“It’s not cat porn.”
No, tiny darlings, this wasn’t my response when the beau’s grandmother asked what I did for a living. These words came from the founder of the dementedly delightful Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium, London’s first ever cat café.
A place I visited twice. With a camera.
Before we get started, I’m going to warn you: if you don’t like cats, just leave now. Because there’s pictures, and an interview, and it’s…it’s just basically going to be cats from here on in.
So if felines aren’t your cup of tea, probably best to bow out while you still can. And when you see the Wizard, be sure to ask him for a HEART.
Are they all gone? Good.
You remaining cat lovers will no doubt be familiar with Lady Dinah’s Shoreditch-based colony of cats and cake, and its meteoric success. For those of you out of the loop, it is just as it sounds: a café where you can come with friends or alone and enjoy tea, cake, or sandwiches. In the presence of 11 cats.
Fear not, this is no greasy spoon where one-eyed ginger toms spray you and steal your fags over a fried egg sandwich. Nor is it a kitty theatre where cats are dressed up and paraded in front of prodding children.
Cat cafes have been around for many years, and are a smash in Japan. But Lady Dinah’s is currently the only one operating in the UK. As the website says, “visitors can kick back and relax with a cup of tea and spend time in the soothing company of our purring feline friends. We are a home for our rescued cats. Our greatest and most important duty is to ensure the happiness and well-being of London’s most loved felines.”
You people know me; I like a good cat, and this pretty little venue has been on my wish list ever since it opened back in March. The trouble is, it’s been on ever cat lover’s wish list since then too, meaning visiting slots are booked months in advance.*
Fortunately, the cat gods smiled on me on a recent visit to Shoreditch and I was able to bag a last minute walk-in space. Better still, I am such a colossal fool that I accidently left behind a freshly purchased bottle of gin…………..no, I DON’T just walk around carrying open bottles of Sipsmith, alright?!!! It was a gift.**
The point is that this gave me the perfect excuse to return to collect my goods, visit the cats once more, and learn more about the entire venture from its owner, the impossible lovely Lauren Pears.
First the basics: the café is separated from the foyer (and the street) by the reception area, where you enter, wash your hands and listen to the rules: no flash photos, no picking the cats up, no disturbing their sleep, no feeding them from your plate. There is a £5 cover charge and a full menu of tea, cakes and savoury snacks to choose from. After your induction, the inner door opens and you step tentatively into catsville.
Décor wise, it is gorgeous shabby chic. Pretty tables and decorations, old sofas and armchairs to recline in, and a maze of near empty bookshelves and ledges for the kitties to clamber on. Everything is focused on the cats’ comfort, so the café is never ‘full’. You don’t have assigned seats, so you are free to move around depending on your – and the cats’ – mood.
Lauren and I settled onto a battered leather sofa with tea, while a chorus of kitties frolicked with other visitors in front of us. (BTW I can highly recommend their cakes – the red velvet cake did things to me. Special things).
Tea in hand, my first question was: who the hell just wakes up one day and thinks, ‘I want to open a café of cats’? (Apart from me. EVERY DAY)
“I just didn’t really like my job anymore,” Lauren explained. “I was a project manager at Sony Playstation but it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing, so I started of thinking of alternatives.**
“I’d always wondered why there wasn’t a cat café in London, and then after a really bad day at work I thought, really WHY isn’t there one? Is it a legal thing, is it licensing? So I called up the food standards agency to investigate. It just turned out that no one had gotten round to it.”
So Lauren had a new niche project on her hands. But raising the required cash was not going to be easy. “You don’t make masses of money with a cat café, it’s a lifestyle choice. Seriously, anyone wanting to make lots of money should go into technology or something that can be reproduced. But this café has limited capacity, even more so because we have to care for the animals. So crowdfunding seemed a more sensible option, as the people paying in would be the customers.”
The plan worked, and they reached their target to open in March. The resident cats themselves were just as challenging to acquire. The plan had always been to obtain rescue cats, but it would be hard to create a colony from shelters without knowing their background and comfort zones. Luckily, the team found a rescued mother with her litter of kittens.
“We got Mue and her six kittens, along with Biscuit. Mue was recovering from the birth but also had cat flu, so she was very skinny, very sick. We have to wean her and bottle feed the kittens. The kittens are all cat flu carriers now, so any new cats we introduce to the colony need to go through quarantine and have vaccinations before they can start socializing.”
The current cat roll call is Mue and her babies Romeo, Indiana, Donnie, Artemis, Carbonelle, and Petra, along with Biscuit, jet black twins Loki & Adamska, and the bear-like Wookie.
