By Elisha Sauers
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) What is a Cat cafe? Well, it’s not a cafe you bring your cat to. It’s not a cafe that serves cat. It’s a business that provides the company of cats and coffee — and sometimes room for laptops. Wi-fi usually accompanies the whiskers.
Freeda Steele has her mind set on having a new kind of business next year, even if she has to claw her way through a hairball of a permitting process.
This is a tail of how an everyday cat lover decided she wanted to open Hampton Roads’ first cat cafe.
Before Steele had reached the age of 40, she discovered she had breast cancer. At the same time, she and her husband were separating. Though not one to dwell on hardships, Steele says that tough time gave her clarity on the life she wanted after — one with a legacy and no regrets.
“I don’t want to be on my deathbed, thinking ‘Why didn’t I do that?’ ” she said.
Cat cafe: It’s not a cafe you bring your cat to. It’s not a cafe that serves cat. It’s a business that provides the company of cats and coffee — and sometimes room for laptops. Wi-fi usually accompanies the whiskers.
Warning: The following story is littered with cat puns.
The concept of the cat cafe seems to have started in Taiwan and gained popularity in Japan. The trend has worked its way to the Western hemisphere, with locations in San Diego, New York, L.A. and Washington. There’s no definitive source for cat cafes in the United States, but most estimates put the clowder between 20 and 25, all pouncing on the market within the past three years.
Some people find relaxation in petting or playing with cats. Some have landlords restricting them from having their own at home. The cafes become an urban refuge for both the animals and those craving their affection.
“Anyone who’s an animal lover, they’re like, ‘Yeah, I get it.’ It’s like a Starbucks,” Steele said, “with cats.”
Steele has had her eye on a location in downtown Norfolk. The property is in the city’s Vibrant Spaces, an incentive program intended to draw businesses to Granby Street by offsetting startup costs and providing discounted rent to new businesses.
But before the city will consider offering her a lease, Norfolk must first be willing to change the zoning code for a category of business that, as of meow, doesn’t exist.
Steele has submitted a request to include “kennels” in the downtown district of Freemason and part of Granby. Muddy Paws, a pet store with grooming services, operates in the same area but provides boarding at its other site near Lamberts Point.
City planner Susan Pollock Hart said a cat cafe, though unique, would fit within Norfolk’s kennel definition. The Planning Commission will have the opportunity to discuss the proposed zoning change at a meeting Jan. 26. City Council would have the final say over the decision.
Even if the council approves it, that measure would only scratch the surface. Steele would then submit her business proposal for a special public review. And if she wanted to move into a Vibrant Spaces storefront, the council would vote on the lease.
This first step “isn’t really about her,” Pollock Hart said. “This is: ‘Do we want to allow a kennel in the D-3 district?’ ”