The first cat cafe in Central Illinois: River Kitty Cafe is on the way
Though popular internationally, there aren't many cat cafes in the U.S. One of the businesses is just around the corner for Peoria.
Holly Walker is an eighth grade math teacher, mother of four and the future owner of River Kitty Cafe. The first cat cafe opened internationally in 1998, but the first American cafe was founded less than a decade ago in 2014. In Illinois, cat cafes are mostly in Chicago or surrounding suburbs.
“People often ask me ‘a cat lounge, what are you talking about?’” said Walker. “They look at me like I’m crazy sometimes.”
Walker says she got the idea while visiting a cat cafe during a work trip in Minnesota.
“I absolutely fell in love with it, from the first time I was in there,” she said. “Knowing the cats are from a shelter and knowing that the shelters are often overrun with many stray animals, having the cats there and visible and able to interact with the public increases the adoption rates.”
With four cats at home as evidence, Walker also has a lifelong affection for the animals. It all started with the barn cats outside her rural childhood home.
“I’ve fallen in love with cats from a very early age,” she said. “They have incredibly curious and inquisitive personalities. And on the other hand they’re also really chill. They’ll sort of lay in your lap and curl up and they’re happy not to have any excitement.”
Here's how it works, River Kitty Cafe will be split into two sections: the counter to order coffee with some sitting space and the cat lounge with adoptable pets. Walker says the building at 3226 North University Street already has a suitable design.
“Just looking online I found this former title, check cashing, kind of lending place,” she said. “I thought: ‘they already have the wall there, I’m going to go check this out.’ And after that the deal was done.”
Patrons enter through the coffee shop portion of the building and can rent time with the cats at a rate of $12 an hour. You'll have to be six or older to enter the cat room and Walker will provide guidance on how to handle the animals. All the cats come from Peoria County Animal Protections Services, or PCAPS, shelter.
PCAPS director Becky Spencer says the Association of Shelter Veterinarians has guidelines for overseeing cat cafes. PCAPS will help determine the number of cats, care procedures and the selection.
“It will be the cats that are more social. The more friendly, outgoing cats so that folks there have a great experience,” said Spencer. “But also we want to be careful to not give her nothing but black cats or nothing but orange cats, so we’ll do our best to give her a good mix.”
Spencer says the plans aren't set in stone yet, but they hope to have everything needed for adoption on-site, so a person could potentially meet their new pet at the cafe and adopt them the same day.
“There is still a huge overpopulation problem with cats in our area,” she said. “So we’re always looking for creative venues and ways to adopt cats.”
Spencer says they've done "pop-up" cat cafes before, just for a day or a weekend, but those don't offer a continuous, ongoing adoption opportunity like the River Kitty Cafe.
With a source for cats secured, Walker moved on to a source for coffee. She's currently purchasing and installing equipment like espresso machines and learning how to make the drinks. The coffee itself will come from Pennsylvania-based independent roaster Kitty Town Coffee.
“I was scrolling through a sponsored ad for Kitty Town Coffee and thought to myself: ‘I wonder if this is any good?’” said Walker. “So I ordered a sampler pack and it was amazing, so I signed up to be a wholesaler through them.”
Zanetta Kok is the founder of Kitty Town Coffee, who have around 75 wholesale partners, including other cat cafes.
“It’s always a really nice partnership,” said Kok. “Because of course, we’re always very interested in their mission, as they’re interested in ours.”
Kitty Town Coffee's mission includes donating a portion of sales to shelters, their Facebook page says "every bag sold feeds a kitty in a shelter for a week."
Kok says, in this case, PCAPS will likely receive the donations.
“Usually when we’re working with, like, a cat cafe, then we’ll actually donate to whatever shelter they’re working with,” Kok said. “We really try to work with our wholesale partners to offer it to somebody who is local to them.”
Supporting the local shelter's adoption efforts and donating through coffee sales is important to Walker. But she also hopes to create a place that offers something different than an average coffee shop: comfort and support.
“College students, or people who live in apartments that can’t own pets and they miss their cat. Their cat is back home and they want to spend time with a cat,” Walker offered as an example. “Or you have people who live with significant others or family who have allergies and they can’t have a pet in their house. It just offers a unique way to have that interaction.”
There's a lot left to do and questions remain for Walker about bringing on more employees and balancing the new business with another year of teaching. Walker is aiming for a “mid-summer” opening for River Kitty Cafe and working with Bradley University’s Small Business Development Center.
However, the cafe has picked up traction online, with over two thousand followers and a daily flood of cat photos from possible future patrons. A promising sign for the future of Peoria's first cat cafe. You can find more information, including frequently asked questions, on their Facebook page here.