Alumni / Fall 2017

Cats the catalyst for cool cafe concept

Law school grad Sana Hamelin founded the Denver Cat Cafe. Photo: Danielle Lirette

Three years after launching the Denver Cat Company, Sana Hamelin (JD ’12) still has all nine of her “crazy cat lady” lives.

That’s no small feat. After all, opening the Mile High City’s first and only cat café — where customers can nab a java fix while hobnobbing with resident felines — was an exercise in entrepreneurial derring-do.

The idea for the venture was born of a sense that Hamelin, then working at a prominent law firm, needed to pursue her passion for helping animals.

“How do you make a living loving cats? I never thought there was a way to work with animal rescue that wasn’t heartbreaking — until I heard about cat cafes,” Hamelin recalls. The first such undertaking in the U.S., modeled loosely after cafes in Taiwan and Japan, opened in Oakland, Calif., in October 2014. The Oakland location differed from its overseas counterparts by making its cats eligible for adoption, a feature that characterizes Hamelin’s establishment, which launched less than two months after its California cousin.

Since then, cat cafes have caught on all over the country. They offer folks in need of a feline fix a chance to unwind with a sedentary, lap-loving senior or to play pounce with a manic kitten. Some cafes — including Hamelin’s — even offer cat-centric yoga sessions and art classes, where the stars of the show may or may not sit still for a still life.

But most important, by partnering with rescue organizations, cat cafes have placed thousands of bewhiskered quadrupeds in “furever” homes. As of summer 2017, the Denver Cat Company had catalyzed the adoption of more than 350 animals, all chipped, vaccinated and spayed or neutered. (One charmer, Otto, trekked home with Hamelin herself.)

“Cats that are sitting in the shelter for a year are getting adopted here within two weeks,” Hamelin says, attributing this success to the allure of the cat cafe concept. “I think it caught Americans’ imaginations on fire. [Denver Cat Company] was kind of on the cutting edge of a trend.”

Cobbling together her hybrid enterprise — a for-profit company with a philanthropic purpose — was made easier by her law education, Hamelin says. All those hours of Socratic thinking taught her that “you can figure this out. If it is figureout-able, you can do it.”

And it was a lot to figure out. Take the zoning code, written, as Hamelin explains, “to conform to businesses that already exist.” What’s more, building owners and leasing agents were wary of working with an enterprise that defied categorization — neither traditional coffee shop, pet store nor animal shelter. She finally found a landlord willing to give her space on trendy Tennyson Street in northwest Denver.

City officials, meanwhile, greeted her proposal with incredulity. A cat what? They didn’t know how to regulate a beverage-dispensing business that shared square footage with a critter who might cough up a hairball at any minute. Should her business adhere to regulations governing a coffee shop or an animal shelter? Fortunately, Hamelin explains, the city was willing to collaborate, working through the health and safety challenges one by one.

A native of Pakistan, Hamelin credits her law degree with giving her a reputable credential that made the business community and officialdom take notice. “I realized that nobody took me seriously until I mentioned I was a lawyer. [Otherwise], it was a harebrained idea from a brown girl,” she says.

Harebrained? Hamelin doesn’t entirely discount the notion. After all, she says, “I am a total crazy cat lady.”


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