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We Chat With the Co-Founder of NYC’s First Cat Cafe

Feline groovy: Hanging out with Emilie Legrand and the cats up for adoption in Meow Parlour.

Susan C. Willett  |  Jan 8th 2015


Ever since I learned that cat cafes existed, I dreamed of visiting one. It might seem odd, since my own home could be considered a cat (and dog) cafe on its own, with any one of four cats liable to jump into my lap just as a forkful of mushroom risotto is halfway to my mouth.

But still. The idea of enjoying purring cats and delectable treats that I didn’t have to bake, among a slew of other like-minded people. Can it get any better?

How about placing said establishment in New York City?

Meow and macarons in Manhattan

Thus I found myself visiting Meow Parlour, a recently opened cat cafe on Hester Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

There I met nearly a dozen adoptable cats and had a chance to speak with Meow Parlour co-founder Emilie Legrand, a native of France and frequent visitor to cat cafes around the world. Working in the kitchen at Macaron Parlour — a popular New York City patisserie featuring popular French pastries — she and bakery co-owner Christina Ha fantasized about opening a cat cafe in Manhattan.

Cats and pastry

"Cats and pastry are my two passions," says Emile, pretty much speaking for the both of them. They set about turning their fantasy into reality.

Obviously Emilie and Christina aren’t the only ones with those combined interests. The Kickstarter campaign for the project hit its goal in 24 hours, and sold out the next day. Now open to the public, the city’s first cat cafe has timed visits, which are booked solid 60 days in advance.

A quick look around the tidy glass and wood space and you’ll see cats, kitty-sized lounges, cats, high tables and stools, cats, throw pillows, and cats. But where’s the bakery? The cafe?

Around the corner.

City regulations prohibit animals in places that make and serve food. But there is no law that says food can’t be brought into a place populated by feline inhabitants. So the partners opened Meow Parlour Patisserie 200 feet away; visitors can stop by on their way to the cat cafe. Lazier patrons can have their drinks, pastries, soups and sandwiches delivered.

Keeping the cats safe in the cafe

To protect the cafe’s residents, humans who sign up for half-hour sessions (they can stay longer and pay for the extended time when they leave) have a series of simple rules to follow. This includes removing their shoes and using hand sanitizer on entering, and a list of don’ts: Don’t use flash photography, don’t give the cats treats, don’t bring toys, and don’t pick up a cat without permission.

I asked Emilie if the cats had any rules. She laughed. "That would be very ambitious." Then she thought about it for a moment. Apparently there is one rule; the cats are not allowed in the double-doored vestibule — to prevent escapes.

"Of course they try," said Emilie.

Sip, snack, snuggle, adopt

All of the cats at Meow Parlour are adoptable, through KittyKind, a not-for-profit, no-kill, all-volunteer cat rescue and adoption group in New York City. Meow Parlour plays host to no more than a dozen cats from the group; framed photos and accompanying kitty details hang on the wall to help visitors learn who’s who.

Cafe citizens are chosen by KittyKind, whose staff selects cats who are social with people and comfortable with other cats. They also bring cats that "don’t do well in cages, that don’t show well," says Emilie. The ones who hang in the back of their pens and won’t come out, who can languish in shelters for too long — not because they’re unfriendly, but just the opposite: They want to be out and about.

Lucky Lemon’s story: a sour beginning turns sweet

Emilie told me the story of Lucky Lemon, a gorgeous orange mancat who spent his first three days at the cafe hiding under a bench. "One customer spent a lot of time with him," she said. "She was very gentle." It was all Lucky Lemon needed, because soon after that, he came out of his shell.

I asked Emilie to point him out to me. "That one? Really? I don’t believe it." I had just spent about 15 minutes playing with the handsome dude; he was incredibly friendly.

The snuggle effect

According to Emilie, the typical Meow Parlour visitor is a cat lover who falls into one of several categories:

  • Someone whose roommate is allergic to cats. “Roommate” might also mean husband or wife. I would have thought that should be on the interview list of potential roomies or life partners: must love cats.
  • Students who can’t have cats in their dorms. Manhattan alone is home to more than 50 colleges and universities — and there are four other boroughs just a subway’s ride away.
  • People whose landlords don’t allow cats. Don’t get me started.
  • Potential adopters: What better way to fall in love than over a cup of coffee?

Sometimes it’s just people who are in New York for one reason or another and miss their cats at home. Or folks who are searching for what Emilie calls the "snuggle effect." An escape from everyday life. From work. Stress.

"Coming here is relaxing," says Emilie. "People tend to speak more softly. And when they leave, they have a smile on their face."

As did I.

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About the author: Susan C. Willett is a writer, photographer, and blogger whose award-winning original stories, photography, poetry, and humor can be found at Life With Dogs and Cats. She lives in New Jersey with three dogs and four cats (all rescues) and at least a couple of humans — all of whom provide inspiration for her work. Refusing to take sides in the interweb’s dogs vs. cats debate, Susan enjoys observing the interspecies interaction among the varied inhabitants of her home — like living in a reality TV show, only furrier. In addition to Life With Dogs and Cats, you can find more Lilah, Jasper, and Tucker (and the rest of the gang) on Haiku by DogÔäó, Haiku by CatÔäó, and Dogs and Cats Texting.