Opening a cat cafe is a challenge under the best of circumstances.
Opening a cat cafe during a pandemic? Well, that’s a whole other ball of yarn entirely.
“We were set to open in March, and then here comes Covid,” said Amanda Jones, the owner of Sunshine Kitty Catfe, which opened in June in the Grand Central District. “It was devastating.”
That Jones has been able to pull off opening a business in the age of Covid-19 is a testament to her dedication to cats – and to her vision of creating a cozy, relaxing place for humans to interact with them. She signed the lease on the space on 1st Ave. South in April of 2019 with the intention of opening in September, which, in retrospect, “was probably a bit unrealistic.” She also secured a partnership with Friends of Strays, a no-kill animal shelter, to provide the cats, all of which would be available for adoption.
September came and went, and Jones continued to work hard to turn her concept into reality. She spent many late nights on Pinterest searching for design inspiration. She studied Instagram accounts from other cat cafes. And then she went to work painting walls, installing shelves and hanging wallpaper (“I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy”). Finally, the space was ready in late January, and several weeks later, the first group of cats was moved in.
Jones was expecting the catfe, St. Pete’s first, to be a big hit and attract lots of people eager to check out something new. Then the pandemic hit and everything changed. Not only could she not open her new business, which was a huge blow in and of itself, there was also talk that the cats would be taken back to the shelter.
“I went home and cried,” Jones remembered. “If there are no cats, this isn’t real and it’s never going to happen.”
Besides feeling depressed and anxious, Jones had moments of panic, wondering “what have I done?” She’d left her job in nursing to put all her cat toys in this basket – now what?
Fortunately, the cats were able to stay, and taking care of them gave Jones a purpose to keep going. Through private adoption appointments, she was able to find homes for all of them. Another group of cats came to take their place, and on June 4, the catfe officially opened for business.
Because of Covid-19, things are little different than Jones originally imagined. For one, they’re not yet serving food and drinks, although that’s still the plan eventually. Only eight people can visit at a time, and the appointments are shorter – 45 minutes instead of an hour – to allow time for cleaning and sanitizing between guests.
“Now we have a public health component we’re responsible for that was never anticipated,” she said. “It’s a balancing act. We want to make our guests comfortable and give them an enjoyable experience, but we also want them to feel safe.”
The cats don’t seem to mind the change of plans. They can be found napping away their days on the catfe’s couches and window seats, or playing with the dozens of cat toys scattered across the floor. They can even venture upstairs to the coworking spaces that are available for humans who enjoy working in the company of cats.
About 20 cats and kittens currently call the catfe home, and nearly 30 have been adopted. Generally, they all get along – or they at least work out their differences pretty quickly, Jones said. Some of them acclimate to their new surroundings within hours. With others, it takes longer.
“One of them spent about a month under the couch in my office,” Jones laughed.
As for the visitors, it’s a mix of those who come in looking to adopt and those who just want to chill out and play with some cats. Either way, Jones is happy to provide a place where people can go and forget the outside world for awhile.
“It’s like a therapy session,” she said. “When I hear people laughing and having fun, I feel like ‘yes, I actually did it.’”
The Sunshine Kitty Catfe is located at 1669 1st Ave. South. It’s open Wednesday-Sunday from 11 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. Appointments are required.