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Image: Lauren Kelly

Thank Taiwan and Japan for the concept: a public place to play with felines, usually with adoptable kitties from a local shelter. They number in the hundreds in Japan, but there’s only one in Seattle so far. 

It took Matt Lai and his fellow founders of Wallingford’s Seattle Meowtropolitan more than a year and a half to secure permits before opening in 2015. The state department of health was so puzzled by their setup that Lai had to visit in person to explain his applications.

“It was an unprecedented business model,” says Lai. Landlords assumed no one would insure them; it took a custom policy to cover both claw scratches and coffee scaldings.

Cat cafes require a lot of things in duplicate. Meowtropolitan is both a coffee bar—baristas top Herkimer “catpuccinos” with foam-sculpted whiskers—and a cat room ($10 an hour) where patrons can touch, but not pick up, the felines. Accessing the medieval-themed cat zoo takes hand sanitizer, a reservation, and a two-door entryway to prevent escapes. 

“The whole process has been such a challenge in every way,” says Caitlin Unsell, who hopes to launch Seattle’s second cat cafe, Neko, later this year. Everything took longer than she’d hoped, from the funding (an Indiegogo push scored only $14k but tons of publicity) to real estate. 

Still, Unsell is unconcerned that she’s on year four of dreaming up Neko, which recently found a Capitol Hill home on Pine. “I think Seattle is very open to the concept. There could be one in every neighborhood,” she says. Just not quite yet.

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