Cats and coffee at Crooked Tail
“I can’t photograph you when you hug me,” said Ciara Kelley to a little rascal demanding affection at Greensboro’s Crooked Tail Cat Café, located at 604 S. Elm St., last Thursday.
Ciara rarely tolerates those who ignore boundaries but made an exception for Ricky. He was the most rambunctious of the “mewligans” (a word I coined for my cats Murder and Mayhem), who so adorably mobbed her that Crooked Tail owner Karen Stratman had to distract them with treats before Ciara could get a good shot.
“I wish I could take them all home,” Ciara said afterward. If I wasn’t a cat-owner who wished to avoid a Disturbance in the Furce, I’d have been tempted by a calm, gorgeous female house-panther named Angel. And by Ricky, who went to his new home days after the photoshoot.
There’s a high turnover among the furry four-legged members of the Crooked Tail staff. Unlike rapid human turnover, that’s a good sign. Along with the local rescue organization that provides the cats and processes their adoptions, Stratman and her employees are committed to introducing people to their future feline overlords.
Besides beginning with the same consonant, cats and coffee both help people wake up in the morning, but that’s not why Stratman started a business combining them. All the felines except Stratman’s “cat-daughter” Joey, whom she fell in love with while fostering, are available for qualified adoption.
Meeting them is a different experience from visiting a traditional shelter or pet store rescue cage. Like Ciara, you may want to take them home, assuming you love the adorable little murder machines and weren’t dragged in by someone who does. Clearly happy in their spacious domain, the cats enjoy scratches, toys and places to climb or hide, and don’t sulk, cower or complain. Stratman and her staff say bittersweet goodbyes when visitors love their charges enough to adopt one. The cats aren’t just kept on premises to attract customers to the coffee shop.
“We’ve partnered with a local organization called Red Dog Farm,” Stratman told me. She explained that Red Dog not only supplies the cats but handles the interviews, assessments and paperwork. “We don’t get involved with that. They’re the experts in approving people and determining who is capable of adopting and caring for the cats.”
Stratman and her manager Sarah Starnes (who told me she asked for her job title to be spelled “managepurr” in her contract) may jokingly call themselves “crazy cat women,” but they have nothing but praise for the canine-named organization they’re partnered with.
“Red Dog Farm makes sure all our cats are happy and healthy,” Stratman said. “They all come spayed or neutered and are microchipped and fully up to date on all age-appropriate veterinary care,” and are combo-tested for feline AIDS, feline leukemia and other diseases. “They do a great job of sending us awesome cats and keeping us stocked up.”
As the name indicates, Red Dog also finds homes for humankind’s oldest friend (regardless of which is “best,” Felis catus seems to have adopted humans millennia after the first Canus became domesticus). Starnes told me the organization, which she also volunteers for, doesn’t limit itself to cats or canines.
“They rescue a wide range of animals,” she said, explaining that Red Dog operates through a foster network. “If you’re able to provide appropriate housing and care, they’ll match you up with just about anything needing rescue, from goats, pigs, donkeys or even emus, to rodents and reptiles.”
Starnes told me that, not only does she volunteer with Red Dog, but she’s signed on to foster.
“Karen also fosters, as does another employee,” Starnes said. “McLellan, my coworker back there preparing coffee, actually adopted a cat from us.”
By “back there,” she meant the Alley Cat Coffee Bar, where beverages are prepared, something the Health Department doesn’t allow in the same room as the cats. Customers who wish to purchase coffee, tea, wine, beer, soft drinks or a ‘meowmosa’ (champagne with orange juice or raspberry syrup) must do so there. The cats aren’t allowed past its glass door (through which they sometimes stare curiously, imploringly or accusingly), but after the drink undergoes a “transfer of possession” from seller to customer, the latter may bring it out to the Kitty Lounge and sip it with some feline company. Those who don’t want to pay for that privilege are free to remain in the back room, which has tables, comfortable chairs, a couch, and cat pictures, constituting a cozy feline-free but still themed café of its own. If someone wants feline companionship, but only has the budget for beverages, every 10 drinks earn 30 free minutes in the Kitty Lounge.
After McLellan Corum finished her backroom barista duties, she came out and told me about the cat she adopted, whom she calls “my one-eared one-eye,” but whose name is Lilly.
“She’s been a great addition to my family,” Corum said. “I got to meet her while I was volunteering here before I got hired, so I got to see her every day and bond with her, and by the time I got approved, we were already perfectly matched.”
Another adoption occurred while I was there.
“If she works out, can we come back and get one of the little ones for me?” said Sherrie Johnson’s granddaughter as the woman and child watched Starnes gently lower a white cat into a carrier. Johnson and her granddaughter were taking home Snowball, the beautiful six-year-old female who’d given me a gentle “hands off!” swat on my previous visit, but had posed regally for (and accepted scratches from) Ciara.
