KitTea Cafe, well known as San Francisco’s only cat cafe, has been slinging pastries, tea, and kitty cat cuddles since the summer of 2015. But now, the crowdfunded cat adoption center slash restaurant is dark, as co-founder Courtney Hatt waits to see if or when KitTea can reopen.
The Hayes Valley restaurant made headlines long before it had even chosen Hayes Valley as its location, as Hatt announced her plans back in January of 2014. Inspired by Japan’s cat cafe culture (which in recent years has expanded to trains and even hedgehogs), Hatt said at the time that she wanted to provide an alternative to the oft-frenetic coffee house experience.
KitTea was preceded by Oakland’s Cat Town Cafe, which has the distinction of being the first cat cafe in the U.S. Like KitTea, its doors have been closed by the Bay Area’s shelter in place, its 30 adoptable cats since relocated to foster homes, and all adoptions arranged remotely.
Hatt says that KitTea’s more adoptable cats have also been dispatched to foster homes, but many still remain at the cafe. That’s because some of KitTea’s longer-term residents would be too stressed by relocation, Hatt says. Workers remain on the payroll to care for the felines, but Hatt doesn’t know how long that can continue: She says that despite applying for a federal payroll protection program (PPP) loan, she hasn’t received one — and another loan she applied for prior to the PPP program was retracted.
Hatt says that all the grants she’s applied to haven’t gotten a response, either. “It’s incredibly deterring,” Hatt says. “We were a successful business, we were sustainable, and we were even a business for good...we helped cats get adopted, and that in turn helps people.” But KitTea has “gotten zero empathy from the banks, the state, or the city,” she says.
So far, Hatt says, the only support KitTea has gotten has been through the community, as a GoFundMe that she launched has provided enough money to sustain the business for now. The timeline for a reopening of Bay Area restaurants remains unclear, but Hatt says that her business is ready to reopen as soon as officials give the word.
And KitTea might be one of the safest places to visit when restaurants are cleared to reopen, Hatt says. Not only did it already engage in strict sanitation protocols to protect the cafe from cross-contamination with the cats, but visitors have always been required to lather up with hand sanitizer and take precautions like removing their shoes.
In addition, upon its original opening in 2015, KitTea workers were trained in how to prevent the spread of coronaviruses — that is, the family of infectious diseases that now includes COVID-19. As part of that training, they learned specific cleaning protocols, Hatt says, and the cafe uses solutions “that kill everything from coronaviruses to ringworm” to keep the place clean and to protect human guests and feline residents.
Hatt says she’s ready to reopen with even stricter protocols, however, including cutting capacity in half, and handing out masks and gloves to all guests. (That said, she says that though she’s tried to contact San Francisco’s Department of Public Health to see if any specific guidelines would apply to her unique situation, no one has responded.)
But whatever happens has to happen soon, as Hatt says her funds are continuing to dwindle. “This is my livelihood,” Hatt says, and costs like rent, PG&E bills to cover the cafe’s two separate HVAC systems, and daily laundering of the cats’ beds haven’t gone away. And then there’s the cats themselves, who live in blissful ignorance of the pandemic but “are tired of our faces, and would love to see new ones, and have new hands petting them.” The therapeutic nature of contact with animals might also be helpful in this time of uncertainty, Hatt says. “It’s good for people too, to be with animals in a time of stress,” she says, “it’s something people need.”