In December 2014, Cuddles Cat Cafe, a cat cafe located at *SCAPE, shut down less than 4 months after it opened its doors.
Over 2 years later, in April 2017, owner Jonathan Tan Wei-De was fined $3,500 and sentenced to two weeks’ jail for offences related to the health of the cats in his cafe.
It had been reported that seven out of 30 cats bought for the cafe had died even before the establishment was opened.
The news didn’t just incense animal lovers – Sue Lynn, co-founder and owner of Neko no Niwa, a pioneer in the cat cafe scene in Singapore, was equally exasperated.
“It made me really angry and heartbroken,” she shared in an interview with Vulcan Post.
“It goes to show that not every animal cafe has the welfare of their charges at heart and that consumers should also do their homework before supporting such unethical businesses.”
This is why Sue Lynn makes sure to enforce strict house rules for the welfare of their cats.
“In fact, many of our 1-star reviews are exactly about how we are too strict and protective!”
She explained: “Cat cafe cats live in a home-like environment but they certainly do not live in a home like yours or mine – whose home will have 50 visitors a day?”
“Imagine 50 strangers picking up your pet cat everyday – and many will do so in an incorrect way – do you think your pet cat would appreciate it?”
“We try to explain to customers the reasons behind our rules, but we can’t help it if they still think they are entitled to otherwise.”
It’s very fortunate, though, that while there are more problematic customers, an overwhelming majority are actually appreciative of the fact that the cafe has strict rules and regulations.
And Neko no Niwa’s 4.7-star average rating across 677 reviews on Facebook is a testament to that claim.
Inspired After Visiting A Cat Cafe In Japan
The founders of Neko no Niwa are husband-wife team Sue Lynn and Samuel, both currently in their 40s.
Sue Lynn was formerly a marketing and communications manager in the financial industry, while Samuel is still currently working as a photo editor at a business publication.
While Sue Lynn was an experienced ‘cat mom’ to Marbles, a 3-year-old cat she adopted, Samuel’s encounters with cats were limited to the strays in his neighbourhood.
It was only after Sue Lynn entered his life with Marbles that “things changed”.
Then, Marbles was a more mature 12-year-old, but he was as affectionate as ever, greeting Samuel and Sue Lynn at the door whenever they reached home.
During a fateful trip to Japan, Sue Lynn and Samuel found themselves missing Marbles while travelling, and decided to seek out cat cafes to find some kitties to play with.
“The Japanese cat cafes we went to were peaceful, calming, and clean,” Sue Lynn recalled.
In fact, they were so impressed that they even decided to bring the concept back to Singapore, so that cat lovers here could also “soak in all that positively soothing kitty energy”.
Beyond that, they also wanted more Singaporeans to experience cats in a “home environment”.
“We felt that cats were very misunderstood,” she said. “For many people – like Sam when we first met – their experience with cats are limited to strays because friends don’t bring their cats out for gatherings, like they do with dogs.”
“With a positive experience at our cat cafe, we hope that people will strongly consider having cats as pets at home.”
Opened On Christmas Day 2013
Like many first-time entrepreneurs, Sue Lynn was faced with those who doubted her decision to start up.
“[People thought that] I was crazy to give up my cushy corporate job for the uncharted path,” she reminisced.
“Most have also not been to a cat cafe so it was hard for them to imagine that there will be a demand for cat therapy.”
In order to keep their starting up costs as low as possible, they also designed the cafe themselves, sourcing for their own contractors, furniture, and fittings.
Calling it a “dive into the deep end”, Sue Lynn shared how they needed to figure everything out themselves – from procurement to operating a Point-Of-Sales system, and hiring and training staff.
It’s not like you can pick up the phone and call your IT department when your Wifi is down or tell your Accounts department to handle outstanding invoices, you know?
Having no predecessor, they also had no reference point or mentors to turn to when they ran into issues.
Running an establishment that solely sells food and drinks is radically different from one that houses living things (other than humans), and “multiple meetings with URA, NEA, and AVS (previously known as AVA)” were a necessity.
“This dragged on for almost a year!”
The cafe was officially opened on Christmas Day in 2013, and they were putting in 14-hour days, 7 days a week.
But beyond just opening a cafe where cat lovers can chill with kitties, promoting adoption is one of their key messages.
In order to “give people a chance to see how beautiful” rescued cats can be, the ‘stars of the show’ at Neko no Niwa are all personally adopted by Sue Lynn and Samuel.
“Most customers don’t believe that our cafe cats were adopted because they have such silky soft fur and look like a million bucks,” quipped Sue Lynn. “We even have a few lapcats who will cuddle up with our guests.”
“With this, we hope to dispel stigmas associated with adopted cats – that they are ugly and unaffectionate.”
“Someone Even Tried To Feed Them Chocolate Cake”
As with any customer-facing establishments, Neko no Niwa has its fair share of difficult customers.
“We have seen customers blowing at the cats’ faces or poking their ears with a toy just to wake them up for a photo or to provoke a reaction,” sighed Sue Lynn.
There will always be customers who try to push the boundaries and challenge our house rules “because they have paid $12”.
“Someone even tried to feed them chocolate cake, and many others insist on carrying the cats.”
Beyond putting a stop to these actions immediately, the team also makes sure to explain to customers why such behaviours aren’t ideal.
“It’s about respecting cats and what they want to do, especially when you are in their home,” she explained.
To further spread the message of proper cat care, they have also been conducting quarterly Cat Care Workshops for the past 6 years for new and current cat owners.
2 years ago, they also held a fundraiser for 94 victims rescued from a 3-room flat of a backyard breeder – something Sue Lynn considers to be one of her most memorable experiences yet.
Within one day, they managed to raise a whopping $13,000 to fund medical expenses and boarding arrangements for the cats.
“The support was so tremendous [as] vendors pledged their profits to the cause and the public showed up in throngs. Almost everything was sold out!”
“People were just giving and giving because they wanted to help these innocent lives. I felt really privileged that Cat Cafe Neko no Niwa is part of this community and that we could make a difference.”
Over 1,000 Cat Lovers Getting A Dose Of ‘Cat Therapy’ Monthly
The initial hype around cat cafes – as with all trends in Singapore – has died down, but Sue Lynn revealed that they still average around 1,000 to 1,200 customers monthly.
“When we first started, the number was twice that!”
Regardless, having survived and pros-purred for over 5 years is a big feat, and while they “recognise that business has slowed down”, they are soldiering on to ensure that their cats and loyal staff “have a sanctuary” and they are able to continue raising awareness about adoption and cat care.
“Our recent collaboration with Vet Mobile is a step in the right direction to hold more educational talks. This will further strengthen our longstanding aim to become a science-based resource center that the cat community can look to when they need help or advice.”
“If you are reading this, please come support the good work that we do at 54A Boat Quay!”
We’d like to thank Sue Lynn for her time!
Cat Cafe Neko no Niwa
54A Boat Quay