When Lincoln’s first cat café opened in October 2019, it caused a stir of excitement. The craze that had been sweeping the world was finally arriving in the city, enabling anybody passing by to enjoy a coffee and cake in the company of cute, cuddly feline creatures. Coffee Cats is also a cat café with a very special difference: all of its resident animals are taken in from rescue shelters.
But when the pandemic hit in March 2020, the challenges facing the Brown family – who own and run Coffee Cats – were enormous. Not only did they need to navigate the shutdowns and restrictions imposed on all hospitality businesses, but they also had a fleet of felines to continue looking after. To make matters worse, as a new business, they could not draw on funds or access support in the way that many established venues were able to.
So, the team had to get creative. In this story, Ann Brown tells us about the experience of running a cat café in Lincoln through the pandemic, how the team has adapted, and the incredible support they have received from the local community.
Coffee Cats Lincoln: a brief history
When Stephen Brown had the idea of opening a cat café in Lincoln, his parents Ann and Kevin were enthusiastic to support him in achieving his vision. So, from the very beginning, Coffee Cats was founded as a family enterprise. Stephen brought vital experience to the project as the café’s manager, having worked on a similar project in recent years.
“Stephen has worked in hospitality for over ten years,” explains Ann. “Two years before we opened Coffee Cats, he worked at a cat café, in Sheffield, since it opened in 2017. As a family we have always loved animals, and both me and my husband had recently retired, so it seemed a good time to follow a dream!
“We wanted to give a better life to shelter cats and promote animal welfare,” she adds. “With Steve’s background we thought we could do this by opening a cat café. Our daughter lives and works near Lincoln, and we loved the city and the historical links it has.”
By adopting cats from rescue shelters, the Brown family hoped to have a positive impact on an issue they cared about greatly. “We wanted to give rescue cats a second chance of a better life,” says Ann. “Most of them had been at the shelter for some time, and had gone through difficult times. As animal lovers we want to encourage the ‘adopt don’t shop’ approach.”
“We want to support cat welfare in any way we can.”
Creating a cat-friendly catering space
Running a business involving animals brings its own unique challenges. “Luckily we had a ready-made model to follow from the cat café in Sheffield, but we still had our own set of problems to confront,” explains Ann.
“Our space is quite restrictive with no outside space, and we had to adapt a former estate agents into a cat-friendly environment with a kitchen. We had a positive response from the council, who were willing to help us with advice.”
The team’s policy of adopting rescue cats for the café also took time to embed. “Initially, despite our best efforts, we didn’t manage to forge relationships with local cat shelters, but since we’ve been open this has changed, and we now have some links,” says Ann. “We want to support cat welfare in any way we can.”
The price of a penny: devastating news
Coffee Cats had barely been open three months when Covid-19 first arrived in the UK last January. “The few weeks before lockdown, I became aware that this virus was going to have an impact on us,” recalls Ann. “I had already seen bookings start to fall, and warned the staff that we were going to have to reduce their hours.”
By the time lockdown arrived in March, nobody in the hospitality industry knew exactly what to expect. “The announcement wasn’t a surprise, but the lack of notice was, as was the length of time spent in lockdown,” Ann says. “I really thought it was going to be a few months then we would all get back to normal.”
Worse news was yet to come. The tiered system for allotting business support resulted in Coffee Cats falling cruelly short of a cash injection that would have given the café a lifeline. “Unfortunately, we were notified that we had missed out on the higher grant by 1p,” explains Ann. “The result of that penny would have been an extra £15,000, which as you can imagine would have made a massive difference to us.
“We had to let one member of staff go, but hoped we’d be able to keep our other part-time member.”
Finding a way forward
While the doors were closed during that first lockdown, Ann and the team focused their attention on the café’s bread and butter. “Our first concern was the cats,” she explains. “They were just getting used to the routine of the café, and as we thought it would be something like a month of being closed, we decided it would be best to keep them in the café, as they can get stressed with change.
“Due to the rules, we couldn’t ask anyone else to help us, and we were concerned how we would manage and what we would do if we got sick ourselves! So between us we organised a system of care for them, whilst trying not to mix with each other.”
