By Elisha Sauers The Virginian-Pilot
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Freeda Steele shares the ups and downs of trying to open Hampton Roads' 1st Cat Cafe. Other entrepreneurs have faced obstacles in their endeavors to open a cat cafe. A cat cafe is basically a coffee shop where customers go to get a caffeine fix, maybe some Wi-Fi and, oh yeah, cats are part of the ambiance.
She wanted to serve steaming espresso and tasty nibbles, just like any other coffee shop.
But by peppering cats into her business, Freeda Steele's coffee shop wasn't going to be like anything Norfolk had ever seen.
Catnip Cat Cafe, proposed last fall, raised either the concerns or hackles of public health officials with its unorthodox mix of fur and food.
Rather than let purr-fect be the enemy of good, Steele opens Hampton Roads' first "cat cafe" this weekend, albeit not exactly in the form she initially imagined.
She believes she has scaled back her concept enough to keep the cats in play and the health department away.
In other words, Catnip will be less Starbucks, more waiting room at an auto repair shop -- at least in the beginning.
Customers can expect places to sit, self-serve pots of regular and decaf, tea bags, hot water and possibly some vending-machine snacks in the 2,000-square-foot space, composed of two side-by-side units at 2200 Colonial Ave.
The business will make a Facebook announcement sometime before Saturday explaining how to make reservations online. This weekend's "soft opening" will only allow for a handful of customers to come so the staff can observe the animals and work out kinks.
"Since I'm paying rent and not making any money yet, I've decided that getting open is much better than playing games" with the city, Steele said. "It is all about the cats anyway, so hopefully the public will be accepting of that."
First, some terminology: A cat cafe is not a cafe you bring your pet to. It's not a restaurant that serves feline delicacies. It's a coffee shop where customers go to get a caffeine fix, maybe some Wi-Fi and, oh yeah, cats are part of the ambiance.
Cat cafes emerged in Taiwan, then gained popularity in Japan, the same area that brought Hello Kitty into the world.
In the past few years, such establishments have spread to American cities, though their proprietors have often faced rigorous hurdles to meet zoning and food-safety regulations.
If you're not a cat lover, you may not grasp the appeal. But for many people, particularly apartment dwellers or those with allergic roommates, having a cat isn't an option.
The court of public opinion already seems to have rendered a verdict on Catnip. In a matter of months, Steele's Facebook page has collected over 5,000 followers.
Recently, she posted information about hiring and was flooded with 200 resumes for just five part-time positions.
Initially, Steele said it seemed like the health department would be OK with her plan: a wall with a door to separate the cats from the coffee bar. Then, more issues about the carpeting, the separation of spaces and square-footage arose.
"We see it as a very interesting challenge," said Norman Grefe, environmental health manager for Norfolk Public Health.
The city code on restaurants, adopted from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, prohibits animals in food establishments, with the exception of service animals, he said. Because no cat cafe had been approved yet in the state, the agency consulted with the city law office and health officials in Richmond on how to review the business plan.
The department would have preferred one of Steele's suites to be used for the cafe and the other for housing the cats. That way, it could permit the food establishment at a separate address.
From a public health standpoint, the concern is clear.
"Animals could potentially be a source of pathogens, could potentially make people sick," Grefe said. "I mean, they shed."
Steele, on the other hand, doesn't want to give up so much of her space to the cafe. She asked if she could use just the bottom floor of one unit for it, but officials said dividing a suite would trigger building inspectors' involvement. Now her "cafe" is so minimal it doesn't fall under the health department's purview.
Angela Sidener, who is trying to open her own cat cafe, slightly beat Steele to the claim of first in Virginia.
She and her husband Jeff have rented two spaces in Richmond for their business. The cat lounge, known as Zoomies, had a soft opening at 1704 E. Main St. on Mother's Day.
Their hope is the cafe portion of their business, to be called Central Purrk at 1706 E. Main St., will open in the next few weeks after approvals.
"I believe it's almost equally as important," Sidener said.
Other entrepreneurs have faced obstacles in their endeavors to open a cat cafe.
Nyree Wright, for example, announced her plan to open a cat cafe in Old Town Alexandria in 2015. She still hasn't opened. "It's literally one of the most daunting processes I've ever encountered," Wright told The Virginian-Pilot in December.
The business opening this week in Ghent has already beaten the odds. That may be a result of Steele's determination to open, no matter how much she's had to adapt.
Her two suites are about 1 1/2 miles away from where she first went looking, in the high-traffic corridor of downtown's Granby Street. When faced with a zoning question, then some difficulty finding an open-minded landlord with affordable rent, she moved her idea outside the city center.
To avoid a drawn-out permitting process, Steele simplified to just the bare essentials: self-serve drip coffee, non-dairy creamer so that refrigeration wouldn't be necessary and disposable cups.
But, as Steele says, the main attraction is the cats. The Norfolk Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Billy the Kidden, another animal rescue, will loan about 20 cats to the business. They arrive this Thursday and Friday.
The idea is that customers will adopt them. Catnip's staff will be trained to process applications on the premises for SPCA. Customers interested in cats from Billy the Kidden will apply directly through that organization.
Catnip customers will be charged $10 per hour, which will include the beverages.
The cafe will take reservations online and walk-ins based on availability. Steele plans to offer monthly passes and perhaps another program called the "Frequent Feliner."
She believes she'll cap the number of patrons to 16 so that the cat-to-people ratio is "a little heavier on the cat side."
At the business Tuesday, Steele was hanging cat-related art on the walls. Rain had slowed her down from putting up the signs, but there was still much work to be done indoors.
With cat trees, hammocks, fuzzy blankets and pillows, she wasn't lacking in cat furniture. But for the humans? Most of the seating hadn't arrived yet.
Steele's husband, Chuck Blanch, will install mini-doors in the shape of cat heads for the animals to access rooms with the litter boxes. Those retreats are both upstairs and downstairs. A buzzer at the entrance will prevent kitties from slinking out the front door when customers arrive.
"They'll be free-range, like chickens," Steele said.
She hasn't lost focus on her dream to become more like a cafe. She plans to continue discussions with local officials to add more elements to the business.
"We're going to open and be all about the cats," Steele said. "We'll get (the rest) figured out."