organization’s spokesman Scott Giacoppo. Singh plans to introduce five cats at a time, given how territorial the animals can be, but she won’t have more than 20 at once.
Cat cafe patrons interested in taking a cat home will still go through WHS’s adoption process. The actual logistics are still in the works, but Giacoppo says the goal is that people will be able to adopt right then and there.
At any given time, WHS has between 200 to 300 cats either at its shelters or temporarily living with families as part of its foster program. Despite some preconceptions, Giacoppo says the majority of WHS’ cats are not there because of health or behavioral problems. More often, a cat is surrendered when his owner moves into an apartment that doesn’t allow animals or suffers financial difficulty.
Giacoppo has high hopes for the cat cafe’s potential success. He acknowledges that a lot of people don’t like coming to the shelter. “They can now interact with cats in a way that they never have been able to before,” he says.
D.C. regulators, however, haven’t been nearly as enthusiastic. Singh needed to get a zoning exemption and approval from the health department, which had never dealt with such a concept before.
“I don’t think I realized what I was taking on when I took it on,” Singh admits. The project has led to many sleepless nights worrying about red tape and running a first-time business. “I dreamt that terrorists blew up the cat cafe,” Singh says. “And I know why! Because I decided not to buy terrorism insurance.”
Singh announced the cat cafe in November, in part to lock herself into moving forward with it but also to demonstrate the demand to potential landlords. Initially, nobody wanted to fill their building with cats. “In the commercial real estate world, everyone thought it would fail,” Singh says. She was lucky to ultimately find a cat-loving landlord in Georgetown at 3211 O St. NW who had actually been to the cat cafe in Oakland.
The D.C. Department of Health was equally reluctant at first. “Why I didn’t know about this??? Do anyone knows about the risks [sic]?” wrote Joxel Garcia, then-director of the department, in an email to colleagues after a story about the cafe ran in the Washington Post in November. Singh had been in contact with other DOH officials for more than a month at that point. In another internal email to a colleague, DOH spokesperson Kristen Randolph wrote, “I love cats but this is a little icky.” Mostly, though, the emails— obtained by Washington City Paper through the Freedom of Information Act—reveal a series of delays and non-responses.
Initially, Singh planned to have two completely separate spaces—one with cats and another separate area with a kitchen—but it wasn’t going to be easy to have an air-tight division in the older property. Plus, the cafe portion would mean less room for cats. Ultimately, Singh has decided not to prepare or store any food or drinks on-site. Instead, Singh is looking to partner with a restaurant nearby, who will make, package, and deliver any food or drink listed on the cat cafe’s menu.
“They still get the cafe experience, but we’re not going to be a cafe,” she says. “I figured people are here for the cats anyway.” Plus, outsourcing means DOH will no longer be involved.
Guests will make reservations for hour-long slots and pay a cover fee. Singh has yet to decide exactly how much she will charge, but guests will be required to pay a portion up front to avoid too many no-shows.
A long list of people are already waiting to get in the door. In February, Singh gave fans the opportunity to join the “Gentlemeow’s Club,” which provides access to the cat cafe before the general public. Nearly 4,000 people have signed up. After seeking three part-time volunteers to work for free, Singh received 66 applications in two days. She also launched a Kickstarter campaign in March and raised her $15,000 goal in 24 hours. By the end of the 30 days, she’d raised more than $35,000 from 705 backers. To thank supporters, Singh posted a breathlessly euphoric video of herself in a cat-print onesie. “This is my new favorite memory of my entire life!” she said. “You guys are so nice!”
In addition to that money, Singh is funding the place completely out of her own pocket, although she declined to say the exact size of her investment.
Singh chalks up the mania over the cat cafe to a simple unfulfilled niche: “Anytime you have a product that people are so excited about, that means there’s a completely unmet need in the marketplace,” she says. Plus, she points out that the way people interact with animals has not evolved much; you either volunteer at a shelter or you have a pet. Both options tend to be big time commitments. “There’s nothing in between,” she says. “There’s no ‘go have a fling…’ There’s no ‘go on a date.’ That’s really what the cat cafe does.”
Not everyone is excited by the idea. Namely, her parents. “They don’t get it. They just don’t get it,” says Singh, who was raised by an IT consultant dad and a stay-at-home mom. Her mom doesn’t understand why people wouldn’t just go to a shelter if they want to pet a cat. “And my dad thinks it’s a huge risk because he knows I’m putting in everything I’ve saved over the last two years.”
The overwhelming response has helped convert Singh’s mom into a believer. She now openly expresses how proud she is and even helped paint the walls of the cafe. Her dad, on the other hand, is still asking about how her non-existent job applications are coming.
But Singh, a perpetual optimist, is hopeful that even her father will come around. “I can’t be successful for two weeks. I can’t be successful for two months,” she says. “To convince him, it will take long-term success.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery