D.C. learned this week that it could be getting a cat cafe by next year, and Twitter got more excited than a kitten chasing a laser pointer's red dot. The concept combines a coffee shop and a feline petting zoo; they're big in Asia, and cat cafes have opened stateside in the Bay Area and New York. But with cats come fur, hairballs and litter boxes. So how does all of this work in an establishment that also offers food service?
Under the current D.C. health code, only service animals are permitted in food establishments. But Crumbs and Whiskers founder Kanchan Singh has been in talks with the D.C. Department of Health as she looks for a space for her business, and thinks she's worked out a reasonable arrangement.
"Basically, after a couple of months of convincing, what the DOH and I agreed on is that the cat area must be completely sectioned off from the cafe area," Singh said.
That means that the cat cafe could actually be two separate but adjacent storefronts: One with a kitchen dishing out cake, ice cream and tea, and the other, a jungle gym for cats. Another option is to have a common entrance that leads to both businesses, but with completely segregated entrances to both.
Singh said that having a door from the cafe that leads directly into the cat area is not permitted. Any food served at Crumbs and Whiskers is "never even going to hit the cat cafe, until the customer takes it out themselves," she said.
The DOH would not comment specifically on Singh's plan, because no proposal has been formally submitted yet. Because the business will be the first of its kind on D.C., it's new territory for the agency, which is working with its lawyers to figure out how to proceed with a difficult-to-categorize business such as this one. "Moving forward, we will be working closely with our general counsel to address and consider future requests outside of our current legal food regulations," said a statement from the agency.
The cafe portion of the business would be governed by all the usual rules for a food establishment in the District. The cat portion must meet the requirements of the department of animal control, said Singh.
The square footage and design of the space will determine how many cats will be present. For a 1,000-square-foot space, Singh would be permitted to have about 15 cats. All of the cats will be available for adoption though the Washington Humane Society.
"Animal control and the Humane Society will tell me, 'For our cats to be healthy and happy, this is what the ratio should be,'" she said. Having spaces for cats to climb, rather than just roam around on the floor, opens up the chances that she could be allowed a few more cats.
As for the number of people that will be permitted to play with those cats at a time in this certain-to-be-mobbed business, Singh said that will come down to the fire department's recommendations, as well as the testing she plans to do before the cafe opens. She'll try to find out how many people in the space guarantees a good experience for both the cats and the humans. If the cats start to feel overwhelmed, they'll have their own private space in the back where they can hide out, use the litter box and sleep.
If all goes according to plan, the cafe would open next summer or fall, depending on how long it takes Singh to find a space and apply for a special zoning exemption to be classified as an animal boarding facility. She'll charge between $5 and $7 admission to the space, and will probably operate on a reservation system, to keep people from snuggling with the cats all day. She may also charge extra for kitty treats, which will be doled out "in very, very monitored quantities," but she hasn't decided yet.
Singh will be launching a Kickstarter, but she says that the cafe will go forward regardless of how much money it raises. The Kickstarter will allow her to give early access to a group of donors who will also serve as testers for the concept. The 24-year-old does not have any other investors: She says that the money for the cat cafe is coming from her personal savings, which she's built up over the last few years of living at home with her parents in Gaithersburg. As for what they think of their daughter's newest endeavor?
"They think I’m crazy," she said. "They’re praying for me right now."