The Naughty Cat Cafe in Chattanooga recently reached a major milestone: its 1,000th adoption.
Heath Hanson and Whitney Sickels mortgaged their home to start the Naughty Cat, Chattanooga's first and only cat cafe, in 2019.
"The only reason we started this is because when we moved to Hamilton County, they were euthanizing healthy, adoptable adult animals, and our minds were blown that this concept didn't exist in a community that's so tourist-driven and that loves animals so much," Hanson said in an interview.
The cafe serves as a foster home and adoption platform for up to 40 cats at a time. All the cats there have been abused, neglected, hoarded, in a shelter for more than a year or adopted and returned to the shelter multiple times.
"They're essentially the animals at the shelter who weren't thriving there," Hanson said, adding that cats stay at the cafe an average of two weeks before they're adopted.
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The cafe adopted out all the cats at the Humane Educational Society 47 times in the cafe's first year, he said.
Hanson and Sickels have no employees or volunteers, and they don't compensate themselves for the work they do at the cafe.
Hamilton County's health regulations limit the cafe's offerings to self-service coffee and tea, prepackaged baked goods, and bottled and canned drinks.
Selling those products provides no revenue, so the cafe's only revenue comes from the $15-per-person entry fee, which include a nonalcoholic beverage, and the profit margin from the logo merchandise, Hanson said. The admission fee pays for the cats' care.
The Health Department allows the cafe to admit up to 52 people at a time, but Hanson and Sickels choose to limit the number of people in the cat lounge to 15 at a time. That keeps the cats and the people from getting overwhelmed, he said.
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The cafe has two lounge areas with a variety of cat and people furniture. There's also a closed area for shy cats. That area creates an intimate space for potential adopters to get to know those animals.
"Ironically enough, the shy ones often get adopted first," Hanson said.
Despite the self-imposed human capacity limit, the cafe has the largest volume of guests -- about 40,000 a year -- of all the approximately 300 cat cafes in the U.S., he said.
Reservations are recommended on weekends, as it typically sells out every hour. When the cafe isn't busy, people can stay as long as they want.
The cost to adopt a cat from the cafe is $100, all of which goes to the shelter the cat came from. The cafe's residents come from the Humane Educational Society, Pet Placement Center and Scratch Inc.
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Through the more than 1,000 adoptions so far, the cafe has generated more than $100,000 for the shelters through adoptions that would have generated no money if the cats were adopted from the shelters themselves. The idea is for the shelter to use the money generated from the adoptions to vaccinate, spay and neuter and microchip the next group of cats the shelter sends to the cafe, Hanson said.
And the cafe owners give more to the shelters than the money they get from adoption fees. The Chattanooga Police Department participated in a recent stunt in which the cafe's "naughty cat" mascot was "arrested," and the cafe used its huge social media following to raise $4,000 in "bail" that was donated to their partner shelters, Hanson said.
Hanson and Sickels aren't just cat lovers who started a business on a whim. Sickels previously ran an animal shelter in Hawaii, so she has experience overseeing the care of dozens of animals.
Out of the more than 1,000 cats adopted out of the cafe, the number that have been returned is in the single digits, and those cats were all returned for unforeseeable reasons, Hanson said.
Hanson and Sickels verify what adopters put in their paperwork, call their character references and check their social media accounts to be sure the cats are going to good homes.
"We're not trying to set these cats up to fail," Hanson said. "Unfortunately, the shelter doesn't have the resources or the time to do that extensive vetting."
Not everyone comes to the cafe to adopt, but the entry fee they pay goes back into the facility, and the time and attention they give the cats makes them more socialized and adoptable for the next local people who come in to use the cafe as an adoption platform, he said.
The owners didn't start a cat cafe to make a profit, Hanson said. They wanted to do something they love and to create a self-sustaining adoption platform, and they just signed a 15-year lease.
Virindra Mosaphir said he and his brother-in-law, Mario Nalini, had passed by the Naughty Cat Cafe many times before deciding to go inside Thursday.
"I like how they're so cool with everybody; they're not standoffish," Nalini said of the cats. "They're used to human contact. That's nice." He's an actor who was passing through Chattanooga from Nashville on his way to Memphis. Mosaphir lives on Raccoon Mountain.
"I think this is really super cool," Nalini said, pointing to openings in the wall painted to look like mailboxes, which the cats pass through to access litter boxes in the room on the other side. "That's a nice idea."
The cafe is surprisingly odor-free, considering the number of cats living and producing waste in one place.
"The way he's standing, it's like a statue," Mosaphir said of a tuxedo cat perched on a pedestal, then turned and pointed to a gray tabby cat approaching on the floor. "This one there, he likes to play. He likes to scope out everything."
If you go:
Where: 3742 Tennessee Ave., Suite 100
Cost: $15 per person, includes nonalcoholic beverage.
Restrictions: Open to ages 11 and older. Ages 11-13 must be accompanied by adult.
Contact Emily Crisman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6508. Follow her on Twitter @emcrisman.