Seeking cat cafes in London? Welcome to Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium!

cat cafes in london

What are cat cafes and how do they work? We talk to Lauren Pears, the founder of Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium, the first-ever cat cafe in London!

Cat cafes – retreats where you can sip tea and share cake while surrounded by happy cats – are popping up all over the world. The concept was dreamt up in Taiwan, when the Cat Flower Garden first opened its doors in 1998. The trend caught on in Japan where almost 150 Cat Cafes have opened in the last decade. Most of Japan’s cat cafes can be found in the capital of Tokyo, a fast-paced metropolis where people – many of whom work long hours and live in rental accommodation – can take time out and visit cat cafes to experience the home comforts of tea and cake surrounded by feline friends.

cat cafe

Cats come and go where they please in Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium, which has been designed to provide many resting and entertainment areas for them.

There are many psychological benefits to spending time with cats, as cat owners will know! Cat are great company, they can serve as a social support during difficult times, and countless studies have shown that spending time with pets has many mental health benefits – particularly for students, seniors and people with chronic illness. Plus they’re just so darn sweet!

Entrepreneur Lauren Pears opened London’s first cat cafe, Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium, in March 2014. She found a gap in the market for cat cafes in London and gained masses of support through crowd funding with 1,681 backers. Today we are talking to her about what it’s like to own one of cafe culture’s highest-trending ventures. And of course we also chat cats, customers and some of the hairier challenges of opening a cat cafe!

Lauren, when were you first inspired to open Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium?

I’d been to cat cafes in Tokyo, but that wasn’t when I initially imagined that I might do it too. In October 2012, I decided to give it a try after a combination of an unsatisfying job, living in London for four years, missing having a pet and finding myself understanding the target market of a cat cafe for the first time.

Before I opened my cat cafe my only previous experience of a venture of this kind had been working in a standard cafe a long time ago. It’s been a learning curve!

cat cafe

One of the cafe cats at Lady Dinah’s Emporium enjoys a snooze on a feline chaise-longue…

What inspired the name of your cat cafe?

It’s a name my friend and I came up with after agreeing that the Cat Emporium should be a little peculiar, british, quiet, civilised, respectful, and more than just a ‘cafe.’ Dinah is the name of the cat from Alice in Wonderland and we felt that was a nice reference – it captured the vision of how we’d like people to engage with the animals.

And how about your experience of cats? Do you have your own feline friends at home?

I’ve had pets all my life, and I don’t have cats at home. From time to time I’ve fostered young cats on their way into the cafe, or cafe cats who have had a holiday from the cafe, but the cats in the cafe are all the feline friends I could ever hope for! I love them all to bits.

What is the adoption process for your famous felines?

It’s variable! Sometimes it’s direct adoptions. We’ve worked with shelters, and we’ve had abandoned cats as well. We occasionally offer our cats up for adoption if we think they’re ready to retire from the limelight. I think that as the most prominent Cat Cafe in the country, and most widely discussed when we opened, I feel a duty to set a high standard of care.

I also think it’s great that our cats have such fans – they’re just moggies, from a young mum cat, rescued from someone’s backyard who was leaving London and had to give them away. They’re now bright-eyed, beautiful, confident (famous!) and a testament to how glorious the everyday moggy can be if given half a chance. We hope to really encourage animal adoption rather than breeding and buying.

How do you make sure that the cafe is the right environment for all your cats?

We do everything we can. It’s too long to give a simple answer because we’d have to cover everything from staff training, cat resources and shop design right down the the types of service we offer, like High Teas. High Teas actually came about because we wanted our customers to spend a little more time with their food and give the cats a chance to approach them. We always find that the less intense customers are with the cats, the better it is for everyone.

Lady Dinah’s has a very opulent feel, with its quirky, vintage-styled interior…

It’s a bit intentional and a bit circumstantial! We had quite a public and lengthy start up process, so budget was tight and we couldn’t open in full-fledged glory as we’d hoped, but we’re constantly improving and building on our quirky British vibe. The benefit of things going this way is that we’re able to integrate what we’ve learned about the cats and customers as we improve the space. We’re always developing our decor around closing hours, and it gives us a chance to test things out before committing to them as well. Cats can be hard to design for!

There’s a chance that Lady Dinah’s patrons might not know how to interact with cats.Do you need to keep a watchful eye on customers when they’re petting the cats?

We do. It really stresses out the team when customers pursue cats around the room or wake them up. They keep an eye on them; they love the cats a great deal.

It’s always really hard to balance the expectation that some customers have that they’ve paid £6 to touch cats with what we are actually offering: that they’ve paid £6 to visit a caring and ethically run Cat Cafe. Still, we’re getting there. We’re really trying to eschew the ‘petting zoo’ connotation and to have people see us as more of a ‘special tearoom with cats.’

Do your employees need to have experience in working with cats?

Not especially. We do have some licensing requirements that some must hold certain qualifications. However, aside from working at another cat cafe, few other places share all the same issues as we have. We start with service and attitude and train for animal skills.

What challenges were involved in opening London’s first cat cafe?

Everything. Locating a property was awful, but it’s awful for everyone in London.

I’m quite intrinsically motivated, but also once a few thousand people give you money and you’re in all the papers, you suddenly feel quite a lot of pressure to deliver! Crowd-funding turned out to be the most wonderful and stressful thing imaginable. Imagine thousands of people giving you money to follow your dream! What a thing! But there was also a great sense of not wanting to let them down; that was a scary burden. Motivation was never a problem – I just kept my head down and kept going till it opened.

I’m sure that certain customers also benefit socially from the cafe, such as pensioners and individuals who feel more isolated. Do you run any initiatives where people in need of these interactions can benefit from the comfort and company of cats?

We attract incredibly varied types of customer. We’ve endeavoured to start initiatives up with Friends of the Elderly, but we weren’t able to gain traction with them. Sometimes it’s surprisingly complicated to get things like that off the ground – but we haven’t given up. We’re particularly interested in those living in aged care facilities that don’t allow pets, as the link between isolation and longevity is particularly pronounced in that group and animals can really help to alleviate loneliness.

Does the cat cafe take up all your time?

I’m currently auditioning for a musical production but I tend to spend most of my time with the Cat Emporium. As a job, it sits somewhere between work, hobby and obssession. We get to do a lot of product development at Lady Dinah’s and I think that keeps my creative tendencies at bay. I don’t have as many hobbies as I used to, but I also have a lot more variety and control in my work.

I’ve only been able to take time away from the cafe thanks to the team who work there. They do a great job and I can really trust them.

What advice would you give to somebody who’s dreaming of starting their first business?

It gets a lot harder before it gets better. That’s normal, don’t worry.

Starting a crowd funding campaign can be a fantastic way to raise funds for your small business idea (or big business dreams!) Crowd funding allows you to reach people within the community who share your interests and want to help you to succeed. It is also a great way to advertise your services before your business opens, reaching out to like-minded people about your idea and creating a buzz whilst financing your idea. It’s a free and simple way to advertise your product or services, hopefully creating a loyal fan base or customer base, whilst raising the capital to start your business. Some crowd funded ideas even go viral!

Showing your product or services to your investors online, and by sending products to them for their donations, provides proof of product or service and can set you apart from the rest. It also allows for feedback from investors and community members so that you can continue to improve your product or idea.

Visit Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium

152-154 Bethnal Green Road, Shoreditch, London, E26DG

Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium