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A mother and daughter can look back with pride as they prepare to mark the first anniversary of their purrfectly unique business – the only cat café in Warwickshire.
Jayne Richman-Bolt and Rio Roberts boast a loyal – and growing- clientele since opening Shakespaw in Stratford-upon-Avon last November.
But the inspiration behind the venture, which has already become a favourite hot spot for locals and tourists, is so much more than financial ambition.
Formerly Orangemabel café, manager Rio has poured her passion into the family business, dedicating more than 17 hours a day to its smooth running and care of its 10 resident cats, even admitting to sleeping there over night to settle in new arrivals.
She said: “I always used to do a two-hour drive to the nearest cat café at the time, in Bristol and watched the owner walk through with all the cats following her and wanted that to be me. We had the Orangemabel café here anyway so just decided to change the concept by adding the cats.
“When we initially opened a lot of people didn’t really understand what a cat café was. Some people thought it meant you could bring your own cats – or even dogs. But the idea has quickly caught on and it is going down really well. We have people in here now from all over the world.”
“Cats are not the easiest of animals to introduce to each other, it’s a very slow process. They usually hate each other when they first meet but ideally it needs someone to keep an eye on them in those first 24 hours so I have been known to stay over.”
The ladies’ close partnership with Pepper’s Pet Rescue Centre in Halesowen has resulted in the successful rehoming of several of their cats over the past year.
The café which acts as a feline foster facility while their new ‘forever homes’ are found, often through customers.
Rio said: “The centre rescues the cats and we take some of them off their hands. The cats have a better chance of being rescued here than if they were just on Facebook or in a cage because people get to come in and form a bond and see the nature of the animal. It’s a much nicer way of going about it in my opinion.
Sophie Pepper, who started the rescue centre in summer last year, has, until recently, cared for more than 130 animals from geckos and guinea pigs to rats and rabbits – in addition to the 20 family pets already resident at their home. Today though she just focuses her rescue efforts on cats, which are lovingly housed and cared for in her garden shed.
The mum-of-two, who also conducts home visits on behalf of the café, is supported ably in her efforts by volunteers who help clean the cages and socialise the animals.
She said: “I never thought it would become as big as it has. As soon as one animal goes out the door, another one comes in. There is such a big need for this service, I have a long waiting list but can only really take so many at a time.
She added: “The Shakespaw team are fantastic with the cats. Any problems or issues and they are straight on the phone. What I love most are their rules such as, leave them alone if they’re sleeping, don’t feed them and don’t pick them up. The cats are at the forefront of everything. It’s all very much on their terms.”
Rio makes full use of her extended shifts at the café, where she now runs regular community events, including tarot card reading sessions, Wednesday craft clubs and, in the school holidays, cupcake decorating workshops for children.
She said: “Because I’m here nearly all the time anyway and because of the nature of the business, I thought, why not invite other like-minded people to share my interests with me. I am quite a creative person and I love animals so it is lovely to be able to combine the two.”
Rio is aided by a cat carer manager who carries out weekly weight and health checks on all the cats as well as a band of keen volunteers who take their turns on ‘cat cuddling’ duty every evening. And in those rare midnight hours with no adult company, there’s even a cat cam keeping a watchful eye on their antics.
“They are not left alone for very long but during that time I can watch them if I need to. They have a party every night and literally trash the place! They cause havoc. We spend two hours cleaning every single morning before opening,” said Rio.
But customers themselves are left in no doubt about the rules upon entering the café for the first time.
“It’s just about educating the customer so we have some tongue-in-cheek rules on the back of the menu.
“Everyone talks about how laid back and friendly our cats are. That wouldn’t be the case if the rules weren’t in place,” said Rio.
“If everyone came in and picked up the cats while they were sleeping, they would quickly get fed up with people. It’s all for the cats but also for the customer experience. If the cats are friendly they will literally just climb up onto your lap.
“A small admission fee makes the whole experience more valuable too. Otherwise we would have hordes of people coming in and out which would be stressful for the cats. If they have paid £5 to come in they are more likely to spend the full 90 minutes here to make friends with the cats.”
She added: “I think we succeed because we’ve got that personal touch. People like it because they can see how much love and care we put into the place.”
But running a business with your heart does bring its own challenges for Rio, owner Jayne and their team.
“It is really hard when we have to say goodbye to them. It’s the worst part of the job,” admits Rio. I spend more time with these cats than I do my own family. Luckily all the people who have adopted them have stayed in contact and send me pictures. The first cat we rehomed lives just around the corner so I can see her sitting in the window when I walk past every day.
“It’s that sort of close-knit community network that we were looking for that you wouldn’t get with a bigger rescue centre.”
In a nod to its famous tourist location, Shakespaw sells some branded merchandise and all the cats are affectionately named after characters from Shakespeare plays.
Jayne said: “We are embracing our location because that is so important. I don’t think this would work in the suburbs. We have people travelling from all over the world and they will book this before they leave. We are more than a café, we are a destination and we’re proud that it’s part of their itinerary when they come to visit Stratford.
“As well as tourists we also get a lot of regular customers who come back and see how the kittens have grown. One customer even has a shrine to the cat café in her kitchen – with more than 100 photos of all of our cats!
“And those customers with special needs find it a great place to be. We’ve seen for ourselves the difference the cats can make. Some people are happier around cats and animals than they are around people and the cats seem to have an instinctive affection for them. This is a comfortable environment that has been created here - for everyone.”
Rio summed up: “I love the fact that we all have something in common here. We all love animals. It’s great that for everyone who comes here for the first time you can see it’s a real treat for them and they go home feeling happy. It’s so much more than a café and it is so rewarding.”
Visit the cat café at shakespawcatcafe.com
To find out more about Pepper’s Pet Rescue or to make a donation, contact Sophie at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted on Tue 04 May