UIX: Kati Palmurkar's Happy Cat Cafe is a local fur-st

Kati Palmurkar is passionate about her feline friends, and she's dedicated to finding them stable homes through the innovative new Happy Cat Cafe on South Division.
Kati Palmurkar is no crazy cat lady -- she'll have you know she's perfectly sane. But there's no doubt she's passionate about her feline friends, and she's dedicated to protecting them and finding them stable homes through an innovative new cafe on South Division.

When you walk into the Happy Cat Cafe, it seems like any other coffee shop, Palmurkar says. The menu features gourmet lattes and local bakery fare. The shop's comfortable 'living room' is flanked by brick walls, while a crackling fire adds heat and ambiance. And if that isn't enough, Palmurkar says, "Imagine comfy chairs with a cat sleeping in your lap."

"The walls will be a cat's paradise, with modern cat furniture from Catastrophic creations," she says. "Or perhaps you choose to walk through the cat arch to a modern diner area to study and watch the cats sleep in the sunny windows."

Palmurkar is hoping the cafe will feel like a second home to guests, bringing together both humans and felines alike. The idea isn't new, she says, it's been popular in Asia for decades and there are over 300 cat cafes in Tokyo alone, but cat cafes in the US have only been around since 2013.

"I believe the trend started because a lot of people love cats, but they can't or don't own one," Palmurkar says. "As people move to urban areas, they are less likely able to own their own pet for landlord reasons, college campus rules, lack of commitment or the high cost of ownership. The American cat cafes have added another layer by also adopting out the cats that live at the cafe, which makes it such a win-win for community and the cats."

If that's not enough to convince you of the positivity of paws, studies have shown that being around cats can actually improve your life. Mental Floss reports that, apart from the obvious companionship and anxiety management, cats take less of a toll on the environment than some other pets, contributing to as much carbon usage over their lifetime as a Volkswagen Golf. A story in 2010 from the Telegraph cited statistic from the UK, where the pet population tops 20 million, even inferring that cat owners are more intelligent that others.

Palmurkar attended Grand Valley State University, where she majored in biology. She says she's always loved animals, especially cats, and previously volunteered at a feline shelter. Since college, she has also worked in the hospitality industry as a server, bartender, and manager at the BOB downtown. But it was one of Palmurkar's last courses at GVSU, an entrepreneurship class, that turned her on to starting a business.

"I have always been passionate about animals and hospitality, it was just the moment that it clicked to combine my talents," she says.

Of course, The Happy Cat Cafe, combining the worlds of food service and animal shelter, has had its share of legal hurdles to jump. Palmurkar says many landlords in the area are hesitant to lease space for animal usage, but it's hard to ignore a trend that's been surrounded in positivity for decades.

"It took a while, but we did find an amazing location," Palmurkar says. "Our landlord actually has been to Japan and knew about cat cafes. Lucky, right?"

With little leniency, the Kent County Health Department's rule against animals in food establishments was a challenge to work through, but Palmurkar's design for the Happy Cat Cafe succeeds in satisfying the criteria.

"The food code explicitly states that animals are not allowed in food establishments," She says. "The way we are getting around this is having two entirely separate areas for the food and the cats. This leads to its own challenges of having separate facilities for cat related cleaning and food prep and having separate employees for the food area and cat area, but we are working on creating standard operating procedures so that the Health Department will feel comfortable that cats and food are separate."

The cafe will employ baristas and a cat room staff. Employees might cover both positions but never in the same shift. The cats will be sheltered in a separate, protected room of the cafe, which will be treated as an off-site adoption center similar to how Chowhound operates, Palmurkar says. Those interested in adopting one of the cats from the cafe will be asked to fill out an application, take part in an interview, and hopefully bring a cat home.

Palmurkar's project isn't just new to the area, it's a foundation to drive community attention to larger issues, and, she hopes, to spread compassion and feline friendship.

"Each day, I look forward to building my future. The details don't matter as much as the greater picture," she says. “Not only am I starting a business that will hopefully support my family, but Happy Cat will make a difference in our community, especially those that don't have a voice (the cats). I'm excited that I'm following my passion and each day feels like a blessing."

For more information on the Happy Cat Cafe, visit http://www.happycatgr.com/.

Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].

Photography by Steph Harding  
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