Nearly two years of anticipation came to an end on November 7, 2017 when Neko Cat Café opened in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, officially becoming Seattle’s third cat café. The business is modeled after a worldwide trend originating in Asia, which allows people to socialize with cats in a coffee house setting.
The café’s menu consists of “nibble” like fish-shaped waffles from the Beanfish food truck, bento boxes filled with a sandwich, rice crackers and Pocky sticks, and locally baked cookies shaped like cats and other sweet treats. Drinks include coffee, Japanese tea, cold brew, soda and alcoholic beverages like beer, cider, wine and sake. Appropriately, one of the beer options is Black Raven Brewing’s Kitty Kat Pale Ale, made with catnip and blueberries.
However, the main attraction are the adorable, adoptable cats. Within the cat café is a separate room in which customers can spend time with these cats and with other cat lovers for a fee for one hour. The café is home to a family of between 7 to 12 cats of all shapes and sizes. Neko has partnered with the Regional Animal Services of King County (RASKC) to bring to its customers adoptable cats of all shapes and sizes and personalities.
Caitlin Unsell is the owner of Neko Cat Café LLC. After living abroad in both Japan and Vietnam for three years, she fell in love with the cat café culture. While she wasn't busy teaching kindergarten in Japan, she visited every cat café possible, dreaming of opening her own upon her return to Seattle. The combination of her love for cats and a decade in the restaurant industry made Neko a natural progression. Her main mission with Neko is to give cats the sanctuary they deserve and adults the kind of retreat they didn't even know existed!
Caitlin came to SCORE in mid-2015 with a business plan and a planned crowdfunding campaign for late 2015. In early 2016, she topped off the funds obtained from the crowdfunding with some “friends & family” debt financing, allowing her to start her search for a location to rent. Finding an amiable landlord and a suitable location proved to be a real challenge, but Caitlin finally found one on the ground floor of an apartment building at 519 East Pine Street in Seattle, consummating a lease agreement in early 2017. After a long wait for a building permit, fitting out of the space was completed in late October 2017.
Caitlin opened the cat café in November 2017 and it was an immediate hit with the local residents and tourists. Right from the start, the business was profitable. Business continued very well throughout 2018 and Caitlin decided to expand her business with a second cat café in Bellingham, a city she knows well having spent her university days there.
Caitlin opened her Bellingham cat café in February 2020 and, again, it was an immediate hit. However, then Covid-19 effectively closed down her business not more than one month after it started. Her cat café in Seattle was forced to close also at the same time.
With no business but a herd of cats at two locations, Caitlin had a big problem. What to do with the cats! She took two major decisions: for the Seattle cat café, she returned the cats to the RASKC as that eliminated needing to have an employee in the café daily. That was a very wise decision as the demand for cats and dogs from locked-down residents of King County spiked, so the cats found good home quickly. For the Bellingham café, Caitlin decided to be the “cat-sitter” for them during the lock-down. That also provided to be a wise decision as she was able to re-open the Bellingham café just after the full lock-down ended and cafes were able to partially reopen in June 2020.
Reopening the Seattle cat café took longer due to reorienting a new group of cats to their surroundings and humans, and due to the Capitol Hill vandalism that took place in the Summer of 2020. However, by Fall 2020, the Seattle cat café was back in operations, albeit with limited occupancy. Suffice it to say that 2020 for both Neko – Seattle and Neko – Bellingham were financial loss years. However, thanks to the assistance of SCORE, Caitlin was able to get Paycheck Protection Program loans, an EIDL loan, EIDL grants, a Restaurant Revitalization Grant, Employee Retention Credits and numerous state and local grants.
2021 was a very good year for Neko – Seattle and Neko – Bellingham after a terrible 2020. Since July 1, both cat cafes have been able to operate at full capacity. Currently, Neko – Bellingham has over 20 cats in residence and Neko – Seattle has over 20 kittens in residence, just waiting for cat lovers to spend some time with these adorable animals.
A key mission of Caitlin through Neko LLC and Neko Bellingham LLC is to foster adoption of cats. She sources all her cats for both cafes through RASKC. Substantially all the cats and kittens she has in residence a the two cat cafes are adoptable. As such, since the inception of her business, over 500 cats and kittens have been adopted into cat-loving homes. This is a “quadruple win-win-win-win”: a win for RASKC as the cat cafes take a load off RASKC of housing about 50 cats, a win for Neko’s customers as they get to adopt a cat (if they so choose), a win for Caitlin as she’s fulfilling a life-long desire, and a win for the cats as they have a permanent home. What more could one ask?
Caitlin has used the services of Guy Towle, Robin Block and Joe Heinrich at various times between 2015 and now. Guy helped her with the lease, various employee related documents and other legal aspects of the business. Robin assisted Caitlin with her website and social media marketing. And Joe helped her with various finance, accounting, tax and employee related matters. Joe was instrumental during 2020 and 2021 in helping Caitlin get governmental grants and funding to keep her business afloat. Thanks to all the help she has gotten from SCORE, her business was in a better financial situation as of the end of 2021 than it was before the Covid-19 pandemic started!!
6 March 2022