Inside a new storefront in Whitehall Mill at the edge of Hampden, cats roam free, weaving between human feet or squatting placidly atop oversized cushions. A couple cloister themselves inside empty merch cubbies along the wall. Several jump up periodically to walk on the front desk, accompanying staffers who warmly greet guests coming in the doors.
This is Charm Kitty, Baltimore’s first-ever cat café. Here, current and hopeful cat owners can book a 70-minute appointment online, order a coffee or an artful, cat-shaped cookie, and nestle down on a cushy seat to meet the potential next addition to their family.
“The nature of Charm Kitty is very laid back,” said owner Cam Tucker during a private opening party on Friday. “One thing I told everyone is, calm and positive, that’s kind of the vibe that I’m going for with this space.”
Less than seven months ago, Charm Kitty Café was little more than a Kickstarter campaign. As Tucker told Baltimore Fishbowl in March, the plan was to build a co-working space for cat lovers, with space for telecommuters to come work while also spending time drinking coffee in the company of adoptable cats from the Baltimore Humane Society.
The campaign went viral one day in, raising more than $8,300 – well past its initial $5,000 goal – and after a month, it ended out with a haul of $27,031 from 586 backers.
Tucker took roughly six months to put it all together. He brainstormed actively, visiting other cat cafes and consulting their operators – Denver Cat Company’s Sana Hamelin was particularly helpful, he said – on best practices and creative ideas.
“It’s nice to not be the absolute first one to do it,” he said. “I am the pioneer maybe in Baltimore, but this has been done elsewhere.”
He worked patiently to obtain the necessary permits, including from Baltimore City Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals and city health and planning departments. Baltimore hasn’t had a cat café before, and Tucker needed to convince them it was safe and feasible. In the lead-up to last week’s opening, he had to pass five inspections, he said. (Charm Kitty Café is adhering closely to health codes, an employee noted, by making all beverages in a separate room before serving them to customers.)
Tucker hired a staff of 10 to help run the business. Kate McHugh Westfall, who lives in Hampden and self-identifies as a “cat lady,” said she donated immediately to the Kickstarter and soon after began considering if she could work there, given its proximity to home.
“As soon as they opened up positions I put in my application for a part-time job, and here I am,” she said. “It’s quite dreamy.”
After hiring a staff and getting the green light last week, Tucker proceeded with a series of planned weekend parties for his “investors.” Hundreds came through to see what they’d helped create, some traveling from as far as southern Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Holly Kleponis, a donor, was pleased with the finished product. Seeing cats walk around freely was far better than visiting caged felines at a shelter, she said. “It gives the cats more exposure, and that way more people will be up to adopt them. This is a much more friendly atmosphere.”
Christine DeCorse, executive director of the Baltimore Humane Society of Baltimore, said guests and cats alike seemed “really comfortable.”
“A shelter, it can be pretty stressful for a cat, because obviously they don’t have the space like they do here. They see people walking by all the time, they see other animals walking by all the time,” she said. “As much as we try to make it like a home, it isn’t. But this is probably the closest thing to it. Just having the space to move around and getting comfortable, to walk away, that’s huge.”
Her Reisterstown-based facility has already adopted out more than 1,000 animals this year alone, DeCorse said. Even just by bringing cats to stay and hopefully find new families at Charm Kitty Café, she hopes her team can adopt away more cats while making space for more animals back at the shelter.
The cat café functions on an appointment basis. Guests reserve a 70-minute window online, priced at $10 on weekdays and $12 on weekends. If they decide they want to adopt after socializing with a cat, they can fill out the necessary paperwork with the Baltimore Humane Society.
At present, Charm Kitty Café houses eight cats and has a human capacity capped at 14, with a person-to-cat ratio of about 2-to-1, Tucker said. He’s considering lowering that number – or adding more cats — based on how they respond to their visitors.
The co-working setup will come later once they’re off and running, and hours will be expanded. The design of the space may be reconfigured as well, Tucker said. For now, he’s putting his attention to special events, such as regular cat yoga sessions and a two-hour game night on Thursday, Oct. 12.
Charm Kitty Café officially opens to the public on Saturday, Sept. 30. Hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends, and weekdays from 5:30 to 9 p.m.
The first weekend is fully booked, Tucker said, but slots are available starting next week. Reservations can be made online.