Opinion: Lessons learned from opening a cat cafe (and my top four cat videos)

When Denver Cat Company was simply a twinkle in my eye, the United States was virgin territory for the cat café fad.

Denver Cat Cafe. (Courtesy of Denver Cat Cafe)

What I’ve learned

Denverite invites thoughtful people to submit op-eds about Denver. This is the first in a series we’re launching called What I’ve Learned.

Denver Cat Cafe. (Courtesy of Denver Cat Cafe)
Denver Cat Company. (Courtesy of Denver Cat Company)

By Sana Q. Hamelin

When Denver Cat Company was simply a twinkle in my eye, the United States was virgin territory for the cat café fad. We were pretty close to being the first cat café in the country, but got beat out by Oakland’s Cat Town, and the now-defunct Planet Tails in Naples, Florida, that opened two days before we did.

When I signed the lease for our space on Tennyson Street exactly two years ago, I didn’t know the first thing about retail, coffee shops, or owning a brick-and-mortar business. But when you put all your cats in one basket, you learn fast.

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Here’s what I’ve learned.

Denver is pretty business-friendly. Yes, I know, hear me out: I was in on the U.S. edition of the cat café phenomenon from the beginning and I heard from people all over the country who were trying to pull it off in their cities. Let me tell you, no city was easier to work with than Denver in figuring out how to fit this crazy concept into the zoning code. Our business bureaucracy may be the least obstructive only in comparison to other cities, but hey — credit where it’s due.

A niche concept does best in a bigger, more densely populated city. I learned that quickly, even though it was relatively easy to start up. Most cat cafés in American cities were started by people who (like me) are gaga about cats. We all had the same detailed business plan:

Step 1: Cats
Step 2: ?????
Step 3: Profit!

The cat café owners in Manhattan and San Francisco figured out what might be workable at Step 2 and charged their customers $15-$25 per hour. Naturally, they promptly realized they could escalate retirement plans by a couple of decades. The one in Naples, sadly, went out of business after a year. We landed somewhere in the middle because Denverites will shell out only so much money to pet kitties.

Denver Cat Company. (Courtesy Denver Cat Company)
Denver Cat Company. (Courtesy Denver Cat Company)

It’s a good thing I was ready and willing to scoop a lot of litter. You cannot put a young business in the hands of employees, no matter how able or trusted. This virtue was born of necessity at Denver Cat Company since we were undercapitalized from the get-go, so the cat café ended up receiving the kind of tending that only an owner can supply. Without it, we would not have built a good reputation or popularized a new concept in a tough market.

I have a limitless capacity to love all the kitties. But I am still thrilled to see them go home with their new humans. And although I always knew I loved cats, I never really knew how much they loved us back. Creating a space whose only purpose is to spread the love between cats and humans has made Denver that much more of a happy place.

A business that is a labor of love — as your local cat café certainly is — functions exactly like having a baby in many ways. For one, you will love it more for what it is than for what it can do for you. And second, you will become an integral part of a community, invested in your neighborhood, creating joint memories that will outlive your cattery. And it was thus that I learned that being a part of the childhood memories of Denver’s kids is kind of a special thing.

Denverite asked. These are my four favorite cat videos.

Cats Playing Patty Cake (with Translation)

Cat Fights a Cat Statue

Two Cats Talking to Each Other

Cat vs. Cat & Printer (The Translation)

Sana Q. Hamelin. (Courtesy of Sana Q. Hamelin)
Sana Q. Hamelin. (Courtesy of Sana Q. Hamelin)

Sana Q. Hamelin is a cat lady turned lawyer turned crazy cat lady. Originally from Pakistan, Sana worked primarily in the legal field in San Francisco and Denver until her passion for cats led to Denver Cat Company — a cat café featuring adoptable felines that is located at 3929 Tennyson St. She now splits her time between the café, the law, and obsessively monitoring Yelp reviews.

Denverite invites thoughtful people to submit op-eds about Denver. This series is called What I’ve Learned. We’ve also launched our One Big, Crazy Denver Idea series this week. Pitch your op-ed to us at tips@denverite.com.