Celyta Jackson had a Plan A, B and C for her Miami Beach small business when Hurricane Dorian threatened. After all she had some very precious assets to protect: 30 formerly homeless cats.
Luckily, the hurricane did not strike South Florida and Veronica, Sylvester, siblings Willow and Wilson and the rest of the fun-loving felines are doing just fine, thank you, at Jackson’s Cat Café South Beach.
Step inside and humans and the resident cats can mix — or not. In the café, over iced specialty coffee, avocado toast and Cindy Lou’s Cookies (the best seller), diners can watch the cats sleep, play, cuddle and sleep some more behind the huge glass windows that separate the spaces. The surprisingly stress-relieving café attracts tourists and locals alike.
If the humans want to interact with the cats, they can – and can adopt a feline friend if they’d like. Upon entering the bright, colorful South Beachy-decorated cat area, called Purradise, humans are asked to sign a waiver, put on shoe covers and are explained the rules of Catiquette before entering. On this day, two tourists from Sarasota are cooing with the cats, who are sunning in the window, playing with their beachy cat toys, enjoying the palm tree scratching posts or keeping watch from the “lifeguard station” (food and litter are in a separate private area). Humans entering Purradise are charged a donation that goes for the care of the cats. Photos of happy people with their new feline adoptees line a wall.
The first cat cafe opened in a Taiwan tea house, the story goes, and a visiting entrepreneur took the concept home to Japan, where cat cafes flourished particularly because many people could not have pets in their teeny-tiny apartments. Now there are cafes for dogs, llamas, even snakes. But in the U.S., cat cafes are still are fairly novel, with about 140 across the U.S but no others in South Florida yet (one is under development in northeast Miami).
Jackson didn’t need to look far to find a home for her Miami Beach business at 1423 Washington Ave. Near where she lives, Washington Avenue was in the very early stages of a much needed revitalization, which presented opportunities for reasonable rent. “It was opportunistic but also an ideal location. You need a constant flow of foot traffic – we are in easy walking distance of Espanola Way and Lincoln Road, which are the two big pedestrian and tourist walkways.”
At the same time, the social need stared her in the face. The homeless cat population was exploding – there are some 100,000 on Miami Beach, said Jackson, who also cares for a number of condo kitties at home who adopted her. A cat rescue nonprofit helps hand-pick cats for Purradise that are healthy, up to date with vaccinations and social – that’s important not only for adoptions but also to get along the other resident cats. They range in age from 7 months to 4 years.
Jackson opened her local café/cat rescue /tourist attraction in late November 2018, after a number of permitting and licensing delays. “It was wonderful and terrible in a big vortex mix. Animal welfare and neighborhood revitalization and you have emotions into the mix. I knew it would be challenging,” said Jackson, who has experience in hospitality. “But we have had 64 cat adaptions that are happy. We are making people who are coming here happy. Our overarching goal in opening was to try to make this little part of the world a better place and in that case we are succeeding wonderfully.”
Before Jackson opened, she reached out to the Florida SBDC at FIU, the small business development center with FIU’s College of Business. Jackson wanted to make sure opening the café was a sound business decision.
“I didn’t go into this blindly, I researched a lot, talked to a lot of people, had a business plan. But I needed an expert who didn’t know me and wasn’t biased to analyze the numbers and take a hard look at the business model,” she said. An SBDC at FIU consultant specializing in finance looked at her budget, saw the place, and then reviewed everything she had done in the planning process.
“After all that he said yes this is a sound business plan, these are the areas you have done well, and we talked about food and beverage and alternatives I had and the pros and cons of each. It helped me narrow my focus and be realistic about what to expect,” said Jackson, who signed a 10-year lease with an option to renew for another 5 years.
At first Jackson planned to outsource the food and beverage part of the business but an SBDC consultant pointed out the company she brings in may not be amenable to participating in promotions or collaborating. She ended up not outsourcing. They discussed operating costs at length and he helped her give “haircuts” to her budget, too.
Another SBDC consultant, who specializes in marketing and communications, has been helping Jackson with her marketing strategy and foot traffic in the café has been growing steadily. “They whole [SBDC at FIU] team has been wonderfully supportive,” Jackson said.
Jackson has three café employees and is hiring another barista. The café isn’t profitable yet but is breaking even. “I think the cafe has the potential to be very profitable and that’s a good thing because we can keep helping the cats.”
SBDC at FIU consultants have discussed the idea of potentially franchising in the future, but Jackson isn’t so sure. “The business was meant to be scalable. But as for opening another one, I think this is just fine – just one, I’m good.”