It’s past 9pm and a group has congregated outside a shop window, wedged between an off-licence and an Indian-cum-Indo-Chinese restaurant on Bethnal Green Road in east London. Every now and then, a wide-eyed woman nudges the spectacled guy next to her and gives a little jump of excitement as she coos at a spotted kitten preening itself on a faux grass pedestal.
Welcome to the world of Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium, London’s first cat café, which finally opens its doors to the public on 1 March after more than a year of preparations. The claws are out as cat-loving ladies and gents of all ages are pouncing on the opportunity to sit, eat, drink and play with the 11 resident felines (Adamska, Artemis, Biscuit, Carbonelle, Donnie, Indiana, Loki, Mue, Petra, Romeo and Wookie). Three thousand bookings were made in the first four-and-a-half hours after the café announced its opening day, causing the website to crash, demonstrating just how many people wish to do as the Japanese do; Japan being, of course, where the cat cafe trend really kicked off after its first feline joint opened in Osaka 10 years ago.
When 31-year-old Aussie and self-confessed crazy cat lady Lauren Pears launched her crowdfunding campaign to introduce the cat café concept to the start-up streets of Shoreditch on Christmas Eve 2012, she never expected to exceed her £108,000 target in less than two months. The generosity was incredible – and none more so than that of Anna Kogan, a 30-year-old Moscow animal welfare organisation founder and London trader who has since become co-owner of the emporium, after investing enough money for Lauren to obtain an 'entrepreneur visa', which required access to £200,000 in investment funds.
“Lauren needed double the amount she had raised to cover so it was something I wanted to do,” says Anna. “I love animals, I’m a vegetarian and have two rescue cats called Bonnie and Clyde.”
Rehoming cats is something that’s close to Anna and Lauren’s hearts – all 11 cats were donated by people leaving the country that could no longer look after them – as is the welfare of the moggies themselves. The owners are keen to mention that they cannot re-home any more feline friends because “it’s not good for the cats,” says Laura, if the café becomes too crowded.
In pictures: London's first cat café
In pictures: London's first cat café
1/6 The first cat café in Britain
Two of the resident cats play in the café while another watches
2/6 The first cat café in Britain
The café serves cakes and tea on cat-themed pottery
3/6 The first cat café in Britain
Delighted guests play with two cats in the café
4/6 The first cat café in Britain
A visitor sits quietly with one of the 11 resident cats
5/6 The first cat café in Britain
Visitors play with cats at the café
6/6 The first cat café in Britain
The café is a cat's playground, which has been in the making for just over a year
The duo, who faced a series of delays – from waiting for builders to be granted permission, to resistance from those from above – also have the International Cat Care charity and cat behaviourists on board, while three of their eight employees have a basic cat care qualification to ensure the kitties stay happy.
“If the cats are sick of being around people, they can rest in the residing area [an elaborate bookcase], go behind it or hide out in the holes,” adds Anna. “The cats have a break for about an hour each afternoon when people won’t be allowed to visit too.”
The emporium’s page on the Indiegogo website indicates that there were 1,681 funders, donating everything from £5 to £20,000. Gemma Davies, 32, paid £500 to sponsor Artemis, a name that she got to choose herself. So what motivated her to get on board? “It sounds really sad but I’d really love to own cats. I had them growing up, but I can’t have them now as my boyfriend is allergic to them.”
Not all fundraisers are frustrated non-cat owners like Gemma, however. Gina Clarke, 48, has two cats of her own but bagged an ‘Emporium Earlybird’ offer for £120, allowing her to be one of the first people through the doors. “I just love cats and I’m intrigued by the concept. I work nearby so I thought that when I get stressed, I can come here to relax and then return to my desk.”
Another fundraiser shouts out, “My cat died!”, while a Ph.D. student admits that she’s battling with depression and hopes her VIP membership to the café will “save” her. None of this is lost on Lauren, who has sacrificed her salary and her free time, often working 14-hour days and weekends to turn her vision into a reality.
“I just want to make it a happy place to go,” she says. “When people leave the café feeling cheerful, it feels like the business is making a difference.”