Column: Cat-lover alert! At San Diego’s Cat Cafe, companionship and coffee are still on the menu


On June 23, Tony Wang was spending the fourth week of 2022’s National Adopt-a-Cat Month hanging out with Waverly, a black cat with a passion for leaping on tables and batting at pens. Also Julia, a low-key tortoiseshell who was becoming one with a basket near the window. Also lounging Larry, buoyant Balou, amiable Andy, and — lording it over the cat room from the top of the palm-tree climbing structure — the mercurial Scarlett in all of her orange-tabby glory.

In other words, it was business as usual at The Cat Café in the Gaslamp Quarter, where Adopt-a-Cat Month started in January of 2015 and never stopped. Although some months have been a lot more hair-raising than others.

There was that first January, when Wang opened what was then the only spot in Southern California where customers could drink coffee and commune with free-roaming, adoptable cats. It was such a media sensation that Wang had customers lining up outside the door within two weeks of opening. The learning curve got very steep very quickly.

The cats are also a hot commodity when Comic-Con comes to town, when the animal-loving masses descend upon the café for singular selfies and 50 precious minutes of super-strength Zen. With the pop-culture convention returning on July 21, Wang is taking reservations now for the popular “Kitties and Coffee for San Diego Comic-Con.”

Then there was the stretch that started in March of 2020, when The Cat Café was closed for almost three months because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But while the café was not open to customers, it was still home to a dozen cats, none of whom were closed for business.

“I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn’t know how hard it was going to be. I thought, ‘Well, it will be just two weeks, and that gives us 12 weeks before Comic-Con. We should be fine.’ But that didn’t happen,” Wang said.

For almost three months, there were no customers paying $18 for their hour in the cat room. (Admission also includes a food or drink item from a menu that features coffee from San Diego’s Café Virtuoso and locally made goodies from Bread & Cie and the Cravory.) No one browsing the cafe’s selection of T-shirts, mugs and other items. No conventions. No tourists.

But there were cats. And where there were cats, there was hope.

“It gave me something else to focus on, and it was kind of a blessing,” said Wang, who walked from his East Village apartment to the cafe twice a day to feed the cats and take care of litter boxes, belly rubs and other necessities.

“I had something else to think about other than, ‘I have no money coming in. How am I going to survive this?’ I had to come in twice a day no matter what, and that really helped my sanity. The ability to get out of my apartment and interact with other living things was very therapeutic.”

The therapy did not stop there.

Scarlett, an outgoing orange tabby who will be 2 years old in November, was among the adoptable cats hanging out at The Cat Cafe in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. Adoptions are done through The Rescue House.

(Pat Hartley/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Cat Café is one of a handful of adoption centers affiliated with The Rescue House, an Encinitas-based nonprofit organization that finds good homes for abandoned, unwanted, homeless and abused cats. During those early dark days of the pandemic, The Rescue House closed its Petco and PetSmart adoption centers to limit its volunteers’ possible exposure to the virus. But even when the café was closed to visitors, it was still facilitating adoptions.

Wang also made sure his cats kept a high social-media profile, as he engaged Facebook, Twitter and Instagram users with daily videos and an overnight livestream from the cat room, along with an endless, mood-lifting supply of cute photos and adoption success -story updates.

“Having the ability to bring people into the café was huge for us,” said Trace Cimins, the co-lead volunteer for The Rescue House’s Cat Café team. “We are a nonprofit, volunteer-run, no-kill organization, and to have Tony highlighting our cats and our organization on social media is such a huge help for us.”

Even after the café re-opened to customers in May of 2020, foot traffic for the year was down. But adoptions were up in a very big way. In 2019, The Cat Cafe sent 68 cats to new homes. In 2020, that number ballooned to 146.

And there was more good news on tap. In the spring of 2021, the café moved into a bigger building across the street. The new space has a nice outdoor patio, a larger café and better crowd flow. And as of this week, the grand adoption total is up to 677. New adoptees now include the aforementioned Julia, Andy, Waverly and Watson.

With Comic-Con back in town, and conventioneers and tourists returning to the Gaslamp, business is definitely picking up. Wang’s mission to bring joy to cats and humans alike hasn’t changed since he opened the café more than six eventful years ago, but the ability to keep doing it is a gift that feels more precious than ever.

“One thing I learned (from 2020) was that surviving as a small business can depend on how stubborn the business owner is, and I was not going down without a fight,” Wang said, as Balou scrambled to the top of the palm- tree spot recently vacated by Scarlett.

“Knowing that I am sending so many animals to good homes is very important to me. It’s not the money. It’s about the purpose and the focus. I get to send hundreds of animals to good homes. I get to literally change lives, and that is what still keeps me going.”

The Cat Café is at 302 Island Ave. in the Gaslamp Quarter. Reservations are encouraged. Go to catcafesd.com for information.

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