From the start, the response to the cat café was far bigger than Lauren could have imagined. The café already has 60,000 followers online – no other business in the area is even close to that.
Yet for all the positivity, the café still has a major challenge in managing people’s expectations. For anyone not experienced with cats, it can be shock. The cats do not flank you the minute you walk in, they don’t hop up into your lap or play with you the minute you dangle some string. Many will prefer to keep on snoozing, no matter how many bubbles you blow for them.
Why? Well…they’re cats, not dogs. They don’t perform.
“People have a dream concept of what a cat café is,” Lauren explained. “They imagine they will walk in and be flocked by cats, but cats aren’t like that! Some cafés give their cats low calorie diets so they are trained to expect treats when they approach humans, but they only do it because they are hungry and unhappy.
“We are changing are messaging now because we need people to understand that they should expect it to be quiet with happy quiet cats, happy awake cats, or happy sleepy cats. We really strongly feel that we should not alter their natural behaviour in any way.”
The café definitely exudes an aura of calm. On my first visit, most of the cats were asleep so it wasn’t very ‘busy’. Luckily, the utterly gorgeous Loki was happy to entertain visitors on his own, dancing on the cat wheel and playing fetch with a paper ball. But otherwise, it was noticeably quiet.
Lauren is all too familiar with people being thrown by this atmosphere: “Some people love it, others hate it. If someone comes expecting lots of attention from the cats, they won’t like it at all. We encourage people to come back again, at different time of day and with different people around. Anything can affect the cats’ feelings, from the weather to who is in the room. They do what they want, they are free to come and go as they please. It’s a relaxing haven, it’s not cat porn.”
“Recurring visit are better so that people develop a bond with the cats – we have a VIP who comes in every week and he is determined to win over Carbonelle!”
She wasn’t wrong. After only two visits, I already had favourites. The gorgeous Loki is a joy to behold – a sleek, prowling kitten who wants to play with you no matter what. He reminded me of my own cats growing up.
I also had a moment with the beautiful Petra, lazing in a boy of toys. Apparently, she isn’t a big fan of being stroked but let me pet her for a long time, purring contentedly.
And then, there is Wookie. Ah Wookie.
Half bear, half cat, he likes nothing better than chasing string across the furniture (the floor is just too easy).
I dared to ask – does Lauren have a favourite? “Honestly, they all have such beautiful things about them. They all have the same background, but the variety of character is amazing. For example, Petra is so beautiful and adventurous, and she will play hide and seek with us at 11pm at night!”
She points to Indiana, reclining regally on a sideboard. “He is such a phenomenal cat, I’ve never known one like him. When he’s on cat breaks in the office (the cats have regular breaks from the customer floor), he will just sit and look up at you with these eyes that say ‘I love you SO much’. He’s like a feline Labrador.”
She then nods at another handsome ginger boy, sitting by a staff only door, looking almost mournful. “Donnie is so naughty and SO stubborn. People think he’s miserable because he sits and mews at the door, but he’s just being Donny! He doesn’t want to go in, he just wants the attention and will be stubborn until he gets it.”
Donnie also had a cunning trick that Lauren was happy to demonstrate.
Plans for the future are looking bright. Lauren explains that she wants to open more cafes, to give more people the chance to experience a UK cat café. She also plans to have other themed nights, such as speed dating and lectures, so people can enjoy different things and not be entirely focused on the cats for the entirety of their visit.
“We want to take the pressure off the animals and create interesting reasons for people to visit so there isn’t so much attention on the cats.”
At this point, Romeo hops up on the sofa and begins to roll around very deliberately in front of us. Lauren smirks. “Not that they mind, of course”
Remember, cat lovers – Lady Dinah’s is not what you expect it to be. It’s better.
Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium
152-154 Bethnal Green Road, Shoreditch, London, E2 6DG
Tel: 0207 7290953
Book online, or follow them on Twitter for news of last minute spaces and cancellations.
P.S It’s not just the cats that make Lady Dinah’s worth a visit; the staff are exceptionally kind and friendly, and went to great lengths preparing my forgotten gin for postage, should I have needed it. Lovely people.
|My own little kitty, making her thoughts on my visit to other cats known
*I tried to replicate the experience down in Kent by sitting in tea shops and miserably emitting mewing sounds every few minutes. I’m not allowed back to most of these places now.
*** She’s worked for Playstation, and now she runs a cat café; she’s the perfect woman. She also lives on the Isle of Dogs. I’ll just leave that irony here for a minute, do with it what you wish