In May 2018 I spoke to Ewa Rukat, the founder of You&Meow on Denmark Street in Bristol. I was keen to learn how she turned this unusual business idea into a reality, how she ensures the welfare of the animals, and whether it was what she expected. One year on, You&Meow is booked up most weekends and has a thriving menagerie of 14 cats and kittens living within its zen garden walls.
What inspired you to open a cat cafe?
I lived in London for three years, that’s where I first got involved with cat cafes. I worked at Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium, the first cat cafe to open in the UK. In the few years that followed, five new cat cafes sprung up in the UK, so there was clearly a trend emerging.
I’ve been interested in running a business since I was young. When I was working at Lady Dinah’s, I thought it would be amazing if someday I could open my own cat cafe, but I didn’t see the point in opening yet another one in London. But when I came to Bristol, there were no cat cafes here. It felt like the perfect location to create a cat cafe in my own different way.
I love cats. I connect them with spirituality, I believe they are extremely intuitive animals, and I love all topics around mindfulness. Having spent some time in Japan, I felt very connected with Japanese culture and with cats. Deep down, I wanted to create a space for people to disconnect from their daily worries. Cats plus zen felt like the best combination ever!
How was the cafe funded?
It was crowdfunded. Most cat cafes are. But you really need to have additional funding – I took out a loan and some outside investment as well. I used Fundsurfer because they’re Bristol-based and I wanted to create a place for Bristolians.
It wasn’t easy. In fact, many doubted whether I would even make it. I had about 4.5k missing on the last day – that was when I found an investor. He’d been following the journey of the cafe and the crowdfunding campaign, and on the last day I had a call with him just 30 minutes before the campaign finished (it was an all-in or nothing campaign). It was a miracle, in a way. Looking back now, I’m very grateful for his belief in my persistence and hard work.
Two weeks before the campaign ended, I had 1000 leaflets left to distribute. On the back of each one I wrote ‘to learn more, please visit our Fundsurfer website’, and then drew a cat face. I am big believer in going for quality over quantity. I distributed these leaflets, and this is how my investor found me. He went on the website and supported the campaign by buying a generous perk. He said the personal touch made him smile and he wanted to support the project.
If I hadn’t been passionate about the idea, I doubt I would’ve had the motivation to sit there signing and distributing hundreds of leaflets for hours every day. But I have a big belief that if you go the extra mile, it’ll come back to you. You can’t just sit back and wait for things to happen. From my experience, life just doesn’t work this way.
Where do your cats come from?
Originally we were going to work with a rescue centre, but that didn’t work out. From there, we decided to approach individuals who were rehoming cats through places like Facebook and Gumtree. At the start, we were simply looking for any cats who needed a home.
We had some cats who came in over the age of two, but we decided to rehome them within the first month of trading as they became territorial with our other cats. The beginning wasn’t easy. Now we look for younger cats – around 2-3 months old – and it has proved to be a successful approach. Since then, our cats are very content with each other.
Younger cats are much easier to introduce to the cafe environment. They look for stimulation and play, and our customers look for engagement with them, so it’s a win-win situation. Also, younger cats are unlikely to be territorial or have any trauma. All these factors contribute towards having a more harmonious cat family.
People always ask us how we manage to have such happy cats, and it’s because we bring them in young. We start with our special room, so the kittens don’t go out onto the main floor until they’re ready. This also stops the older cats from feeling threatened. But if the cats are interested, they can come in and see the kittens on their own terms. We’ve observed that it takes 3-4 days for the older cats to adjust to new arrivals, and after that period they all play together, which is so much fun to watch.
Can customers adopt cats from the cafe?
We get asked this a lot. The short answer is yes. We want to support adoption as much as possible, but we do it slowly. We can’t have cats coming and going all the time, as it’s stressful for the others.
We watch the cats carefully for signs: if they want to go outside or aren’t getting along with each other. That’s when we know they’re ready to go. Some of the cats you can tell are really happy here, so they’ll probably stay with us for longer.
We don’t keep cats until they’re old; we want them to have happy, permanent homes. Usually we rehome them after 2-3 years, or earlier if needed. The cats who are currently here love being here, they love being around people and you can tell they are not stressed. So we focus on finding and keeping cats who are suitable for this environment.
Could shelters and cat cafes ever work together?
I think they could, it’s just finding the balance. Making sure the cats are happy is very important, and some shelters are concerned that cats won’t be happy in a cafe.
But I genuinely think that any cat-loving business owner doesn’t want their cats to suffer. Why would they be doing something like this otherwise? My experience has shown me that professional people running cat cafes really care about their animals.
There is definitely a balance to be found between the two, but it’s all down to personal preference. Some rescues want to do things their own way. People often want to adopt cats from cat cafes because they have a chance to get to know them. Shelters don’t always provide an easy way to get to know a cat before you adopt.
