Fourteen months ago, The Leader brought news of Houston’s very first “Cat Cafe.” The unusual business signed a lease for a free-standing cottage located at 508 Pecore St. in the Heights in late 2016. At that time, Renee Reed, founder/owner of El Gato Coffeehouse Cat Cafe, had a vision for the structure’s 1,150 square feet that included colorful walls, big windows, coffee – and live cats. On Feb. 17, 2018, El Gato will celebrate its first year in business as well as the addition of its food truck, and the cafe’s 100th adoption of formerly homeless kitties.
The “cafe” or food preparation portion of El Gato was always part of the plan, but took time to bring to fruition. “The city of Houston’s health department requires that we maintain a separate space from the cats for food handling,” Reed explained. “Originally, we were going to add a shipping container on the property where consumables could be made, but that didn’t work out. Instead, we’re launching the food truck.”
The truck will sit in the parking lot and serve tacos, muffins, cakes, cookies, biscuits and cinnamon rolls. Reed and her team mates are also expanding their cat-themed beverage line including their specialty Es-purr-esso and Cat-puccino. Customers are encouraged to enjoy food and drinks at outside tables, or venture into the “cat lounge” located in the cottage across the lot for some feline face-time.
The lounge portion is pleasing, peaceful and hard to resist. Dark Oak dining tables and large, padded benches beckon one to stay. Interesting furniture and cat-friendly sculptures dot the space. The cheery colors and sunlight pouring in make it an inviting place to socialize, study, read, work and play with the cats.
The best part of El Gato are the certainly the animals. Each is social, affectionate and available for adoption to a loving home. Reed works with the Houston Human Society so they are all spayed or neutered, vaccinated, micro chipped, and temperament-tested. There is a veterinary technician on staff at El Gato and each team member is trained in adoption screening. The adoption fee for a cat is $75, which is less than half the cost of the medical care, and a reasonable investment for a loving companion “fur” life.
Still, how does this cafe pay its bills? An hourly fee is charged customers to visit the cat lounge based on age, or if he or she is an “El Gato frequent flier.” Many are. “The cover charge is the only way to create a sustainable business model. We’ve kept it going for a year now, and hoping there are more to come,” Reed stated with a smile.
The activities held in the lounge are not limited to chewing, sipping and petting. There is also an extensive schedule of events and classes such as yoga with cats, crafting with cats, cat bingo night, and the popular painting with cats. (No, flying cat fur has not presented a problem, says Reed.)
The first cat cafes appeared in Japan a decade ago. The country is densely populated, and so many Japanese live in small apartments and very few own pets. Instead of heading to a bar to relax in the evenings, they often go to cat cafes and play with kitties. The concept is now showing up world-wide.
Reed did her homework before signing the lease for El Gato; she visited cat cafes in the U.S. to learn everything she could. There are about 32 in the U.S. The only other one in Texas, the Blue Cat Cafe, is in Austin.
“When I would visit, I would try to speak with regular customers to get feedback. One woman told me that she often sits sipping coffee and petting cats for hours on end. She called it ‘free therapy’,” Reed stated.
Megan Rodgers has been working with Reed at El Gato for months and she enjoys her work.
“I love the interaction with people and with the cats too, [and] helping the pets find great homes is very rewarding for me,” said Rodgers. “There is something about it all that is magical. It’s just about impossible to leave in a bad mood.”