Alongside caring for the cats, however, the team faced bigger problems on the horizon due to the loss of income. And this was all the more difficult for a business in its first year.
On top of paying the regular bills, caring for the cats also needed to be funded. “Vet bills are a huge expense, and initially it was difficult to find a vet that acknowledged what we were doing,” says Ann, looking back to the café’s beginnings. “Some of our older rescue cats need medical attention, especially with their teeth. I also think this is why some end up at shelters – because their owners can’t afford the vet bills.”
In the end, the business was saved by a single thoughtful idea, and generous support from the community.
“Being a new business we hadn’t built up a reserve of funds but still had to pay the bills, including cat-related expenses,” explains Ann. “We launched a sponsor a cat scheme, which proved to be a life saver.”
You can read more about the scheme and how to sponsor a cat here.
Preparing to open Lincoln’s only cat café again
Like all hospitality businesses, Coffee Cats had to jump through many hoops in order to adapt to new regulations before reopening. Thankfully, the lockdown did provide some downtime to review what was needed, and put new measures in place.
“Once we settled into a new routine we were able to use the time to review the first six months of business, and ‘what went well and what can we improve’ together with opening again with Covid restrictions in place,” says Ann.
Getting to work behind the scenes, the team changed the layout to create more space for customers to come in and out. They also had to consider spacing and hygiene carefully. This resulted in a new booking system and a reduction of customer numbers by 50%, adding half an hour between each session for extra cleaning.
“To make the changes in the most cost-effective way possible, as we’d already spent a lot of money setting the café up, my husband managed to do the work himself with the help of Stephen and few inquisitive paws and noses,” explains Ann. “They especially enjoyed sniffing the space between the ceiling tiles!”
Back into lockdown
Just as fortunes were beginning to turn a corner, November 2020 brought another wave of the virus and more restrictions. “This second lockdown is very frustrating,” says Ann. “To see people going into shops in Lincoln but hospitality remaining closed seems very unfair.
“I think all businesses have made a massive effort to make their venues as safe as possible, and it makes me extremely sad that many won’t survive these continuing closures.”
Amid the ongoing uncertainty, the furry friends are still being well looked after. “Behind the scenes we continue to try and keep the cats as entertained and content as possible,” says Ann. “Fingers crossed the restrictions will be lifted sooner than everyone is predicting.”
The power of generosity
While Coffee Cats is still relatively new to Lincoln, it has already built a thriving community, with thousands of followers and supporters on social media. This has provided a great source of positivity and some happy memories to take away from difficult times.
“The kindness of fellow cat lovers has been especially pawsome!” says Ann. “When someone thought of us and offered help, either by sharing and liking our social media posts, sponsoring our cats or donating money or cat supplies, it really did have an effect on us all.
“It lifted our spirits, made us smile, and gave us hope that it would be ok. The cats loved the food, treats and toys too! These people probably don’t realise what a massive impact they made and how we are forever grateful. It kept us going and was a lifeline.”
And then there were the cats. “They were stars,” says Ann. “Our very own cat therapy in action! They carried on oblivious to the chaos outside and played, ate and slept their way through it.
“We also had a new addition to our feline family when Ethel arrived. A kitten four months old was such a delight, it was a blessing. She kept us all amused, and still does, so much so that we decided to keep her rather than put her up for adoption.”
Future plans: expanding support for rescue cats
Ann hopes to be able to open as soon as possible in 2021, so customers can interact with the cats again, while enjoying coffee and cakes. “We still want to offer events, such as quiz nights and sessions specifically to groups,” she adds. “Things such as being a safe space for those who are vulnerable, people who benefit from cat interactions, private parties, and a unique space for meetings.”
The team also wants to expand its work in helping animals in need. “At the moment we are acting as a signpost to support cat lovers either find help or adopt their next fur baby,” Ann says. “To date we have directly re-homed four cats, and supported other rescue cats to find new homes.
“We hope that we can make the café sustainable, which will enable us to provide foster care and facilitate adoptions ourselves.”
You can find out more about Coffee Cats, the concept, and new developments on the café’s website.
Read more about how hospitality businesses in Lincoln and the wider area have been working behind the scenes to adapt to the new normal in our series of interview features. If you have a story of your own to tell, we’d love to share it – please get in touch.