Java Cats, Atlanta’s first cat café, officially opened doors on March 27, 2017. The brainchild behind the brand, founder Hadyn Hilton, launched the project out of her desire to help both cats and people that didn’t have homes. After funding the venture through a successful Kickstarter campaign as well as private donations, Hadyn jumped into action to make the plan a reality. She started by partnering with The Gathering, a non-profit organization sponsored by the Atlanta Mission that helps homeless men and women get back on their feet by teaching them culinary skills, for boxed meals. She then set up a location in historic Grant Park where visitors could pay an hourly rate to enjoy Ebrik coffee and be surrounded by adoptable cats. Lastly, she built a partnership with PAWS Atlanta, Georgia’s oldest no-kill shelter for cats and dogs, to provide the fully vetted, screened and adoptable cats directly to the café.
Today, Java Cats Café offers strays an amazing opportunity to live in a stress-free, customized cat paradise while being lovingly cared for and doted on by staff and customers each day. Since opening, over 150 cats have been successfully adopted into their forever homes. MiLLENNiAL caught up with Hayden to learn about her experience as an entrepreneur in Atlanta and how the community has responded to her altruistic venture.
What motivated your decision to start a cat adoption café?
The most significant motivator to open Java Cats mainly comes from my desire to get adoptable cats out of cages and increase adoptions for older cats. Whenever I got discouraged in the process of opening my café, I would visit Pet-Smart or Petco to visit the kitties that stayed in the cages there. The efforts to give the cats more exposure was pure, but I just kept thinking a cat café had to be more effective in providing them with more exposure in a setting that wouldn’t make visitors feel bad about not taking them all home!
I have always been a huge advocate for animals, but unfortunately, cats get severely overlooked (especially adult cats) when it comes to adoption. Nationwide, an average of 3.4 million cats are euthanized, and I firmly believed that cat cafés could change the approach of adoption. We have significantly increased the adoption rate of older cats by making that our focus in the lounge.
The idea to partner with The Gathering is fantastic. Explain the role of the homeless in Java Cats Café and how the integration has helped your business?
I want to keep Java Cats very much community-oriented. Homeless cats and homeless people in the area are two things I care very much about helping. I worked for The Gathering as their photographer years before Java Cats, so their mission is one I strongly supported. I wanted to create a place that people could feel good about where their money was going and having The Gathering provide our food made sense and seemed like a great fit. I love how The Gathering gives a hand up and not a handout, by equipping the homeless community with jobs and a skill set to continue to find work in the restaurant industry.
Walk us through the visitor process. What is the experience a patron can expect and how does your adoption program work?
When a guest walks through the door, they are greeted by one of our talented baristas on the café side. The café has a rustic feel with a beautiful wood bar with windows into the cat lounge, community table, a comfy couch, and cozy string lighting across the ceiling. Guests can order from our coffee or tea menu and hang out in the café, or if they decide to book a session to go into the lounge, they can. Reservations are available online, but we also take walk-ins up to our max of 10 people per session.
For $10 you receive unlimited drip coffee, ice coffee, or an organic Rishi tea. Each session is one hour, and the admission price helps us with paying our lounge employees and all the care that goes into our foster cats. The lounge is separated by a double door entry, which prevents cross-contamination of any hair or dander from entering the café. The lounge is an intimate room with vertical space covering the walls and ceiling. Everywhere you look, there are cats!
The lounge is a magical and relaxing experience. Whether people come to adopt or not, no one will feel bad for not adopting a cat from the lounge; in fact, it might be the other way around; you might feel bad for taking the cat away from the lounge! We love for our cats to be socialized since we do take in untrusting/scared cats to work with regularly. At the end of the day, we believe in adoptions- and matching people to the right cat. If a patron does decide to adopt, we have an extensive application from the shelter that we will submit for them, and if approved, we have all the paperwork for each cat on site that we will go over with the guest. Adoption fee can be by cash or card, and 100% of the adoption fee goes straight back to Paws Atlanta.
What have been some of the biggest challenges in starting this venture?
Honestly, everything! Everything has been a learning curve for me since I come from a film background. I didn’t know much about the ins and outs of business and had to learn very quickly how to set up my business, manage a team, and keep up with all of the business expenses! Before the business was open, obtaining my permits and constantly combating the city was probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever faced. I felt that the city had no urgency to help me open my business.
I learned many lessons, and my eyes were opened to the harsh reality of entrepreneurship in a city like Atlanta. Recently I started a Women’s Entrepreneurship Group called “Java Cats Creatives” just to offer community and help to those who are also wanting to start a business. We have over 70 women who joined and an average of 30 that meet every Wednesday, including those on Skype in other states. It’s nice to share what I’ve learned with others and offer help to those also on a journey of opening their own cat café.
Now that you are celebrating your first year, what are your plans for expansion?
We are opening a second location! The opportunity arose to look into a location outside the perimeter, and the building was much bigger than our first location, which means we can save more cats. I said yes, and we will very likely open the same time as our one-year anniversary of Grant Park. We are also hosting a Cat Film Festival in hopes of bringing the community together to enjoy cat videos submitted and created by anyone who wants to be involved! More information can be found on the javacatscafe.com page!
What is one thing you’d like to see change in Atlanta and how can the Java Cats Café help to move that agenda forward?
I would love to see Atlanta become more resourceful for entrepreneurs- especially young entrepreneurs. I hope to stay more involved and vocal in efforts to make the city more urgent and willing to support small business, so that we may grow as a city. I feel that Java Cats is a prime example of the sexism I faced being a 24 year old female trying to open a business. I wrote a letter to the Mayor about my concerns/struggle, and I had to have the help of Carla Smith, Grant Park District Representative, for the city to finally take me seriously.
What was the key step in transforming yourself from an aspiring entrepreneur to an actual business owner?
It’s one thing to dream, but it’s another thing to take the risk and actually do it. The transition from entrepreneur to business owner was almost scary! I got so caught up in fighting the city for permitting, staying on contractors, scrubbing walls, being covered in dust from cleaning a building that wasn’t occupied in years, to all of a sudden having to figure out how to run the business I was trying to open all along!
It was a crazy transition, but one that I had hoped would come sooner, especially since I was running out of money! Being a business owner and entrepreneur have one big thing in common: mistakes. The best lessons are the mistakes that are inevitable, so I learned to give myself some grace and carry on with wisdom for the future.