Anita Loughran is winning at life. Not only has the Melbourne entrepreneur established her dream business, but along the way she’s rescued 14 homeless cats and kittens from an uncertain fate, and every single day her business makes people happy.
In August 2014, Loughran and her partner Myles opened Cat Cafe Melbourne -- a haven for cat lovers of all ages, shapes, sizes and backgrounds to indulge their love of cats, talk about cats, play with cats and be in the company of, you guessed it, cats.
Even though Anita is allergic to the furry bundles of love, she's is so passionate about giving the cats a better life and giving Melbourne’s cat-loving population an outlet for their love, that she’s tried to boost her defences through a series of injections.
She reckons it’s a small price to pay for bringing her dream business to life.
And it seems it was a dream business idea for Melbourne’s feline fanatics too -- even the Loughrans had no idea the frenzy their proposal would spark.
“When we first opened up and said we were hiring, we got 800 applications for the three jobs we needed to fill at that stage,” Anita Loughran told The Huffington Post Australia.
“We still get 10 people a day asking if there’s any jobs.”
But before they even got to the hiring stage, Loughran knew there was demand for the cafe through the support of three crowdfunding campaigns, raising $21,000 -- enough to get them started.
The Loughrans got the inspiration for the cafe after visiting Japan and then suffering from the post-holiday blues.
“We were going to Japan on our honeymoon and a friend recommended going to a cat cafe, and as soon as he said those two words together, we were freaking out thinking ‘is this what we think it is?’” Loughran said.
“We get a lot of excited customers and it throws me back to how excited we were when we first heard about it. When we got back to Australia we were both working in different call centres, and neither of us were very happy in those roles.
“We had one of those conversations you have sometimes about what would be your dream job if you could do anything, and Myles said he’d open a cat cafe.
“He forgot all about it and I kept thinking ‘why hasn’t someone done this?’ So I called up the city council and was asking them about how we go about opening one.”
She said there was a certain amount of red tape to wade though, mainly about having food available at the cafe.
“For the first 6 months there was a lot of back and forth, a lot of calls to the city council going over their requirements,” she said.
“Basically you can't have animals in a food premises, but because we have an airlock that separates the cats from any food and beverage, and we have pre-packaged food, coffees and teas with lids, we were able to open as a cafe.”
Meeting council regulations were a breeze compared to finding a venue willing to host the cafe.
"It was very tricky,” Loughran said.
“We were searching for a place for 3 months and it did start to get to that scary point of ‘what if we don’t find a place?’”
But it seems that cat people instinctively know when other cat people need help, and after two knockbacks, a cat-loving landlord was willing to give them a go.
Loughran said the most important element of the business was having a strong social media presence. The cafe has nearly 40,000 likes on Facebook.
“It is the number one for us, I’d put it above everything,” Loughran said.
“Facebook, for us is the most useful. We communicate with customers and keep them up to date with what the cats are doing when they can’t visit.
“In the beginning it was really important -- we got a lot of contact from potential customers about what they wanted the cafe to be and do for them.”
She said having the support of friends and family was crucial when starting a business, particularly one that demanded as much time as a cat cafe.
“We’ve had to learn everything along the way and you really do need to have the right people around you,” she said.
“Without the support of my Myles, it never would have happened. We’ve also got amazing, dedicated staff that make everything so much easier.
“Your business takes over your life -- even on your days off, you're still checking emails and Facebook ... I really don't mind that though.
“It’s all for the cats.”
How does the cat cafe concept work?
The cafe is open 7 days a week so all cat fans need to do is choose a one-hour slot during those hours that they want to visit, turn up, pay their $10 and indulge in as much kitty smooching as possible in 60 minutes.
The visitor limit is capped at 15 people in its four rooms at any one time so the cats don’t get too crowded, and hourly slots regularly fill to the point Loughran recommends booking a spot online to avoid disappointment.
Who goes to a cat cafe?
Cat people, of course!
Loughran said before they opened they assumed the cafe would attract mostly women, aged between 20 and 30.
“We really did find out that you can’t put cat people in a neat little box,” Loughran said.
“We’ve had everyone from middle-aged bikers coming in and getting all excited and giggly when they see the cats, through to old people who can’t have cats any more where they are, students who are living away from home and travellers. Everyone from 8 years old and up.
“We have regulars too and for them we have loyalty cards -- we’ve got a few regular that have gone through many cards.”
The cafe even attracts people who have cats at home.
“The majority of customers do seem to already have cats,” Loughran said.
“They love showing us their cats' pictures and telling us about their cats.
“It’s this unique cat socialisation experience -- if you love cats you want to be around more cats.”
Who are the cats?
Cat Cafe Melbourne is the permanent home to 14 cats and kittens, they are not for sale or adoption. Their profiles appear on the Cat Cafe website.
They are free to roam the four visitor rooms and can take some time out -- and relieve themselves -- in the litter room whenever they need some time out.
”We really focused on their personalities in the beginning,” she said.
“We had to make sure they liked people, and got on with each other. Over first year they created their own hierarchy -- Jasper, Lopez and Clara -- they’re at the top, but that does change from time to time.
“Last year when we introduced three kittens, they had to fit in under the others and work their way in and up. It’s quite fascinating.”
Anita Loughran has been nominated as an Australian of the Day -- a Commonwealth Bank initiative to champion grassroots Australians and their daily lives, achievements and challenges.
Anyone can nominate a deserving Aussie to be photographed on the Australian of the Day site.