Cat café controversy highlights challenges of doing business with cats

A recent controversy in a Toronto cat café has highlighted how difficult it is to run a business with felines.

Humane Society and owners at odds over how café is operated

A cat in the TOT Cat Cafe. (TOT Cat Cafe/Facebook)

Having a coffee with a cat close by was once a privilege only cat-owners could enjoy.

But today, cat cafés are offering that opportunity to all: order a hot beverage and enjoy it in the midst of adoptable cats in a cafe setting. There are currently 255 cat cafés in 37 countries and 143 cities, according to Coffee With Cats, a website that tracks cat cafés.

But a recent controversy in Toronto's only cat café, the TOT Café  on College Street, has highlighted how difficult it is to run a business with felines.

'Different standards'

Brandy Exner, a former employee of TOT Cat Café in downtown Toronto, said she found herself coming into the café even on her days off to feed the cats. She quit earlier this month saying she couldn't keep up with the around-the-clock care the cats needed.

"This job has been the most stressful job in my entire life," she wrote in a public Facebook post.

She accused the café owners of not being interested in caring for the animals that are the basis of their business. "They constantly forget to feed them, or give them water, or properly monitor their health," she said.

Kenneth Chai, the owner of TOT Cat Café, said that he and Exner had "different standards" for cat care. He said the cats are fed twice a day and their water bowl never goes dry.

"There's a lot of beautiful things happening in the café," said Chai. "We did nothing wrong. We prioritize the cats."

Exner said she wants to see the cat café shut down, and is filling out a complaint with the OSPCA.

Already, rumours of cat mistreatment have flashed across social media, which Chai said is hurting his business.

Adding fuel to the controversy, the cats that populate Chai's café have been taken back by the Toronto Humane Society.

The Humane Society supplied the café with shelter cats hoping the animals would get more exposure and be adopted by customers.

Barbara Steinhoff, the executive director at the Humane Society, said problems arose not over the treatment of the cats but the for-profit activities of the café. Chai was instituting a minimum purchase for anyone wishing to interact with the cats — a barrier the non-profit Humane Society did not approve of. 

Supply and demand

Keeping a steady stream of cats in a cat café has been an ongoing issue for several owners.

In Vancouver, a cat café called Catfé had its grand opening in December 2015, only to close temporarily less than a month later.

"Due to the overwhelming success of adoptions in our first few weeks, we have run out of cats!" read a sign on that café's social media feeds. The café had to wait until the next "shipment" of cats, hand-picked by the BC SPCA, arrived.

In Toronto, Chai had a unique but ultimately problematic way to keep the supply consistent. He would only adopt out cats when he was sure the Humane Society would replace them.

It was that practice combined with the purchase requirement to see shelter cats that caused the Humane Society to sever its relationship with TOT.
Cat cafés, including Montreal's Café Chat L'Heureux and Toronto's TOT the Cat Café, are spreading across Canada, offering coffee and kitty love. ( Café Chat L'Heureux)

So after Toronto's only cat café was left cat-less when the Humane Society removed all of its cats, Chai had to find another supplier. He said he's partnering with another cat rescue group in the city. There are currently only two cats in the café, but Chai would not say where they came from.

A nationwide fad

The concept of cat cafés began in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1998. Pairing cats with café culture became popular throughout Asia in the early 2000s, landing in Tokyo in 2005, and flourishing there.

Cat café are so advanced in Japan that there is legislation specifically governing cat café. Some Japanese cafés have introduced other animals, like goats, to differentiate themselves in a saturated market.

The first cat café in Canada, Le Café des Chats, opened in Montreal in August 2014. Since then, cat cafés have been a fad across Canada. In Chelsea, Que., there's even a café filled with only Siberian cats. The Siberian Cat Café bills itself as the world's first hypo-allergenic cat cafe.

Pet Me Meow still bills itself as Toronto's first cat café, even though it isn't.

It announced its intention to open in 2013, and began raising money via crowd-funding online. Through a slew of media coverage and social network hype, organizers raised almost $13,000. 

But it never opened. People who donated have barraged organizers for their money back, to no avail. A Pet Me Meow website remains live and includes a promotional video and a call for donations. 

It's one of at least two cat cafés in Toronto that announced their opening, raised money from the public, but never opened.

Cats and commerce

The business of serving coffee and cat companionship is a perilous one.

"You see cafés open and close all the time," said the Humane Society's Steinhoff. "Add cats into that and it can be a difficult situation."

Sanitary conditions for the cats — and the customers — are an ongoing concern. On one occasion, a cat contracted an upper respiratory infection at the TOT Cat Café and had to be removed. After that, Humane Society staff visited the café to retrain employees on cleaning communal cat spaces.

Provincial health regulations stipulate the cats and the food and beverage must be in separate rooms.

In addition to all of the unpredictability of cat care, café owners like Chai then have to worry about running a business.

"We pay our own way," said Chai, who noted many passersby believe his College Street location is part of a charity or city-sponsored venture.

He said the café comes up short sometimes and needs cat-lovers to buy something in addition to visiting the felines.

"We need the sales," he said.


Joshua Errett

Senior Producer, Features

Joshua Errett has been a reporter, editor and digital manager in Toronto since the early 2000s. He has been described as "a tornado of innovation, diligence and authenticity." Got a story idea?