In a town that has seemingly gone to the dogs, one small business owner hopes to find a few customers who share a fondness for felines.
Claire Rogers is working to open “Frisky Business,” a cat cafe, by the time the Palm Springs International Film Festival kicks off in early January. The concept is simple: Cats roam freely through one room while food and beverages are served in another. For a fee, customers are welcome to bring their purchases into the room with the cats and mingle — giving their new furry friends some attention and (hopefully) getting some back.
The beauty of the business is that it does more than help form bonds between humans and felines over a cup of coffee and baked goods. Once up and running, it will help solve an issue in the city that is often overlooked — finding homes for homeless cats.
Unlike many businesses in the city that welcome animals and their pet parents, the only cats allowed at the cafe will be residents. Rogers plans to have a mix of rescues and residents — four who live at the cafe full-time, adopted from the older cat population at local shelters, and eight rotating in and out from those shelters as they are adopted.
How big is the need? Keith Zabel, vice president of the Palm Springs Animal Shelter (PSAS) Board of Directors, said there are more than 5,000 “community cats” — those without homes — in the city and up to 35,000 throughout the Coachella Valley.
“I think a large percentage of our residents don’t understand there is a massive community cat population in the desert,” Zabel said, explaining that many of them have gone through the shelter’s Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program. From 2016 to 2019, the program, made possible through a grant from Best Friends Animal Society, helped both PSAS and Coachella Valley Animal Campus spay and neuter more than 11,500 cats.
The concept of cat cafes dates back to the late 1990s, when what many consider the first opened in Taiwan. The idea spread to Japan, Europe, and North America, where Cat Town opened in Oakland in 2014. Until Frisky Business opens in Palm Springs, the nearest will be located in Los Angeles.
Rogers, a native of England, relocated to Palm Springs from Vancouver, British Columbia, after living in London for 21 years. Her first experience with the cat cafe concept was while traveling through South Carolina. She spent an afternoon speaking with the cafe’s owner and was stunned at what she had learned.
“I was talking with her and about how to sustain an income,” Rogers explained. “But what impressed me the most was that she had 2,000 cats adopted out.”
Seeing similar success is a lofty goal, but Rogers believes it’s possible, especially if the business takes off in Palm Springs.
“My intention is to get this one off the ground, and then I’ll open up a second one in the Valley,” Rogers said. In preparation, she has solicited the services of her partner, Sonny Von Cleveland, to serve as general manager. Von Cleveland also recently attended barista school.
“The citizens of Palm Springs have been so welcoming and so friendly,” Rogers said. “I love the sense of community, and I want to be a part of the community, and I want to help the community.
“It’s not just about me and making an income. It’s about getting cats adopted out. There are also a lot of seniors who love cats but can’t have them anymore. I want to create a place for people to experience cats.”
For both Rogers and Von Cleveland, the cafe will not just be an opportunity to give back to the community but a chance to continue their journeys along a path of emotional healing. Von Cleveland frequently speaks about surviving childhood trauma and prison. Rogers became a mental health awareness advocate and host of the Boot Camp for the Mind & Soul podcast after 20 years of “soul-destroying” corporate life.
“I left corporate life feeling like I hadn’t done any good helping the world,” Rogers said. “I’m now in the position to create a business that helps felines and people.”
Exactly where that business will open is a bit of a mystery right now. Rogers is still scouting locations and will need a variance from the city before being able to open. Live animals are not allowed to live in downtown businesses, where she hopes to be located. City staff and elected and appointed officials have been receptive to date, including Palm Springs Planning Commission members, who she spoke to earlier this month about the variance.
“There’s a lot of red tape in England,” she said. “I was expecting to have it here. With the zoning issue, I thought, “Oh god, this is going to shut down my entire operation before I get started. I wrote to [Mayor Christy Holstege] and thought I’d never hear back. I got her out of office message, but then she messaged me back within 15 minutes.”