If you’re craving some kitty snuggles along with your espresso, you’re in luck: Cat cafes may soon be coming to the Des Moines metro.
This frisky business model, which first originated in Taiwan, is growing in popularity here in the U.S.
Coffee Cats could be the first such venture to open in the Des Moines metro. Owner Mary Jankowski hopes to open the coffee shop in Valley Junction in 2020.
“I want it to be very comfortable, very homey,” Jankowski said. ”My reference is my grandmother’s farmhouse kitchen. I want it to be as comfortable as that.”
What is a cat cafe?
Cat cafes are what they sound like — places where you can drink a cup of coffee and munch on a pastry while cats freely roam around you.
The trend started in Taiwan and spread to Japan, where themed restaurants and cafes are nothing out of the norm. But the phenomenon grew, and cat cafes started popping up in larger U.S. cities and along the coasts.
Now, cat cafes are starting to spread to the heartland. Minneapolis opened its first cat cafe, The Cafe Meow, early last year. The Felius Cat Cafe opened in Omaha last September.
Opening a cat cafe in Valley Junction
Coffee Cats plans to open in a 1,900-square-foot space at 312 Fifth St. in West Des Moines.
Scott Cutler is redeveloping the building that has roots to the early 1900s. The cat cafe will occupy the bottom floor, with three apartments above. A second structure will have offices on the first floor and two apartments on the upper level. There will be a mix of market-rate and affordable units.
Cutler said he hopes to have the development finished by summer 2020.
Jankowski, a retired health counselor, first learned about the cat cafe concept three years ago. She said she was inspired to open the business by a desire to have a place where adults with special needs could work and volunteer.
Her own daughter has autism and has struggled to find work, Jankowski said.
She wants to partner with a shelter to staff the cafe with adoptable cats that customers can meet and take home.
“Why not offer a place that people can come and hang out with them and potentially adopt them and help an agency out that needs to get cats into good homes?” Jankowski said.
Coffee favorites, such as espressos and lattes, will be available. She is also looking for a bakery to provide those goods.
Cat cafe customers will pay an hourly rate to occupy the play area. People singularly interested in coffee will be able to pay and grab their beverage. Play-area times can be reserved online as well.
The coffee shop and the cat play area will be in separate areas divided by a wall to follow Iowa health regulations, Jankowski said. Working with state health officials has been a learning experience for both parties, she said.
She’s waiting for her tenant improvement plans to be approved by the city of West Des Moines, and she’s going through the approval process with the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals.
“It’s just been a lot of talking and educating people,” Jankowski said.
Jankowski isn’t alone in looking at opening a cat cafe in Des Moines. Sarah Pool is working on plans for the Scratching Post Lounge, although she has not found a location yet.
Instead of opening a full-fledged cafe, the space would have a Keurig bar where people could make their own coffee. By having only closed containers, Pool said she hopes to avoid the state’s stringent animal and food regulations.
“Brew it yourself with your cat-hair risk,” she said.
Regulations with cat cafes
Iowa’s food code regulations prohibit animals on the premises of any food establishments, including coffee shops, restaurants and grocery stores, though there are specific exemptions for support animals, said Mark Speltz, of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals.
Business owners looking to start a cat cafe would need to request a variance from the department. The number of people requesting variances to allow for animals has been increasing, Speltz said, particularly for dogs on outdoor patios at restaurants and taprooms.
For a business such as Jankowski’s idea, it could work because of the separation between the cat play area and the cafe. But she would have to be conscious not to mix supplies between areas, Speltz said.
But Jankowski said she already has a plan for that, including separate entrances for the cat area and the coffee shop. She is installing a window on the interior wall, where coffee drinkers can watch the cats.
“Cat people are really excited about this idea. The response has been positive,” Jankowski said. “So far, so good.”