Source: South Bend Tribune (Extract)
Posted: April 4, 2023

When Kim Sult visited a cat café in London in 2017, a seed was planted. An animal lover and rescue advocate, she knew she wanted to one day open her own café for felines in Michiana.

“It was just on the vision board,” she said, “a dream. Everybody has a dream.”

But when the coronavirus pandemic hit three years later and her nonprofit events planning job was eliminated, she had the opportunity to turn the dream into a reality.

In the fall of 2020, she enrolled in SPARK, a Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative program at Saint Mary’s College, where she wrote a business plan, connected with potential funders and learned marketing skills. Two years later, she got the keys to Suite 104 at the Commerce Center in the East Bank Neighborhood downtown and the real work began.

Sult, along with her husband, Bob Sult, renovated the ground-level space with an entrance off Colfax Avenue into a sanctuary where shelter cats can meet potential adoptive families and those who want to pay $11 can just spend an hour petting and playing with them.

On March 28, The Cat Lady Café opened its doors. And business has been brisk. Online reservations have filled up fast. “Response has been great,” Sult said last week. “Overwhelming in a good way.”

Focused on felines

The space is bright and quirky. Outside of the cat lounge, which is decked out with purple velvet furniture, and has toys and climbing towers galore, there are café tables and a bar where visitors who don’t want to directly interact with the felines can hang out and visit or bring a laptop to work if they’d like. Java drinks from Bendix Coffee Roasters are available, along with baked goods from The Cakery in LaPorte.

But the real focus here is the cats.

A longtime volunteer board member with the Humane Society of St. Joseph County, Sult said it’s been fulfilling to be able to turn her passion for rescuing animals into a full-time job.

“A lot of people don’t want to go into shelters (to see animals),” she said. “(Here) you can sit on the couch and snuggle with them and imagine what it would be like to be with them in your home. It’s giving the cats another opportunity to be seen and adopted.”

The café has the capacity to house about 10 shelter cats who live there night and day. Adoptions can be initiated there, but they are processed by the Humane Society.

Genny Brown, executive director of the Humane Society of St. Joseph County, said rescue animals are already benefitting from the organization’s partnership with Sult’s new business.

It’s another avenue for finding great homes for some of the Humane Society’s cats, Brown said, and allows the felines opportunities for socialization vs. being confined in cages. The fact that the café can house a number of cats around the clock also means space is freed up at the Humane Society so it can care for more animals. “It’s an extension of our adoption process,” Brown said.

A growing trend

Cat cafés are apparently a growing trend, with nearly 150 having popped up around the United States.

Holly Moss opened Smitten Kitten Cat Café in Fishers, Ind. less than two months ago and has already seen 84 cats adopted through her business.

None of the animals at Smitten Kitten have been there longer than 10 days, Moss said by phone last week, and the business has started partnering with several shelters. Initially, she said, she had planned to partner solely with the Humane Society for Hamilton County. “But,” she said, “we ran them out of cats.”

An average of 120 people have come to visit the cats each day at Smitten Kitten since it’s been open, Moss said. “It’s just a completely different model than having a cat in a cage,” she said. “It’s just a great concept. It’s fun.”

Back in South Bend, Sult was celebrating the adoption of The Cat Lady Café’s first two cats last week.

Daria Spriggs, from Goshen, took home 2-month-old brother and sister “Remy” and “Rue.”

She said she’d originally seen photos of the fuzzy gray siblings on the Humane Society’s website and inquired about them.

After learning they were at the café, she tried to make a reservation to see them, and found upcoming sessions were all booked.

“I messaged Kim and she let me come in an hour before they opened (to see the kittens),” Spriggs said. “I fell in love with them.”

On Thursday, Rebecca Leneway and her daughter, Katelynn, came from Granger for the 5 p.m. session at The Cat Lady Café. They’d been watching Sult’s Facebook page for months waiting for it to open. The Leneways said they aren’t interested in adoption at this point, but, Rebecca said, they already had reservations to come back with the whole family over the weekend.

Why return with no plans to take any of the kitties home? “We really just like to go around,” she said, “and give love to cats.”