MANHATTAN, New York -- In lower Manhattan's Chinatown, you'll find two businesses that exist in harmony, side by side: a small macaron bakery and New York's first cat cafe.
"It's a great place to come when you're stressed. It's a great place to come when you're sad. It's a great place to come when you're happy," said Christina Ha, the co-founder of both Macaron Parlour and Meow Parlour, at 44-46 Hester St.
Ha founded Macaron Parlour in 2010 with her husband. About two years later, they opened their first storefront. One hot summer day, they found a cat on the way home from work. Her husband thought the cat was a black-and-white cat they had seen around the neighborhood, which they had named Mr. Socks due to his white paws. It was a summer full of heat waves, and they decided the cat needed to be inside to survive. But to Ha's surprise, the cat he found was a kitten, was grey and white, and looked nothing like the original Mr. Socks.
Not knowing anything about cats at the time and being allergic, Ha was not planning on taking in a cat, but they took him to the vet, and he got an $8 discount for being a good boy.
"I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm his mother now.' And we kept the name Mr. Socks," Ha recalled.
The co-founder of Meow Parlour, Emilie Legrand, was a pastry cook at Macaron Parlour at the time. As a fellow cat lover and parent, she was enthusiastically supportive and guided Ha through becoming a new cat owner.
During this time, France was about to open its first cat cafe, and Legrand, who was from France, wanted to go home and check it out.
"I just got so mad! How dare Paris be ahead of New York in terms of opening something like this," Ha laughed, "So I told my husband, 'We have a cafe; I want to open cat cafe' and he was like 'That's a terrible idea.'"
Ha then wrote a 13-page business plan out of spite. She knew it wouldn't make them rich, but she calculated it would pay for itself, and they could help an endless number of cats. She even reached out to the New York Department of Health, and once she asked how separate the cats needed to be from the cafe, everyone stopped thinking this idea was crazy. The DOH's support and a serious partnership with Legrand was the turning point that brought Meow Parlour to life.
"I was determined to be the first one," Ha said.
Initially, they handled sourcing and the adoption of the cats by partnering with another rescue group. But as time went on, it became more apparent that as the people caring for these cats during their adoption and meeting the adopters, they wanted to have more agency in the process. So in February 2018, Meow Parlour decided to set up its own nonprofit to gain control of sourcing the cats and their care. Now, they source their cats from shelters or other rescues, and since Meow Parlour is a unique space, they can bring in a lot of cats. From the moment the cats come in, Meow Parlour takes responsibility for their medical care, feeding, well-being, etc. New cats are sent to foster homes first, then brought to Meow Parlour until they're ready for adoption. This decision to strike out as their own nonprofit helped them more than double their adoption rate in the first year.
"And then we get to kind of track them beyond. Of all the things we've done, that's the thing I think we're the most proud of," Ha said.
Since the beginning, Christina and Emilie had also focused their time on nursing neonatal kittens until they were old enough for adoption. But this is the first year they are shifting focus to push for senior cat adoptions. About 11 months ago, Ha adopted a 17-year-old senior cat herself.
"He's the biggest joy in my life, and that's one of the reasons why we have senior cats in our space now...Someone took care of him for the first 16 years of his life so that when I was ready, he was ready too," Ha tearfully explained.
One of Meow Parlour's objectives is to be a resource to the community, and over the years, they have helped to microchip and fix many local shop cats for free.
If you want to learn more about Meow Parlour's nonprofit, how to adopt, or book a reservation to visit, you can go to their website. For $16 a person, you'll get an hour-long session where you can hang out and meet all the cats and order some delicious macarons from the cafe next door.
"It's a magical place. It is not the same any time you come in, it's always different, but each time is an experience within itself," Ha described.