A Cat Cafe Bolsters an Ohio City’s Economic Revitalization


After suffering a devastating economic downturn, the city of Dayton, Ohio, is experiencing a revival that has brought independently owned shops, restaurants, and businesses back downtown. For Sabrina Cox and her business partner Karin Gudal-Johnson, this renaissance signaled the perfect time to open their own cat café.

“If you wanted to start a business in Dayton, now is the time to do it,” Cox says. “We wanted to jump at that chance.”

Sabrina Cox and Karin Gudal-Johnson will open their cat cafe in Dayton this summer.

For Cox, animal rescue has always been her ideal career path. In college, she founded a group called SAFARI — Students Advocating for Animal Rights Intelligently — Miami University’s first student advocate organization for animals. She has also sat on the board of a no-kill animal shelter, and she has three rescue cats of her own: Jonathan Taylor Thomas, a Ragdoll/Siamese; Odin, a flame-point Siamese; and Luicpurr, a long-haired kitty.

Cox's rescue kitty, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, enjoys a yoga session.
Cox’s rescue kitty, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, enjoys a yoga session.

Cox and Gudal-Johnson met when they both worked at a local no-kill animal shelter in development and marketing, respectively. While they both loved their work helping animals, they wanted to do things their own way and do more to address Dayton’s significant community-cat problem. At first, they thought securing a rescue partner and hosting pop-up shops at existing cafes was the way to go — but that plan fell through rather quickly.

“We started tweeting the local cafes to see if anyone would be interested in doing pop-up shops, and no one really bit,” Cox says. “We joked about [opening our own cat café] for a little while, and then we just did it.”

Gem City Catfe will feature a separate event space.
Gem City Catfe will feature a separate event space.

Gem City Catfe has been in the works since November. Cox and Gudal-Johnson bought a building in the St. Anne’s Hill district of Dayton, and construction projects are in the works. The pair’s Kickstarter campaign has launched, meeting their $20,000 goal in just three days. According to the Kickstarter page, the cat cafe aims to “foster positive interactions between cats and people, in an expectation-free environment. Why? Cats are fun! Cats are the rulers of the internet and the lords of their households. We want to bring the awesomeness of cats to everyone in Dayton, while at the same time helping the homeless cats in our community.”

To accomplish this goal, Gem City Catfe has established a rescue partner, the Humane Society of Greater Dayton, which will keep the lounge well stocked with adoptable kitties. Cat cafes are popping up across the country, and Gem City Catfe is among those adding to the usual food and adoption components. It will have a separate event space and focus on trap-neuter-return initiatives.

Cox's rescue kitty, Odin, a flame-point Siamese.
Cox’s rescue kitty, Odin, a flame-point Siamese.

“We’ll have cats, community and coffee like all of the other cat cafes, but we have our own separate event space,” Cox says. “We wanted to be able to keep our cat lounge open and still have programming at the same time. That way we can have a greater impact.”

This programming will encompass activities such as yoga and Tai Chi with cats, seminars on the benefits of TNR and the harms of declawing, and youth programs and humane education. Cox also plans to host some less common classes and workshops.

Cox's new cat tattoo
Cox’s new cat tattoo

“We will have different art classes, like painting with cats,” she says. “We had someone reach out who wants to teach pet embroidery. We’ll have knitting with cats — though with cats in the room, I’m not sure how much knitting we’ll actually get done.”

Interestingly, Cox isn’t the only person opening a cat-centric business in Dayton. Her boyfriend owns Rebel Rebel Tattoo, which does various types of ink but specializes in cat tattoos. He has done more than 40 cat tattoos — and he recently did one on Cox as well.

“It’s so strange that we’re dating and we both have this weird cat infatuation,” she says. “We’re both crazy cat people, I guess.”

Rebel Rebel Tattoo specializes in cat tattoos, like this one of Lil Bub.
Rebel Rebel Tattoo specializes in cat tattoos, like this one of Lil BUB.

Right now, Cox aims for a July opening for Gem City Catfe. In the meantime, she and Gudal-Johnson will continue to host pop-up workshops around town — though gathering support for a new independent business in Dayton these days isn’t exactly a daunting task.

“I live in Dayton, and I live downtown,” Cox says. “I’m seeing all of these great new businesses pop up – not chain places, but all of these independent stores. It was the perfect time. If we were going to make this happen, we had to do it now. I’ve always felt like I’m a huge part of my city, and this was a way to really be a huge part of my city.”

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