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Food - Two Atlantans strive for cat cafe purr-fection

The feline sensation will take over the city this fall  

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Photo credit: ERIC CASH

Picture it: Atlanta, 2016. You're at a coffee shop clicking through the internet rabbit hole you fell into while attempting to be productive. You're about to take a sip of your latte when you feel something brush against your ankle, sending shivers up your leg. It was definitely too heavy to be wind. Besides, you're inside. Confused, you look down and see a fuzzy object curled up under the table. Then you remember you're not at a normal coffee shop. You're at a cat café.

A cat café is a coffee shop that serves food while patrons hang out with a number of felines provided by a local shelter. Theoretically, the cats have all of their shots, and they're handpicked to be in a social environment with people and other cats. Plus, they're all up for adoption.

The world's first cat café popped up in Taiwan in 1998. Since then, the concept has become wildly popular in Japan — there are more than 150 in that country — thanks to no-pet policies in rental units and low square footage in urban areas. Cat cafes have slowly spread throughout Europe and are now popping up in the U.S.

There currently aren't any cat cafés in the South, but that's about change. Pounce Cat Café and Wine Bar opens in Charleston in August, and this fall Atlanta's slated to get two.

In March, Atlanta cat lover April Hill announced she was planning to open the city's first cat café, Happy Tabby Cat Café. Hill was (and still is) so dedicated to the project that she quit her job and invested all of her savings into the café.

Hill also launched a $10,000 Kickstarter campaign to help pay for fun things such as decorations and a cat bridge. She also wants to construct a catwalk, but not the kind models strut down. This type of catwalk is a series of shelves that trim the walls several feet off the ground. Cats can jump Mario-style from level to level or post up and look down at everyone from above.

Hill plans to open Happy Tabby late this summer or early fall. After scouting nearly a dozen locations, she finally secured a space. She's mum on the exact location because of pending legal issues, but it will be somewhere inside the Perimeter. Victory Sandwich Bar, GiGi's Cupcakes, Highland Bakery, Arden's Garden, and Coca Cola are on board to provide food and drinks for the café. For coffee, Hill looked to Atlanta Coffee and Tea, a 120-year-old coffee and tea company that roasts specialty flavors into the beans. Once Hill gets her beer and wine license, she plans to reach out to local breweries and wineries, too. Until then, Happy Tabby will be BYOB.

Just eight weeks after Hill's plans came to light, Georgia State University film student Hadyn Hilton threw her cat café hat into the ring. The idea came tor her during the fall 2015 semester while researching the phenomenon of cats on the internet — in 2014, a video marketing website estimated that cat videos attracted 24.6 billion views.

Hilton originally named her concept Catlanta Café, but fans of a local artist by the same name shot her down. She quickly reached out to Catlanta to smooth things over.

"Out of respect for him and his artists' identity, we wanted to change the name and keep his fans happy," Hilton says. "He's been very supportive of the cat cafe, really excited about it."

Hilton turned to her social media followers and crowdsourced a new name: Java Cats Café.

At the time of this writing, Hilton's Kickstarter campaign has roughly two weeks left, and she's raised $6,771 of her $20,000 goal.

Java Cats' concept stands out from other cat cafes because of the philanthropic and community partnerships Hilton has forged in the process — partnerships that she hopes will benefit Atlantans in need once the cafe is up and running.

Gathering Industries, a local nonprofit that works with the Atlanta Mission and other shelters to provide training and jobs to Atlanta's homeless, will provide food for the café. They'll supply sandwiches and salads, such as fire-roasted beef tenderloin on a sesame hoagie, Prague ham with cheddar chive cheese on a ciabatta roll, and unconventional potato salad with caper aioli. Hilton is also currently in talks with a local coffee roaster geared toward helping people, although as of press time nothing had been finalized. She even wants the furniture to be done by Lamon Luther, a local company that also employs homeless individuals and was recently tapped to make tables for the new Falcons stadium.

"That's pretty much the goal — that everything that goes into this business will benefit someone else," Hilton says.

Hilton has been working with the health department since December to make sure she complies with regulations such as having two HVACs to separate the air in each room. Part of the challenge for Hilton is inherent in combining food and animals. Hilton plans to find a fur-ever home for Java Cats before summer ends, and she expects to have a better picture of how the café will operate as the plan unfolds. For now, Virginia-Highland is at the top of her list.

Although Atlanta wasn't specifically asking for a cat café, Happy Tabby proprietor Hill thinks it's a concept that the city will embrace.

"It's just a concept that works really well and people seem to love it, whether they're a cat fan or not. People love to bring their friends that are curious about it and try to turn them into a cat lover, and it works more times than not, so why not?"

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