The Catcade isn’t flowing with endless catnip and tuna, and the walls aren’t made of claw-friendly shag carpeting. To maintain a sanitary environment, there isn’t even a fabric couch in the main room for the cats to curl up on. But one thing Chicago’s first non-profit cat cafe has in abundance — as cliche as it sounds — is love.
If there’s such a thing as “cat heaven,” it probably looks like this.
Co-founders Christopher Gutierrez, 42, and Shelly Casey, 31, know the name and story of every cat they’ve saved through their business, located at 1235 W. Belmont Ave. They provide the cats with food, shelter and affection, and introduce them to visitors and potential adopters like proud parents. The pair said tears of joy often fall as the cats depart for their new homes, but it’s always a happy occasion.
The Catcade is a dream come true for Casey and Gutierrez.
“The inspiration came from being two serious cat nerds who were relatively shiftless and directionless in life,” Gutierrez said. “We tossed around the idea about two years ago, like, ‘What if we started a cat rescue?’”
The idea came after the two co-founders traveled around the world — everywhere from Peru to Japan — and visited cat rescues and cat cafes in each country they went to. They were surprised Chicago didn’t have one. After making preliminary business plans in a hotel room in Tijuana, Mexico, they launched a campaign on IndieGoGo to start raising the necessary funds.
“When the first person donated money, I was like, ‘Now we have to do this,’” Gutierrez said.
A former arcade game refurbisher, Gutierrez pitched the idea for an arcade theme, and Casey agreed. Fueled by creativity and a desire to save cats from dangerous situations such as city alleyways, natural disaster zones and high-kill shelters, Casey and Gutierrez raised enough money to rent a storefront in Lakeview. They brought in a renovated arcade game for visitors to play and built cat bunk beds shaped like arcade game consoles. Finally, they launched a website offering hour-long visits at $15 per person. The appointments ensure that the cats don’t get overwhelmed with too many visitors.
They made enough money after the opening weekend to pay the first month’s rent.
“The reaction so far has been beyond what we could’ve expected,” Gutierrez said. “We knew this was cool, but we didn’t know if anyone else would think it’s cool … When we opened the doors on our first day and people were standing outside, I was so stoked.”
Getting the doors open wasn’t an easy process. Since no other cat cafes exist in Chicago, obtaining a business license was difficult. Officials at City Hall didn’t know what to make of them at first, according to Gutierrez.
“They were like, ‘This is so weird,’ but just because it’s weird doesn’t mean it isn’t real,” Gutierrez said.
Luckily, everything fell into place in time for the cafe’s opening on Aug. 19. Gutierrez and Casey said the work is exhausting, but they both love it.
“My favorite part is knowing that these cats came from such terrible situations … and now they have this amazing life,” Casey said. “They’re going to these amazing homes where they’ll continue to be loved, and they would have never had that opportunity had we not been there.”
To help save cats from all over the United States, The Catcade works with Chicago’s Felines and Canines shelter and the Whiskers and Tails Foundation, a Chicago-based cat rescue that traps and neuters stray cats. The rescue releases feral cats but brings friendly cats to shelters like The Catcade to be put up for adoption.
“They are so educated and they do so much good for this community that we asked them if there was a way for us to work with them,” Casey said. “They, of course, said absolutely. They’re where we get a lot of our animals from.”
More than 30 cats have been adopted from The Catcade in its five weeks of operation, and about 15 are still housed there. One elderly calico named Madeleine was rescued from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Beverly, a gray tabby, came from a shelter in Alabama that euthanizes cats when they arrive due to lack of resources. The spunky brown-and-white Mr. Mouse was found in a parking lot on Chicago’s Southwest Side. Each cat Gutierrez and Casey rescue has a story like this.
“What’s wonderful about Chicago is we have better resources and better rescue programs in place [to help these cats],” Casey said. “We don’t have to euthanize upon intake here.”
The healthy start The Catcade has seen so far means it could last for a long time. The possibility of opening a second location sometime in the future is already being discussed, according to Gutierrez.
“This was the end goal,” Gutierrez said. “If you were to tell me, ‘Chris, for the rest of your life, this is where you’re going to be,’ I would be elated and I would feel like I’ve made my mark here.”
The Catcade is open on Mondays and Tuesdays, 2-7 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays, noon-8 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. and Sundays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. To make a reservation or donation, visit thecatcade.org.