A place that serves coffee and is also filled with felines, that is a “cat cafe” in a nutshell. They're all the rage in Japan. They're gaining popularity in the United States. And by January 2016, Melissa Pruitt will have established the first official cat cafe in the Valley.
“People love cats,” Pruitt says. “People love to relax. It’s a good time.”
The place will be called “La Gattara,” Italian for “cat lady.” Pruitt is a 38-year-old property manager living in Tempe, and she plans to base her café in Old Town Scottsdale (though she's still searching for a precise location). She imagines a cozy coffeehouse with baked goods, comfortable furniture, and 12 to 15 cats roaming freely. Between sips of java, customers will be able to pet and cuddle the critters at will.
“Cats are proven to be a stress-reducer,” says Pruitt. “There’s a new cat café in Washington, D.C., called Crumbs & Whiskers. They have literally been booked ever since they opened. You have to put reservations in online.”
When cat cafes started opening in Asia in 1998, they served a therapeutic purpose. In dense cities like Taipei and Tokyo, not everyone can own a pet, and the cafés gave lonely urbanites a chance to stroke a furry friend.
Yet the cafés have popped up across the Western Hemisphere as well: The North American Cat Café Embassy is a kind of business league based in Toronto, and it claims around 40 cat cafes as members. Unlike the original Japanese versions, these cafes have a broader purpose — to help stray cats and find them new homes.
“When it first started in Japan, the cats were not adoptable,” notes Pruitt. But the North American cafes are usually hotspots for animal education. Owners put a stress on spaying and neutering, and most of the cats come from animal shelters. The free-range atmosphere isn’t just good for people; it also keeps cats out of cages. La Gattara will have a policy of caring for cats until they are adopted.
“If a cat is put in a shelter environment, and it’s in this little box, it’s not going to be its true self as a cat. It gives [prospective owners] more notice.”
Most cat cafes have three separate rooms – the cat lounge, a hidden compartment for litter boxes, and the cafe section where baristas prepare coffee and snacks. Pruitt hopes to combine the cat lounge and café, but only if the Health Department permits her. Otherwise they'll stay separate. Eventually, Pruitt hopes to serve wine as well.
“We always had cats growing up,” Pruitt recalls of her childhood in rural Illinois. “But I really do believe [loving cats] is in my blood. It’s like that nurture versus nature thing.”
Pruitt believes she inherited her ailurophile personality from her father. Although her father was the county sheriff, Pruitt only met him once — they went to the mall for lunch, talked about their medical history, and never once mentioned cats. But after her father passed away, Pruitt connected with his family and discovered his massive collection of cat-themed knickknacks, like photos and porcelain figurines. He would keep food in his car to feed local alley cats.
“He was the cat guy in the city,” says Pruitt. “Everybody knew it. It was all over the newspaper.”
La Gattara is just part of a personal renaissance for Pruitt. She moved to the Phoenix area in 2001, and she spent many years as a property manager. She recently lost 130 pounds and attended CatCon in Los Angeles, where a producer from The Ellen DeGeneres Show interviewed her. While Pruitt has been involved in benefits and charitable causes, La Gattara signals a major shift in her life plan.
“I’m finally going to do something that I love,” she says. “I know I have a huge compassion for cats, I know I’m great at this.”
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As for her own litter, Pruitt has four cats and one dog. “I always tell people, ‘That’s how many I have today.’ When they interviewed me for The Ellen DeGeneres Show, other people said how many they had, and the average was 10 cats. I thought, ‘Whew, I’m not there yet!’”
La Gattara’s IndieGogo fundraising campaign is pending. For more information about La Gattara and animal services in the region, visit the cafe’s Facebook page.