Who do we really want to help? Cats. Where do people want to come and play with cats? Cat cafes. There’s obviously some amazing common ground to be explored.
What are your thoughts on the negative press around cat cafes?
It’s a common concern and one I can fully understand. I’ve been to Japan and seen some cat cafes where you can tell the cats are not happy. You need to understand cat behaviour to be sure you can provide everything they need. Cats can be very complex, especially when it comes to a multi-cat household.
I never wanted to have a massive cafe because my main focus was creating an intimate, relaxing space. There are so many different ways you can manage the stress of the cats – making sure you don’t have too many people, for one. Once you have everything in place, it’s absolutely fine.
I understand people have concerns, but you shouldn’t judge the taste of the apple if you’ve never tried the apple. Come and see for yourself, because they’re not all the same. We care for our cats like they’re our babies, we talk to them after working hours, and we have all the measures in place to fulfill their needs and prevent anything bad from happening.
It doesn’t take much to see when cats are unhappy. It’s just common sense. And if the cats are unhappy, customers won’t come back. So it works both ways.
What did you learn from visiting other cat cafes?
Before I opened a cat cafe, I visited all the cat cafes in England, one in Edinburgh, and one in Paris. I also went to see the cat cafes in Japan. Mostly I wanted to see logistics and experience them from a customer perspective.
Smell is an important factor. Obviously when you go somewhere to eat or drink, you don’t want it smelling bad. Hygiene is crucial – I pay a lot of attention to this. I’ve been to some cat cafes where it’s just not nice. For me it’s obvious: keep the place clean, especially when there’s food and animals involved.
You also want to make sure the cats are happy and have a lot of hiding spaces. A big part of the experience is whether the cats are engaging with you, because people come to play with the cats. If the cats are bored or unhappy, they won’t want to engage with the customers, so finding the balance is important. You want to stimulate them – but not over-stimulate them. That wouldn’t be fair, considering cats sleep up to 16 hours a day.
I’ve been to some cat cafes that were busy and others that were much quieter, and I definitely preferred the quieter cafes. It’s all about the feeling and the atmosphere. I wanted to create a relaxing, therapeutic space. That was the main goal for me.
What is the most common feedback you get from customers?
That it’s peaceful and relaxing. We also have a lot of positive comments about the cafe design. A lot of thought went into creating this space. Many customers say the design is very pretty and unique, and that you don’t feel like you’re in the city centre. There are so many cat cafes, but none with such a focus on relaxation and tranquility.
We have a lot of returning customers, which is amazing. It’s nice to see that people appreciate what we’re doing. People also comment on how clean it is and are amazed at how zen and happy the cats are around each other.
And of course, everyone loves my staff. I was looking for 4 people and I got 120 applications. When it came to the interviews, I said: “I don’t care what you have on your CV. What are you passionate about? What are your worries?”. I wanted fun people with integrity and a good work ethic. Everything else you can teach.
One year on: is it what you expected?
When I started, there were so many obstacles. But I had to make it work, because I knew deep down that this would resonate with people.
Connecting with animals can be very therapeutic. Life is more stressful than it’s ever been. But there are also more solutions now. I think cat cafes could be one of them.
I came at this with good intentions; I wanted to help people and rescue cats. It’s a win-win on both sides. Because it came from the heart and not just a desire to make money, I knew it was going to work. I want to take it further and help more people. We have so many ideas already.
If I could go back? I wouldn’t change anything.
What forms of marketing have you found most successful?
That’s the interesting thing. We haven’t done any marketing whatsoever.
We had so much press around the opening. And we use social media – it’s a helpful platform for customers too. But largely it’s been word of mouth from day one. BBC Radio Bristol videoed one of our cat meditation evenings – watch it here.
How would you sum up your business philosophy?
It can be summed up by my favourite quote from Simon Sinek:
“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.”
I believe that every business is a reflection of the business owner.
Authenticity, knowing your ‘why’ and having deep values is important. I don’t believe in business to business, or business to customer. I believe in human to human. Life is so stressful already, so why make it more transactional and soulless? I think any business that’s transparent and willing to go the extra mile to provide an amazing experience for customers will always win long term. At the end of the day, we’re just humans. I like to keep things real.
I had a lot of emails asking me how I opened the cafe. The startup costs are ridiculous – we properly bootstrapped. I still remember my amazing staff helping me out taking up the floor, painting the walls and applying shop front stickers until 4 in the morning. Brilliant memories now!
Sure, it takes a lot of planning and research. I’d never run a business before. But obviously it’s still going, and it’s going well. And we have big plans for the future.
Special thanks to Ewa Rukat for her time and insight into the realities of running a city cat cafe. Having paid a visit myself (twice), I can confirm that it is indeed a clean, calm and relaxing place – and the cats are very lively and full of personality. They recently introduced two new kittens: Indigo and Shaman.