Johnson told me that Snowball was a replacement for a cat who’d originally belonged to, but sadly outlived, her daughter.
“When we lost her cat Mia two weeks ago, it was like going through that again.”
Johnson said that she and her husband, who are raising their daughter’s children, still own two elderly male cats, but that she’d been wanting another female “who would be my cat.” She said first came to Crooked Tail out of curiosity, with no expectations of finding a replacement for Mia, but “Snowball was just perfect because her first owner was an elderly lady who had to go to assisted living, so she’s used to having someone older around her.” Johnson said Snowball had at first been standoffish, “but then she started snuggling to me, and I knew this cat had to be with us.”
Starnes agreed it was a perfect match, but teared up anyway.
“She was supposed to scare everyone wanting to adopt her away, so she could stay here with me,” she joked as she dabbed her eyes. “If it wasn’t for my giant dog who doesn’t understand why kitties don’t want to play with him, I’d have adopted her months ago.”
Starnes admitted that getting attached to the cats is a hazard of the business.
“The first couple I got close to, I cried, not like this, but big-time sobbing,” Starnes said. However, she said it got better. “People started sending in pictures of the cats after the settled into their new homes. Seeing how happy they were made it stop hurting.”
On my earlier visit, Stratman told me that she opened Crooked Tail last November, but the idea had been curled up and purring in her head for several years.
“I saw the concept back in 2011 and visited a couple of cat cafés that opened here in the U.S,” she said. The Ohio-born entrepreneur went to school in South Carolina and graduate school in Florida before moving to Greensboro in 2012.
Before opening Crooked Tail, Stratman managed a start-up company in the waste energy field. “Greed got in the way of success, and it did not take off, but lessons learned, and it led my life to opening this, so it all worked out.”
Crooked Tail was the first cat café to open in North Carolina, and according to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture’s database, is the only licensed one in the Triad and one of only four in North Carolina (there are two in Charlotte, and one just opened in Chapel Hill).
Stratman said that “as the first person to open a cat café in North Carolina,” she worked with the Veterinary Division of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture “about what I could and could not have in my lounge.” No exposed wood surfaces were allowed, although she was able to get approval for her space’s hardwood floors after having them protectively (and expensively) coated. Everything had to be “either wipeable or disposable.” She’s not allowed to have more than 12 cats that are never confined, except when being temporarily quarantined in the cage the health department requires for those recovering from an illness.
“Among the first calls I made were to regulatory bodies here in Guilford County,” Stratman said. “They said just make sure I had two separate spaces, which I already had. And I had to have everything disposable. No for-here cups, all my food items have to be pre-packaged. I don’t make anything here, or mix ingredients.”
The rules can seem arcane and even arbitrary. If Crooked Tail serves cereal, customers have to be given a container of milk and pour it over the bowl themselves. As long as it’s not poured or handed to customers in a room the cats can enter, baristas may brew coffee and tea, add flavors, cream and sweetener, or mix champagne and juice. But lemons have to be brought in pre-sliced.
Crooked Tail’s Alley Cat Coffee Bar sells not only the aforementioned beverages (on Sunday, my “meowmosa” was $3), but sodas, bottled water, seasonal hot chocolate and cider, and cookies. There’s no charge for entering or hanging out in that cat-free inner sanctum, but time spent in (as opposed to just passing through) the outer Kitty Lounge costs $5 for 30 minutes when space is available for walk-ins (reservations are booked at $10/hour).
On Tuesdays, children 12 and under get in for half-price. No more than 12 humans are permitted in the Kitty Lounge at a time, children under 14 must be accompanied by adults (one for every two children), and children under 5 are not allowed. On Sunday, I witnessed Starnes skillfully turn a potential walk-out into a sale, calming a father who insisted his youngest was “about 5,” by pointing out that he and the child could wait in the coffee bar while his wife and two older children interacted with the cats. He later left with a grin and many thanks.
Seeing this human interaction, in which a frown became a smile, reminded me that I’d asked Stratman about squabbles between the cats.
“We hardly ever have personality issues,” she said in a tone both proud and thankful. “They’ll get into their little arguments, but they have so much space, they just hiss at each other and walk away and it’s fine. They have vertical space, hiding spaces, multiple food bowls and water stations, and they’re all spayed and neutered, so they’re not fighting over territory.”
For info on hours, adoption fees (which go to Red Dog Farm), reservations, “mempurrships” and special events like Kitty Yoga and “Mewvie Nights” (I told Stratman she should someday show Disney’s great 1963 live-action film The Three Lives of Thomasina, where kid-me first learned of the goddess Bast), go to www.crookedtailcafe.com.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.