PEABODY — Ice, the unofficial social director at the Kitty Cat Cafe, made the rounds on a recent Saturday morning, nonchalantly strolling up to patrons with inquisitive green eyes. Ice is usually the first feline that customers encounter when they enter Massachusetts’s only cat cafe, and he works hard, well, as hard as a cat can work, to make a good impression.
His reward? A well-deserved scratch behind the ears from cafe guests. Ice is the Blanche Dubois (minus the alcoholism) of the Kitty Cat Cafe. He always depends on the kindness of strangers, and those strangers have proven to be very kind. Thanks to his outgoing personality, Ice is being adopted.
He’s one of the reasons why an unassuming cafe in a Peabody strip mall has become one of the hottest destinations on the North Shore. The Kitty Cat Cafe allows customers to spend time with cats while enjoying a beverage or snack. An hour with the cats costs $12, and the positive reception has been overwhelming for owners and spouses Uri Harel and Cora Ducolon.
“We can’t keep up with the demand,” Harel said. “It’s sweet that people want to support us. We’re trying to add more slots, so people aren’t waiting a month to pet a cat.”
March reservation slots for the cafe were snatched up quickly (as of this writing, there is still some availability, and April reservations are now open). Feline enthusiasts pounce on events, such as yoga with cats. On Tail Thumping Thursdays, you can reserve three hours with the cats for $25.
“It’s really special,” Harel said while stroking 12-year-old Charlie, a rescue who was found living a rough life on the streets in Lynn. Charlie now wears custom-knit sweaters and can usually be found curled up on a customer’s lap. “We have to keep reminding ourselves we did this. It was a dream of ours. We didn’t need another job in our lives. So when there are quiet moments, we really try to step back and enjoy it.”
The cafe is home to a dozen foster cats, give or take, that are all adoptable. So far, 11 cats who have come through the cafe have found homes. The Kitty Cat Cafe is a nonprofit and partners with two volunteer shelters, PAWS Wakefield and PALS Animal Savers in Salem. Its owners have no aspirations of getting rich off of their clowder of cats. Their primary goal is to help down-on-their-luck cats find good homes.
The space, which was formerly a tile showroom, has been gradually evolving since the cafe opened last November. The couple launched their catnip-scented venture with no business background or formal feline training. Harel was an elementary school teacher and vice principal who is now a curriculum coordinator. Ducolon teaches high school English in Somerville. They are simply a husband and wife with a love of cats and a deep — some may say disturbing — appreciation of cat cafes.
Ducolon and Herel are the definition of ailurophiles. To date, they’ve visited 22 cat cafes around the world. Many of their vacations were purposely structured around visiting cat cafes.
The idea to open a cafe of their own began when their beloved cat Isabella crossed the rainbow bridge to the big kitty condo in the sky. They were feeling too heartbroken to get another cat, so, on a whim, Harel told his wife he was going investigate opening a cat cafe, explore the process of obtaining nonprofit status, and see about partnering with a shelter.
“I said, ‘Sure, fine.’ I never thought it would happen. I didn’t think he’d actually do it,” Ducolon recalled. “I thought maybe it would be something we’d do when we retire.”
“I started researching it, but It was always a pipe dream,” Harel added. “But I reached out to a shelter to see if they’d be interested in partnering, and they were. It started coming together from there.”
But opening a cafe wasn’t as simple as renting a space and filling it with cats. There are strict health codes in Massachusetts for businesses wanting to combine felines and food. They needed permission from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. At first the answer from the state was a resounding no, but eventually their request was approved.
The more challenging part was finding a town that would allow the cafe. Ducolon and Harel approached 20 cities and towns in Massachusetts that all said no. Peabody was the only city agreeable to the concept. Harel speculated that part of the reason they encountered negativity was because cat cafes require oversight from a municipality’s department of health and animal control officer.
There was also a bitter aftertaste from Purr, the state’s first cat cafe that opened in Brighton in 2017. Purr’s owner, customers, employees, and animal advocates were continually enmeshed in Facebook cat fights and finger wagging. The controversy and accusations continued until Purr closed in 2019.
Despite those initial obstacles, the Kitty Cat Cafe has thrived. More than 1,000 people have visited since it opened. The money those patrons spend to enter doesn’t just cover the cost of the space, it also provides food, litter, and toys, and covers medical expenses. Many of the cats, such as 23-pound diabetic Bailey, require daily medication. The idea of a cat cafe may sound like a frivolity for eccentrics (agree to disagree), but behind the scenes it’s all about helping cats stay healthy and finding them homes.
“The cats here get visibility,” said PALS volunteer coordinator Sandra Perry. “It’s really difficult to run a shelter and do adoptions entirely out of foster homes, which is what PAWS Wakefield does. Here people can interact with the cats. And it’s good for the cats to receive this level of socialization.”
The cats are up for adoption, but that doesn’t mean you can saunter into the cafe and leave with a cat the same day. Impulse adoptions are not allowed. There is paper work along with background checks to match the cats with humans. They also recommend you visit with a cat come multiple times before bringing it home.
There are people who show up at a cafe wanting to take a cat — or all the cats — home with them, and those who claim they’d never set foot in such an establishment.
Cat cafe skeptics normally drudge up two specific grievances: the smell and the cleanliness. For all those doubting Debbies who may be curious, the Kitty Cat Cafe has a dedicated litter box room with several boxes to accommodate all furry residents, along with a separate HVAC system. It also has a separate kitty quarantine room that also has its own HVAC system.
Because the cafe has limited hours (it’s open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, with occasional Wednesday mornings and evenings) and there is a 10-minute break between reservation slots, it leaves ample time for cleaning. Health code regulations also dictate that the cafe can’t have chairs or sofas upholstered in fabric. Every surface is required to be smooth so it can be wiped down and cleaned thoroughly.
Food and beverage options at the cafe take a backseat to the cats. There are self-service beverages and snacks available at the entrance, but there’s no pressure to purchase anything, and there’s no table service. The vibe is informal. If you want to come and do nothing but play with cats or read a book with a cat on your lap, have it at. There’s also a wall of cat-centric books that customers can borrow or take. Just know that you can’t bring your own cat, or any other animal, to the cafe.
Another cat cafe that’s slated to open this year in Boston’s Back Bay, called A Sanctuary Cafe, plans to have a more ambitious menu with, according to its website, “Locally sourced coffee, tea, and espresso drinks,” along with baked goods. It will also have a small bookstore.
But as unofficial cat cafe experts, Ducolon and Harel are keeping the focus on what people want, and that’s cats.
“We realized pretty early on that people coming to the cafe were more interested in the cats than coffee,” Harel said. “These are folks who might not be able to keep a cat in their apartment, or their cat might have passed away and they’re not ready to adopt another. No matter why they’re here, there’s something therapeutic about being around cats. The cats are also benefiting from the attention they’re getting. If we can keep that balance, then I know we’re doing it right.”
The Kitty Cat Cafe, 108 Newbury St. Unit C, Peabody, kittycatcafema.com, 978-595-2906. Note: Children under the age of 8 are not allowed.