Rebecca Gray has traded in her career as a researcher to open the Blue Cat Cafe, the first cat cafe in Texas.
Inspired by other cat cafes around the country, the world, and, quite possibly, Thomas O’Malley the Alley Cat (“Everybody’s pickin’ up on that feline beat, ’cause everything else is obsolete”), Gray wants to create a space where people can browse the Internet, maybe meditate a little or do some yoga, and pet cats all in the same place. It will be a mystical, cat-filled oasis, where kitties are free to walk across keyboards to their hearts’ content.
Gray, 31, recently launched a Kickstarter to help fund the cafe, which she says is her dream job. Each donation level—starting at $10—comes with its own kitty-themed reward, like seeing your name painted on the cafe’s “thank you” wall, or having your name permanently inscribed on a “Zen Cat Garden stone decorated by you or a local artist” for the “kitty herb garden.” (As of this writing more than $14,000 of the $60,000 goal had been pledged.)
I sat down with Gray one recent evening in Austin to talk to her about her plans for the cafe and her love for all things feline.
When did you decide you wanted to open a cat cafe?
I was Ubering one night in August at, like, 3 a.m. and this NPR program came on about how the Montreal cat house was opening, and I swear to God, my stomach was just like, “I have to be a part of this.” Like, I was looking at the Austin skyline, heard it come on, and was like, “Hey, I’m gonna do this.” I already knew what I wanted to do, but this was the trigger.
I majored in biology at UT-Austin, with an emphasis in genetic studies. For a while I worked for a bug laboratory out by Lake Austin. Then I started working with mice, first at MD Anderson Science Park, outside of Bastrop, and then at UT Southwestern, in Dallas. I eventually got a little burnt-out with the laboratory stuff and I also really missed Austin. So a few years ago, I moved back and got a job at a start-up, and spent a lot of time working from home with my cats. That’s when I started thinking a lot about cat cafes, because I just wanted to either work at one or just, like, go to one.
Have you been to a cat cafe before?
I haven’t—I know that’s crazy. I actually had a trip scheduled to go out to Oakland and just pop in, and then my idea to open one here got some publicity, and since then I’ve just been staying here and working to get this place started. I will definitely go, as soon as things quiet down. I also really want to visit the one in New York, which is actually the most true cat cafe we have in the U.S. right now. It’s very, like, finger food and kitties.
What makes a place a “true cat cafe”?
A true cat cafe is a place where you can order food and coffee and whatever while the cats are actually walking around you. But I’m not interested in dealing with that red tape right now, so I won’t have the cats and the food together when we open. I’ll have the food out on a back patio. I’m setting it up like that because that was easiest for me, but it turns out that’s actually the most “Austin” thing I can do, right? Have a patio like this for food trucks. Eventually we’ll have food and cats in the same place, but for now we can still have a place to go pet cats. That’s the heart of a cat cafe.
What will it be like to walk inside your cat cafe?
There are cat cafes out there that seem like a Russian tearoom, where everybody’s drinking with their fingers in the air and picking up little delicate cakes and pastries, and that’s fine but that’s not Austin. So it’ll be weird. I want it to feel very “cat-mecca-y.” Cats everywhere you look, tons of shelves and things for the cats to climb on. Like, you’ll be talking to someone and there will be a cat looking down on you.
You’ll check in and learn a little bit about how to handle cats: Don’t pick them up, let them come to you. Pet them, don’t grab them. To cat people like us, it’ll be kinda like, “Okay, I know how to pet a cat,” but a lot of people haven’t been around cats. It’ll be a place where you learn about cats.
There will be Wi-Fi, and we’ll have certain areas set aside for doing certain things. I want to have “cataoke”—like karaoke—and cat yoga—basically things you would normally do, but with cats around. Throw ’em into the mix. Let’s do cat meditation! That’s the idea. It’ll be very comfortable. There will be people who are strictly there to make sure everything’s cool—we’ll call them professional cat handlers—and they’ll make sure everything stays very smooth and very zen. You can hang out in all the places, if you want to take a nap with a cat—you know!—some people really need to go and take a nap sometimes.
Where will you get all the cats from?
The cats in the cafe will come from various rescue organizations—Austin Animal Center, Austin Humane Society, Austin Pets Alive!, and Bastrop Cats—which I’m talking with now. It’s gonna be a platform for reducing animal suffering.
If we’re gonna be, in a way, taking from these cats, we need to be giving something back to the community. We’re taking pet therapy from them—we’re getting love from them. I just want to use the place for good. All the cats—except for my Max, who is a blue cat and kind of the inspiration for the name—will be adoptable. We have a rampant feral and homeless population in the U.S. There are animals living homeless on the streets and there’s a lot of people in Austin who are new, and they could potentially want pets. To me, it’s a no-brainer to have them be adoptable.
So it’s safe to say you’re a cat person?
I am a cat person, but I’m just also an animal lover. There’s a certain thing about cats that part of the population doesn’t get, because they’re so independent and they don’t do what you want. All those things about cats that make them so independent, those are the things I like better about cats.
I’ve tried to explain cat cafes to people a number of times, and I just have to say: “Do you have more than ten cat pictures on your phone?” If the answer is no, I know the conversation is over. If you don’t have cats on your phone, done. You just have to be a cat person to understand this place.
Why not a dog cafe?
We have laws where dogs are allowed on the patio but a cat isn’t. Why is that? I asked that a number of times and the answer always is, “We just didn’t think anybody wanted to be around cats so we didn’t write them into the law.” We’ll work to change that. I think we’ll prove that people like cats. Although if I could have it my way, I would have cats and dogs at this place. We might have a token dog outside.
What’s the next step after the Kickstarter?
The first step would be calling my realtor, as I do have a place in mind. That’ll be the first step, securing a place after telling the landlord, “Yes, I’d like to rent your place, this is awesome, also I’m going to have thirty cats living here.” I mean that’s a sell. I want to get the doors open as fast as I can. My goal is to open by the end of the year.
What if you don’t meet the $60,000 goal?
I’ll reassess if that happens. I know it’s a possibility, but I can’t think about it right now. It would be a super bummer. If this doesn’t work out, I’ll have to get a regular job again. But nobody wants to do that! I just want to hang out with cats.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
(Photo courtesy of Chris Olson.)