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Friday, March 1, 2024
The Observer

‘You can tell they care about the animals’: Students welcome South Bend’s first cat cafe

It might be called The Cat Lady Cafe, but Kim Sult — owner, founder and “purr-resident” of South Bend’s first cat cafe — is anything but crazy. She wasn’t sure of that, though, until she announced her intention to open the cafe on Facebook in January 2022. 

“I wanted to kind of gauge the interest because, ‘Am I crazy for doing this? Is anybody going to want to come?’” she said.

But to her delight, people’s interest was piqued. 

“It was one of those moments where it’s like, ‘OK, I guess this really is going to happen,’” Sult said with a laugh.

Located on East Colfax Ave., The Cat Lady Cafe opened its doors to the South Bend community on March 28. Decked out in purple furniture and serving coffee and baked goods, the cafe offers visitors the chance to mingle with local shelter cats in partnership with the Humane Society of St. Joseph County. Every cat is available for adoption. 

While cat cafes gained popularity in Japan a decade ago, Sult got the idea for hers when she visited one in London in 2017. 

“I had not really heard a whole lot about them,” she said. “But I was thinking when I was there, ‘Wow, we really need one of these in the area.’”

Aidan O'Malley | The Observer
Cats Dorothy and Everglade groom each other in the window of The Cat Lady Cafe in downtown South Bend.

A longtime resident of Michiana, it took a few years (and the COVID pandemic) for Sult to pull the trigger and bring a cat cafe home.

“When the pandemic came, I was downsized from a nonprofit event job,” she said. “I came back from London and put it on the vision board and it kind of sat there for a while ... Now things [had] slowed down, I [could] take the time to focus on it.”

Sult is no stranger to animal welfare and rescue; she has served on the Humane Society’s board of directors since 2009 and has volunteered there for 15 years, forging connections that would become essential in bringing a cat cafe to life.

Adoption, Sult said, is the “overhead” goal of the partnership.

“[The Humane Society] handles the adoption process,” she said. “We’re kind of in the middle, bringing the cats and the people together.”

Visitors can register for one-hour time slots on the cafe’s website, during which they can eat, drink and play with a rotating cast of friendly felines. It all depends on who’s been adopted. In less than three weeks since its official opening, five cats have already found “fur-ever" homes.

Sult said if adoptions continue, there may be a need to partner with other local rescue organizations.

“We get booked quickly,” she added. “The weeks have been busy.”

In particular, Sult welcomes students of the tri-campus community to stop by for a snack or study break. After all, the cafe was born, in part, by her enrollment in Saint Mary’s SPARK Business Accelerator, a component of the College’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative. 

“It was an intense, 10-week program,” Sult said. “It really helped lay the groundwork for this business.”

She especially expressed her gratitude for the other women who developed small businesses alongside her as part of the program.

“It was a group of 25 cheerleaders, really,” Sult said, “cheering you on.”

Cheering on The Cat Lady Cafe, in turn, are its patrons — including many students.

Notre Dame senior Dina Paul said a teaching assistant for professor Dana Moss’ “Health and Disability Justice” class put the cafe on her radar, so she went with her friends on Wednesday afternoon. 

“We have something like this at home but as more of a coffee shop, so I really like that it’s totally cat-oriented,” senior Patrick Gerard said. 

“You can tell they care about the animals,” senior Olivia Baumberger added.

Edward the Cat takes a nap on a comfy green chair at The Cat Lady Cafe in downtown South Bend.

For her part, Sult says the cafe is designed to benefit the cats beyond just adoptions.

“A lot of people say, ‘Do they stay here overnight? Do they go in a cage at night?’ I say, ‘No, they stay here at night and they are free roaming,’” she said. “They’re interacting with people most of the day, getting their naps in the sunshine when we’ve got sunny weather. It’s a great environment for the cats.”

Sult also hopes it’s a great environment for people, too.

“The comment has all been the same: ‘This is so therapeutic for me,’” she said. “For students during stressful times, or missing their pets at home or just needing a break from everything that’s going on, coming to hang with cats for an hour, people leave a little refreshed.”

Still, Sult denies the “crazy cat lady” allegations.

“People will ask me how many cats I have at home. I just have one!” she said. “But they’re easy and they’re fun. Cat people, we’re a little quirky, and we own that. We like it. We own that title.”