By Madison Rutherford , College Times| ecollegetimes.com on September 9, 2016
Melissa Pruitt was 25 the first and only time she met her father. It wasn’t until after he died that she found out they shared a mutual love for cats.
“He was the ‘cat guy’ in town, he saved all of the cats, he would keep cat food in the back of his car and he had this huge cat collection of like, cat figurines and cat stuff,” she says. “It’s so weird because I was like that before we even met, so I feel like it’s kind of in my blood.”
Pruitt’s intrinsic passion for felines led her to visit the country’s first cat cafe, which opened in California in 2014. When she returned to her hometown of Tempe, she decided that the Valley needed a cat cafe of its own.
“Once I went there, I said, ‘This is what I’m meant to do, this is how I could make a bigger purpose in life,’” she says. “People are saving the world with hunger, but I can do it with cats.”
Since then, she has been planning Phoenix’s first cat cafe, La Gattara. The name comes from an Italian term that Pruitt says roughly translates to “crazy cat lady.” Cats are highly revered and respected in Italy and “la gattara” is the nickname given to women who take care of the street cats.
The cat cafe concept started in Taiwan in the late ’90s and grew to other parts of Asia, eventually making its way across the globe. The idea is simple: patrons can sit, sip tea or coffee and hang out with cats, which roam freely around the cafe.
According to Pruitt, nearly every major city in the United States either has a cat cafe already open or in the works. Cafes have popped up in San Francisco, San Diego, Denver, Washington, D.C., and Kansas City.
Pruitt has worked in property management for nearly 20 years and says she finds stray cats and kittens while on the job. She estimates that she has rescued nearly 300 cats during her career.
Pruitt’s goal is to create a space where customers and cats can feel at home. She wants to advocate adoption and spread awareness on spaying and neutering.
“We ultimately want to adopt cats, but…one of my ultimate goals for the cafe is for educating the community,” she says. “I want to educate people on how important it is…how many cats are really getting put down every year.”
Pruitt’s journey has been dynamic and exciting, but it hasn’t always been easy.
“Raising the money was a huge challenge because banks are not going to give you a loan for a cat cafe,” she says. “So you have to do crowdfunding or you have to have a lot of your own money, which obviously I don’t have that, and most other people that open cat cafes don’t have that, so pretty much all cat cafes that have opened have all done a crowdfunding campaign.”
Pruitt did everything on her own for the first year of the project, including making several Kickstarter pages to raise funds for the cafe. She says she did well, but needed assistance if she wanted to make it the best it could be.
“I just decided after the second Kickstarter that I need a business partner,” she recalls. “I’m good at the cat stuff, I need somebody that just knows the business side of things.”
Pruitt and her business partner, ASU alum Mike Simmons, made a Kickstarter and raised $18,000.
Pruitt says a lot of donations came from friends and family, but they have also built a loyal fanbase since the conception of La Gattara. Their saving grace was a local rescue that donated the last $1,000 to meet their goal.
La Gattara partners with Lost Our Home Pet Rescue. Pruitt and Simmons will also have cat stylist Kate Benjamin in their corner. Benjamin is a New York Times best-selling author and Phoenix native. The cafe will serve as a showroom of sorts for her state of the art cat furniture.
“In the cat world, she’s huge. Having her behind us is priceless,” says Pruitt. “She has designed other cat cafes and she charges them a pretty penny for it, we get that service for free because we are in Phoenix.”
The cafe will purvey wine, beer, coffee, tea and light fare. It will feature a main cafe area and a separate room for the cats.
“My vision is like, very clean but lots of vibrant colors, we want to have cat murals on the walls and tons of shelves on the walls for the cats to go on,” she muses.
Pruitt says there will be no “ugly cat trees” anywhere in the cafe.
“We want people to go in there and basically see what they can do at their house in the cafe, like different types of structures, it doesn’t have to be the ugly cat tree,” she elaborates. “We will have nice, cool sleek cat furniture.”
Pruitt is looking at two potential locations for the cafe, one on Rural and Baseline in Tempe, and one next to Cartel on Fifth in Old Town Scottsdale. She hopes to have the grand opening before the end of the year.
In the meantime, she is working on getting the word out and doing pop-up events, the most recent of which was a yoga event at Funky Yoga in Scottsdale. Participants paid $25, which went to the Kickstarter fund, and did yoga while the cats roamed around the studio.
“You’re doing a yoga, but then there’s this kitten laying on you and you can’t stop smiling,” she laughs.
Pruitt hopes to bring the same therapeutic sentiment to the cafe.
“It’s definitely like real-life Prozac,” she says.