Inside D.C.’s first cat cafe, where you can cuddle by the hour

David Feinman and Stephanie Levy of Bethesda, Maryland, cuddle with Clapton at Crumbs & Whiskers in Washington, D.C. . Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey.)

WASHINGTON — You probably won’t get a chance to pet Olivia. The gray-and-white spotted kitty is the current favorite at Crumbs & Whiskers, the Georgetown cat cafe that opens on Saturday. But because Olivia is so friendly — making her way from lap to lap, purring and mewing and begging for a scratch behind the ears, despite the fresh scar from her spaying — she may well be adopted before then.

And if that happens, the cafe’s 24-year-old owner, Kanchan Singh, will burst into tears.

Not for the first time.

“Olivia and I had a moment the first day,” she says. “We were both on the pillows, and Olivia and I had a moment, and then I cried to her. She was in pain, and I could tell. I’m going to cry again. Oh my gosh, I’m such a baby.”

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Singh has a big heart. Her fans have big pockets. Those two things came together via a nearly $36,000 Kickstarter campaign to create this bright two-story space, where people will pay $12 an hour ($10 on weekdays) to pet cats.

Yes, you can do the same thing at the Humane Society for free.

But that’s beside the point. Cat cafes aren’t just about petting cats. They’re about connection and yearning, about Internet virality, about experiences versus objects, pleasure versus responsibility, permanence versus ephemerality.

But, OK, mostly they’re about petting cats.

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Think of a cat cafe as the opposite of virtual reality — Crumbs & Whiskers and its peers give us the online world of cat fandom, IRL. It’s Lolcats and Lil Bub and Maru all in one place — plus lattes. Cat cafes are where the twee-est and squee-est of Internet tropes are real.

Blame BuzzFeed and Reddit. Blame millennials with disposable income. But if you’re rolling your eyes at the concept of a place where people pay money to pet cats, you must first blame Taiwan. That’s where the world’s first cat cafe opened in 1998. The trend really took off in Japan, where there are more than 150 cat cafes. That country has already moved on to other species of cute: bunny cafes, owl cafes, even a goat cafe. Meanwhile, cat cafes have spread throughout Europe and the United States, where entrepreneurs have opened up shop in Denver, San Diego, New York, Oakland, California, and Portland, Oregon. Washington hosted a pop-up cafe late last year.

When Singh, inspired by a visit to a cat cafe in Thailand, announced her intention to open a permanent space last November, she hadn’t yet procured a lease or funding or any details beyond a partnership with the Washington Humane Society, which provides her felines. Nevertheless, the response, to echo a popular trope, was “Shut up and take my money.” Her Kickstarter goal was $15,000. She earned that much in a day, and then doubled it.

A cafe with hair balls threw the D.C. Department of Health for a curve, so Singh jettisoned her original plans to make coffee and baked goods in an adjacent facility. Her current setup leaves all the food preparation and profit to GTown Bites, across the street, and any edibles are delivered in a sealed container. Food is served at the customer’s risk, eliminating the need for a health inspection.

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The easiest hurdle to clear was animal control, which the Humane Society manages for the city. Any patron of the cafe who wants to keep a cat can fill out an application with the Humane Society.

“We just see this as another outlet for finding adopters for these cats,” says Lauren Lipsey, the WHS director of re-homing. “We’re excited.”

They’re not the only ones. Crumbs & Whiskers has been so eagerly anticipated that local blogs breathlessly covered even the most mundane steps of its march toward opening day, including the zoning hearing and fundraising parties. did an entire blog post on the cafe’s help-wanted ad. For three temporary 20-hour-per-week positions, Singh offered the following compensation: “Free access to Crumbs & Whiskers. Forever. And a really fun and amazing experience. (Also tons of really cool cat swag, which you’re obviously into.)”

Four days later, she had received nearly 150 applications.

Singh is so bubbly and effusive and huggy that you could almost mistake her for a dog person. Though she graduated from the University of Maryland in 2012 with a finance degree, she’s winging it when it comes to a business plan. Calling the entire operation “a giant experiment,” she has no Plan B.

The cats — 14 as of Monday’s pre-opening party, but Singh pledges 20 total for opening day — were introduced to the space last Friday. It was chaos.

“We were hanging out here and someone was like, ‘Oh no! This cat just took a giant dump on your cushion! We need a new one, right now!’ ” says Singh. “And another person is like, ‘Oh man, this angry cat is now in the bathroom and no one can use the bathroom because he’s angry! And these other three cats almost killed each other! This cat is hiding!’ It was all over the place.”

As she tried to coax the cats out from their hiding spots, she began to wonder whether the entire concept was doomed. But a few days later, she fell asleep in the cafe after working until 2 a.m. and woke up to a sign that all would be OK: Two pusses, Olivia and Titi, had come upstairs to sleep with her.

But cats are mercurial. She has several scratches on her arms, and though she hopes that the animals will be on their best behavior, she’s making customers sign a waiver, just in case. She has stockpiled Band-Aids.

Just as bad would be a room full of felines that don’t want to play with people.

“I won’t force them, I’m just going to have a lot of angry customers,” she says, promising refunds if the cats don’t cooperate. “If you’re selling cupcakes, you can control the cupcake,” but you can’t control cats. “It is what it is.”

“Hi baaaabieeessss!”

“Little fluff monkey!”

“Hi, sweetie, you’re a little elf.”

The first humans arrive for Monday’s pre-party, and after a debrief on the rules — “Be gentle with cats. No flash photography. Keep lids on cups. Never wake a sleeping cat. Stay awesome!” — everyone’s voice goes up an octave or two. Pussycats and people sit on the floor cushions lining the walls, both species totally blissed out.

“Olivia is loving it,” says Singh. “This is her dream come true.”

NASA rocket scientist Robert LaVerghetta, 48, wore cat-printed socks for the occasion. He donated $200 to the Kickstarter in honor of his cat Cotton, who died in November.

“I had a bad weekend at work, and I was kind of looking forward to this because it’s nice to pet cats,” he says. “If I could make playing with cats my career, I would.”

“Oh no, did someone stop playing with you?” Rebecca Davis-Nord, who also donated $200, asks a gray tabby. The 43-year-old fundraiser wonders what her two cats at home, Scout and Sadie, would think of her transgression.

“I told them when I left this morning, ‘I’m going to come home and smell of other kitties, but it doesn’t mean anything. I’m still coming home to you.'” she says.

Nearby, Stephanie Levy and David Feinman are cradling Clapton, a sleeping tabby, as if he were an infant. Levy arranged for the sneak peek of the cafe for her husband’s 36th birthday. “He’s my crazy cat lady,” she says.

On the second floor, a poster reads: “Good Vibes Only.” Vibes, said Kanchan, are what her customers are paying for. You don’t get good vibes at a shelter, where an air of desperation prevails.

“The cat cafe places a lot of these homeless animals in a much more digestible setting for people,” says Lipsey. “If it means that these people end up adopting, we all come out ahead.”

That is, if Singh is able to sustain the current level of interest. At the two-hour party, about half the 20-some guests have their fill after an hour, and leave.

The cafe “could be wildly successful,” Singh says, or “people could be like, ‘Ooh, shiny!’ and then they forget about it.”

Kind of like the silver tinsel on the wall, which initially captivated the room’s feline occupants. Until the ear-scratching — and then the naps — beckoned.