by Sarah Anderson • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
Looking out the window from her South Division Street digs, Kati Palmurkar reflects on how she got here.
“I don’t necessarily believe in fate, but sometimes the universe just works out how it is supposed to,” the grounded and pragmatic entrepreneur mused.
She describes herself as “the crazy cat lady behind the Happy Cat Cafe,” but Palmurkar exudes stability, practicality and business know-how far beyond any crazy cat lady stereotype would have one believe.
Palmurkar and her husband have managed to create what no one has before — Grand Rapids’ very first cat cafe, where the community can go to enjoy a hot beverage and the company of seven or so feline friends. After reading about cat cafes in other countries in a BuzzFeed post, the duo decided to pool their knowledge and experience in hospitality and retail to start their own.
“Nobody else is going to do this in Grand Rapids,” Palmurkar recalls thinking. She built a website, created a Facebook page, a logo, bought the domain name and quietly continued planning for the brick-and-mortar storefront called Happy Cat Cafe.
“That’s all it was at first,” Palmurkar said. “Within a week, we had 3,000 likes. The first post I did, 200,000 people saw it.”
Having gone viral before even registering her business, she realized that her effort to start a cat cafe would be met with many Grand Rapidians who are craving a feline-filled sanctuary.
In August 2015, Palmurkar launched a kickstarter and was able to raise $27,000. After viewing about 30 different places in a time span of six months, Palmurkar and her husband signed the lease for their 447 S Division Avenue store in February 2016. Sitting right on the outskirts of the Heartside neighborhood, Palmurkar felt a kindred connection to the location.
“It was up and coming, like how we were,” she expressed. “This area has been knocked down a lot and I thought we could make it better.”
From there, the journey had just begun; transforming an old antique store into a fully functioning cafe and animal center was no small task. Adhering to all of the Department of Agriculture regulations meant completely renovating the space including plumbing, ventilation and creating a separate room for the cats. Palmurkar and her husband were eagerly awaiting the completion of the project and to open their doors to the public, but they were also eagerly awaiting the newest member of their family.
January 2017 brought their newborn son and the permits for Happy Cat Cafe. In March, the cats were brought in and the cafe opened just for yoga classes. In August, the cafe had its grand opening, welcoming a flood of customers ready to buy a coffee and some time with a room full of cats.
“They have wonky ears, they’re missing a leg; they have things that to me are special about them. I kind of identify with them about having that hardship and finally getting to this place that is going to help them.” – Kati Palmurkar, Owner of Happy Cat Café
Currently, the cafe is equipped with a Keurig, and this year Palmurker plans on installing an espresso machine to make the location a destination coffee shop, even for those who aren’t drawn to the feline main attractions. Eventually, Palmurker would love to be able to offer her patrons wine and beer on the menu.
“That would just put it over the top for me,” Palmurkar laughs.
In the meantime, the cafe is keeping busy with yoga, event nights including Cats & Canvas, Crafts & Cats, Game Nights with Cats and hosting private parties. For regular visits, there is a limit to the number of people allowed in the room, so guests are encouraged to reserve their spot in advance online at happycatcompany.com.
Happy Cat Cafe partners with Carol’s Ferals, an organization designed to end feline overpopulation through their trap-neuter-return program. The organization supplies the cafe with cats to hang out with or to adopt if one so chooses. Cats treated through Carol’s Ferals are either returned to the wild or adopted out to loving homes, with which Happy Cat Cafe is glad to help.
In the cafe, there is a wall covered with a vast spread of colorful cat faces, a 2014 ArtPrize entry from Carol’s Ferals. Over a span of five years, the organization had 11,000 children come to the shelter to learn about the trap-neuter-return program and each of them colored a paper cat face. Combined into one mural, the cats represent the 11,000 kittens that can come from two cats breeding for five years.
Carol Manos, owner of Carol’s Ferals, describes the partnership with the cafe as “an absolute miracle.”
Happy Cat Cafe has adopted out more than 30 cats from Carol’s Ferals since their opening and has spread awareness to the organization. This year, Carol’s Ferals has hit record numbers in adoptions, providing more than 200 loving homes to the “friendlies” in their shelter.
“Beyond that, now people know who Carol’s Ferals is,” explained Munos. “It put us on the map in a different light. Some people don’t even know we have adoptable cats.”
Manos considers the greater impact she is able to offer the community through the increasing adoptions.
“By partnering with the Cat Cafe, I am able to take a lot of cats out of the streets — the friendly ones,” she said. “We take cats that are in dire situations. You’re saving a life and allowing me to save another life when you adopt from us.”
As for Palmurkar’s choice to partner with Carol’s Ferals, Palmurkar felt it was a perfect match.
“They [the cats] lived on the streets sometimes for most of their lives,” she expressed. “They have wonky ears, they’re missing a leg; they have things that to me are special about them. I kind of identify with them about having that hardship and finally getting to this place that is going to help them.”
The cats in the cafe have it pretty good; you can walk in to find them lounging by the window, excitedly watching snow fall, curled up on bean bags, tucked into a cozy corner or playing with each other or one of the volunteers or visitors. It’s hard to believe that most of these cats came from the wild. Palmurkar and the cats have found this quaint cafe as their saving grace and their launchpad for the future. The cats will go on to find their “furever” families and a happily ever after while Palmurkar is finally living hers.