When Amy Leone and her daughter, of South Fayette Township, sat down Saturday morning to sip coffee and eat a fresh chocolate chip cookie, they were waiting for something more than the typical Starbucks experience.
Leone and her daughter were eagerly anticipating their 11 a.m. reservation to lounge with cats in Colony Cafe in downtown Pittsburgh.
Colony Cafe is Pittsburgh’s first cat cafe, which adds Pittsburgh to a list of cities across the world that host cat cafes. Cat cafes serve food and beverages like typical diners and coffeehouses, but with a twist — customers sit at tables where cats roam free, weaving around chair legs and cups of steaming coffee.
Some, including Colony Cafe, relegate the felines to a separate room so that customers can separate their cat and coffee experiences. The Cat Loft is enclosed behind glass walls on the second floor allowing people to observe from the bottom floor as the cats roam the room.
Cat Flower Garden in Taipei, Taiwan, is often credited as the first cat cafe, which the owners started in 1998 as an attempt to make their eatery stand out from the crowd, according to a Munchies article. The trend later spread to Europe before the idea was adopted by entrepreneurs in American cities by in late 2014.
The first cat cafe in the United States, Cat Town Cafe, opened in Oakland, California, in October 2014, followed by cafes in cities like Denver, New York and Portland. Unlike many of the international cat cafes, most American locations tend to partner with shelters or other animal rescue organizations to populate their cafes with cats that customers can then adopt.
Just months after the first American cat cafe opened, Tony Wang opened San Diego’s The Cat Cafe in January 2015. Wang had to raise the funds through family and friends to open his entrepreneurial initiative.
“We heard about a cat cafe in Paris and heard there were waits of up to two months to get a reservation,” Wang said. “We thought that if it was successful in Paris, we could do something similar here.”
Since its founding, The Cat Cafe has facilitated the adoption of 219 cats and continues to offer its customers a full supply of cats and coffee daily, according to its website.
Colony Cafe established a partnership with Animal Friends, a local animal resource center and rescue shelter, to supply cats to the cafe. Four of Colony Cafe’s cats have already been adopted since its opening, but Animal Friends ensures they have a constant supply of cats in need of adoption.
“It’s a different atmosphere if you are trying to adopt,” Sue Hendrickson, who opened the cafe with her husband Erik, said. “You do not have to go to a shelter and see them through a cage, but you can actually sit in the room with them and interact and see what they are like.”
The trend came to Pittsburgh on Feb. 16, when Colony Cafe opened its doors for the first time. A handful of patrons managed to secure reservations for the establishment’s first hours in the Cat Loft, an enclosed section on the second floor of the cafe that currently contains nine cats.
Though the Cat Loft has been open for more than two weeks now, reservations are still required. Most weekend and many weekday reservations are booked three weeks out through the third week of March.
Patrons who book their reservations in advance are allowed to take their food and drinks up to the Cat Lounge. Guests who are just there for the coffee or who are waiting for their hour session can relax in the cafe and browse the wall of photos of famous people with cats including Andy Warhol and Morgan Freeman.
Guests can reserve one-hour time slots for $8 in order to enter the Cat Loft, and most of the reservations since the opening have been booked in advance in anticipation of the newest experience Downtown.
Bridget Lazecko, a sophomore psychology and anthropology major, booked reservations for her and her friends two weeks in advance to spend an hour on Saturday in the Cat Loft.
“The whole cafe had a very warm and friendly vibe to it,” Lazecko said. “The loft was very cozy and had many spaces in which you could sit back and just enjoy being with the animals.”
The Hendricksons opened Colony Cafe after they moved to Pittsburgh in July 2016. They previously lived in Brooklyn and worked in corporate communications — Erik for media relations at an international law firm and Sue for employee communications at an international bank. Now in their mid-40s, they have decided to embark on a new endeavor to open a cat cafe.
“We had been to the cat cafes in Brooklyn, and we thought this could be a good second act for us,” Sue said.
The Hendricksons have received largely positive responses from people, and they enjoy watching their customers leaving the Cat Loft “pretty blissed out.”
Although Colony Cafe has made its mark in Pittsburgh as the first cat cafe, it also independently performs its role as a coffeehouse. Guests do not have to enter the second floor Cat Loft but can remain in the first floor cafe to be greeted with the aroma of Ruby Coffee Roasters brews as they peruse the selections of coffee on a chalkboard on the wall.
Glass display cases lining the counters feature pastries and other savory snacks, and guests can order a number of dishes for lunch or dinner, all of which are made in-house. By evening the coffeehouse also offers its owner-curated collection of wine.
“We offer wines that normally cannot be found in Pittsburgh,” Erik said as he explained how they taste-tested and deliberately chose a distinct selection of wines. “The Colony Cafe is a fun place to enjoy wine from a variety of places.”
The wine is one of the distinguishing features of the cafe, but they also pride themselves on their food and coffee, which was personally selected by the owners after trying many varieties.
“The coffee, food and wine isn’t an afterthought, we have a really strong program, hand-crafted espresso drinks with quality beans,” Sue said. “We don’t want to be only the cat cafe, we want people to enjoy all of our offerings.”
Through their support for animal adoption and rescue services and their commitment to providing quality food and drink, the Hendricksons hope to make their mark on the Pittsburgh cultural scene with this new experience.
“People are coming to the destination for the cats, but we want them to enjoy everything too,” Sue said. “It is so satisfying when people come up to us and say, ‘Thank you for coming to Pittsburgh, this is my new favorite place.’”