Sana Hamelin’s not a crazy cat lady, but she’ll sell you a T-shirt that’ll show you what one looks like.
The 32-year-old former corporate lawyer admits to owning one cat — and one cat only — at home, but she’s got up to eight others regularly prowling the Denver Cat Company cafe at 3929 Tennyson St. It’s a one-of-a-kind business in Colorado and one of a handful of unique cat cafes that have sprung up in the past six months across the United States.
Just three months into her new adventure, Hamelin is the whole ball of yarn at the business, as its owner, operator and purveyor of cat merchandise. It’s become a haven for metro area cat lovers to get their feline fix in a laid-back, cozy coffeehouse atmosphere.
“It’s a relaxing, sleepy place where you hang out in an armchair with a kitty in your lap,” Hamelin said.
Since the Dec. 12 opening in a very visible spot in a trendy North Denver neighborhood, self-proclaimed crazy cat ladies, students, people with cat-chasing toddlers, macho-type men and looky-loos alike have streamed into the cafe. It is filled with high-backed chairs, comfy couches and assorted nooks and crannies where a rotating clowder of cats provided by the Rocky Mountain Feline Shelter hang out.
Some visitors share Hamelin’s genuine love for cats and can’t get enough of them, others can’t own cats because a partner is allergic, and many simply enjoy the therapeutic effect a purring feline can have on jangled nerves. That plus a cup of drip coffee or tea (from Solar Roast Coffee) and a prepackaged snack does wonders as well.
“You wouldn’t believe how much women love cats; it doesn’t matter what kind of girl it is, they are going to like the cats,” said Hamelin, who has also noticed many more men coming in than she expected.
“Most of them come in and just squeal with delight when they see the cats,” she added, seconds before a woman ducked into the store, took a quick look around and exclaimed “this place rocks!”
Hamelin loves her own cat, a Russian Blue named Big Kitty, but she tries to keep a bit of a distance from the cats that come in and out so she doesn’t get too attached. Though she made goo-goo eyes at Xavier — a black-and-white with yellow eyes who she describes as “an asshole cat,” which she loves — the cats in the cafe are for customers. Happily, she’s seen Xavier and 20 other cats adopted since opening through late February, though the number had slowed a little bit once the shelter starting sending her cats that are Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) positive. FIV is transmitted between cats by deep bites or scratches and causes eventual weakening of a cat’s immune system, but is not dangerous to humans.
While she continues to tweak things here and there and stockpile cat-related merchandise for the front of the cafe, things have gone as well as Hamelin could have imagined when she decided to give up the headaches and stress of clients’ legal problems to create a cat-lovers’ paradise.
Hamelin hardly looked before she leaped.
“I did some research, but not a whole lot, to be honest; I tend to jump into things because if I think about it too hard, I’ll get deterred,” she said. “It was such a departure from my old career that I knew it was touch and go. I’d never worked in hospitality, but I was like, ‘screw it, I’m going to do it.’”
Before she even really knew what she was doing, she leased a space, one with good visibility with perfect sun exposure in the front window in the summer and early fall seasons where the cats could sun themselves and where many passersby can’t resist peeking in to see what’s it’s all about.
Hamelin used her law background to work her way through a labyrinth of city zoning laws. She was surprised to get her permits just in time to open before the holidays, a big reason why the cafe got a vital early push forward. The bathroom door hadn’t even been installed, but Hamelin was given the green light to have a maximum of eight cats at a time and be able to offer a small amount of food and drinks, which she did immediately.
A secret invite-only Facebook page for owners of the handful of cat cafes across the country has helped her see what works and what doesn’t work and make small changes in how she does things. In line with other cat cafes, Hamelin reluctantly added a $5 cover charge for super busy Saturdays, though she remains flexible.
Free Wi-Fi and a wide variety of board games and books make the cafe a great place to lounge, but active cat lovers can take advantage of painting classes (courtesy of the Teller Street Gallery), meetup groups and book signings Hamelin continues to add.
“It’s been good, I’m just a little concerned about the novelty factor wearing off,” she admitted.
At least she doesn’t have to deal with competition, yet. Hamelin sees Boulder as the next logical place for a cat cafe to open and she hopes to do it herself if she can find a partner.