I Visited the World's 'First' Cat Cafe
Taipei's Cat Flower Garden is often called the world’s first cat café. But business wasn't exactly buzzing when it opened nearly two decades ago.
All photos by the author.
Cat cafes are all the rage these days. Popularized in Taiwan, they spread like wildfire in Japan and Europe, and they're now inching their way into the States. Patrons get to sip a cappuccino while sitting next to a cat. What's not to love?
Cat Flower Garden in Taipei has been around for 18 years and is often called the world's first cat café. Located just off of Zhishan Station in the Shilin District of town, the store is currently populated by 15 felines, two dogs, and one bird. There's a minimum drink fee to ward off loiterers, and patrons are largely young tourists from Taiwan and Japan. Cats are free to jump on both tables and people, and snacks for the creatures are available for purchase (if one is inclined to be surrounded by an assembly of fluffy felines vying for a piece of dried fish). When left alone, the cats are most likely asleep, sprawled out across a chair or curled up in the corner. They'll wake up when food beckons, but generally, the collective bunch of them really seem to enjoy their catnaps.
The menu at Cat Flower Garden offers a mixture of fruit teas, coffee, and the occasional dessert. There are cakes and cookies—even freshly baked cat-shaped cookies. The decor is heavily pink; it oozes with cuteness. A bonus: The shelves are stocked with books about cats.
Upon inquiry, a manager tells me that cafes with cats existed well before Cat Flower Garden was erected. He is quickly rebuked by another staffer, who reveals herself to be one of owners of the family-run cafe. She sat down with me and answered a couple of questions.
MUNCHIES: Is this or is this not the world's first cat cafe? Tracy Zhang: We weren't the first people in the world to have cats in a cafe, but we were the first to be reported on by the media on such a massive scale. That's how we got the title.
How did the idea come about? Our family always loved cats. We would rescue them from the streets; my mom would be furious. We wanted to open a cafe and thought that making it a cat cafe would set it apart from the masses. In the beginning, we only had five cats.
What was business like 18 years ago? Horrible. No one would come. The turning point was when a television station came and did a report on us.
How do you feel about the influx of cat cafes in the world now? It's interesting to see what people are doing with the concept. Some people just have one or two cats and call themselves a cat cafe. That, I find a bit weird. I hear that in some cafes in Hong Kong you aren't even allowed to touch the cats. I think what sets us apart is that we don't give our cats away and we don't buy the cats. All of our cats are strays or were gifted to us by friends. We get really attached to the kittens because we've raised them from when they were small. And personally, I think it's traumatic for cats to be moved from place to place.
Do you think you'll ever expand? No. There are too many cat cafes in Taipei now. I think there's at least a dozen. We have a good brand and want to keep it small.
How many cats do you allow here at a time? The most we've had was 20. Now we have 15.
Which one is your favorite? Huahua. She's Scottish Fold born in 2004 and was given to us by a customer who only had her for one week. He didn't like her because she's extremely clingy. Scottish Folds are prone to genetic disorders, but I really like her. She has an extremely round face, which is a feature that Japanese people really love.
It seems that this concept is very popular with the Japanese. Yeah. Occasionally, we get prospective cat café owners from Japan coming and asking us questions. I guess it's because the cat culture there is really strong. Japanese people really spoil their cats. We have this longtime Japanese customer who comes to Taipei once every three months. He's been our customer for about a decade now. Every time he comes in, he'll bring in Japanese pet food for the cats. They love it.
What's Japanese pet food like? It's a lot of whole, dried fish. It's really healthy and quite delicious. These cats are spoiled because of it. That's why their coats are so shiny. We sell some of the snacks here in our store now.
Last question: do the cats ever eat or drink people's orders? No they don't drink the tea or coffee. We've trained them. A few of them have been in commercials. But they really like frosting, and occasionally they'll take a swipe at a customer's cake.
Thanks for speaking with me.