With a name like ‘Michelle Furbacher’, it was destiny that this Vancouver local would have a passion for cats. And not just a passing penchant for a cute stray: we’re talking a lifelong commitment that has seen her open up the city’s first - and only - cat cafe.
Michelle opened Catfe in 2016 after leaving a decade-long career in publishing. Looking for a seachange, she created a list of what she wanted in a dream job: she wanted to be away from a desk, moving about. She wanted to work with people. She wanted to run her own business. And she really, really wanted to work with cats.
“I was working as a cat sitter for a few years,” says Michelle, “and had been volunteering in animal shelters. I knew I wanted to work with cats somehow.”
By chance, she stumbled across a YouTube video of a kitschy cat cafe in Japan. Enamoured, she jumped onto Google and discovered that there were actually quite a few - from London to San Francisco, the unlikely concept of a cat-themed cafe was becoming big business. So she decided to give it a shot.
“Once I figured out that this was something people are doing all over the world, I wrote a post on Reddit to see what the interest would be like,” says Michelle. “I had so much positive feedback immediately, asking when I was going to open - I even had a bunch of newspapers wanting to interview me!”
Needless to say, she quickly realised that this was an idea with legs. Four little furry legs, actually - so now all she needed were some cats. Oh, and a cafe.
“The space was basically just four walls when we found it,” says Michelle. “I hired my friend who is an architect, and they helped to design the space.”
Complications begun to show when they sought the approval of the local health inspector. With a cat cafe being fairly new territory for all involved, it took time and effort to establish how they would legally create a space in which food service and animals could happily coexist.
“We needed to ensure that the cats and the cafe were very separate,” says Michelle. “We didn’t want people complaining about cat hair in their lattes!”
The answer turned out to be fairly simple. The cafe, where the food was prepared and ordered, would be cat free. Once their order was served, customers could take it next door to the cat-filled lounge room, and enjoy their food, drink, and a cosy kitty cuddle.
With the logistics of the cafe sorted, there was just one more problem to solve: where to find the cats!
Unlike many of the cat cafes across Europe who keep their cats on site permanently, Michelle wanted hers to be rescue cats with the chance of finding a forever home with her customers. So she approached BC SPCA (British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) about taking in a selection of rescue cats at her cafe.
“They were on board straight away,” says Michelle, adding that it’s not just a case of pointing and taking home a cat. There is a detailed adoption process that involves an application, and two separate interviews. But it’s a system that works: over the two years Catfe has been open, she’s had almost 500 adoptions.
Inside the cafe, it is a cat-lovers dream. There are anywhere between eight to 12 cats in the cafe at any given time lounging around the venue, soaking up the sun in the huge windows or playing in the custom-build furniture. It’s a cat playground, and absolute heaven for anyone wanting a feline cuddle.
The logistics behind housing twelve cats in a food service area required some tricky design work. Behind the lounge area is a ‘cats only’ space, where they keep the kitty litter, food, and a sleeping area - no humans allowed. In the lounge area, specially made furniture has been installed for the cats to play in, including cat hammocks and cat television. Yes, cat television. It plays videos of birds and fish, and really confuses the cats pawing at the screen.
The cafe has been such a runaway success that most days, you’ll need a booking to get a spot. Sittings last for just an hour, although Michelle says that she can be convinced to allow you to stay for longer, if things are looking serious between you and your new cat friend.
“I think it’s better to give people the opportunity to give people the chance to adopt,” says Michelle. “It can be really hard [with the process] but it’s always worth it.”
From a business perspective, adding on an experiential element to the standard coffee stop works in Michelle’s favour. We are, after all, living in the ‘experience economy’, where quirky or memorable activities are being added to the hospitality industry every day.
“It’s important for my customers to get an experience,” says Michelle. “It’s not like going to a normal bar, or cafe. There’s another level of fun stuff to do - like interact with another species! I would say that’s pretty unique.”
Michelle may have known everything there was to know about cats, but as a first time hospitality business owner, there was a fair bit to learn about running a cafe. With elements of trial and error, she managed to get herself up and running quickly with the help of Silver Chef.
“With Silver Chef, I was able to purchase the items I wasn’t too sure about, with the option of then swapping them out if needed.”
Since opening Catfe, Michelle has noticed it continuing to grow as a worldwide trend. So whilst she happily remains the only cat cafe in Vancouver, it’s also makes her very happy to see rescue cats around the world finding new owners over a cuddle and cappuccino. Everyone wins.