As cat café heads to D.C., founder readies to navigate city rules

Media Credit: Desiree Halpern | Contributing Photo Editor

The Humane Society will provide cats for Crumbs and Whiskers, D.C.'s first cat café. It will offer coffee drinks and the chance to play with cats.

Updated: Jan. 24, 2015 at 7:08 p.m.

Think you have what it takes to open a cat café in D.C.?

A cat café is exactly what you think it is: A shop that combines coffee, tea and treats with furry companions, courtesy of the Washington Humane Society. Such a café, to be called Crumbs & Whiskers, is looking to open this year.

The first cat café opened in Taipei about 15 years ago, but the cat café movement has only recently made its way to the United States. Since the nation’s first cat café opened its doors in Oakland, Calif. in the fall, similar shops have sprung up in cities from San Diego to New York City with names like “Purringtons” and “Meow Parlour.”

Crumbs & Whiskers is set to open in the summer, but founder Kanchan Singh said the official opening date hinges on the zoning process, which can take from as little as two months to as long as seven. Singh announced in November that she hoped to open the first cat café in the District.

The city classifies businesses into pre-existing categories to determine which zoning rules apply to them, and there are currently no zoning regulations in place for a cat café. As a result, the District’s zoning administrator classified the cat café as an animal boarding facility, leaving it to go through a special exemption process.

“There’s nothing that exists for a facility that does food and animals because, according to the food code, you cannot have animals, strictly, and that’s illegal. So zoning has nothing for an establishment like that because, theoretically, they shouldn’t exist,” Singh said.

Singh said she’s aiming to create a scenario where both the cats and people benefit: While guests enjoy their cappuccinos with kittens, the Washington Humane Society finds loving owners.

“The animal lover in me wants to get as many cats adopted and out of the shelter so these cats can have a better life. The café-loving person in me wants to create a really cool café experience for people,” Singh said.

The Washington Humane Society now houses more than 300 cats, with more being added to its facilities every day. The Humane Society of the United States lists the Washington Humane Society as a “safe haven” for pets.

But it will be up to the city to determine the number of cats that will be allowed in the café.

“If you have more than ‘X’ amount of cats, you become a shelter. There are certain classifications, and I can’t be classified as a shelter or a pet store,” Singh said, adding that she is going to propose a shop that will have up to 20 cats at one time.

After the classification process, business owners like Singh must secure a location that meets all D.C. requirements, file a zoning application, notify every business within a 200-foot radius of the proposed establishment and contact the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Then a hearing date is set for two to three months later, but could be delayed further if the board cannot come to an agreement.

Singh plans to fund the project through a Kickstarter campaign, where those who donate will receive perks like early access to the café. Guests will be required to make a reservation and pay a cover fee to enter, after which tea, coffee and desserts will be complimentary.

Singh said she has heard of two entrepreneurs before her who tried to start a cat café in the city, but they eventually abandoned the idea because of the hurdles they would have had to overcome in the zoning office and D.C. Department of Health. But she said avoided some potential issues with the health department by deciding to have the food supplied by a tea and coffee company rather than preparing it in-house.

The café will have floor seating, like cushions and floor couches, to put “everybody on the same level” and make it easy for guests and cats to mingle, Singh said.

She said she hopes to create a fully interactive experience, with guests choosing to do everything from lounging with a purring animal on their laps to playing with a few kittens at once. To create this environment, Singh said she modeled the café after the hostels, which are designed in a way that strangers become friends.

“I expect people to come in and make new friends because they’re all playing with cats and they’re kind of playing with each other,” Singh said.

This post was updated to reflect the following clarification:
The post was updated to distinguish the Humane Society of the United States, a national organization whose headquarters is photographed, from the Washington Humane Society, which would provide the cats for the café.

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