No time to paws for thought as cat café continues to grow

Shakespaw Cafe

A mother and daughter are preparing to mark the first anniversary of their purrfectly unique business  – the only cat café in Warwickshire.

Jayne Richman-Bolt and Rio Roberts boast a loyal – and growing- clientele since opening Shakespaw in Stratford-upon-Avon last November.

The business started life, in 2012, as Orangemabel, the sister café to Orangemabel in neighbouring Alcester, before owner Jayne realised a fresh concept was needed.

She said: “I misjudged our target market. People were coming from Stratford to Alcester to visit Orangemabel because they love Alcester and they love Orangemabel and don’t like Stratford because of the tourists and the parking.

“And the first year we opened there were six other tearooms that had opened and we had the big boys moving in. It wasn’t busy enough. It was hard work. So we started looking at the other opportunities out there and the other successful businesses in Stratford like the Butterfly Farm and The Mad Museum are very niche so realised we needed to find a USP.

“Cafes are such a saturated market in Stratford so you have to offer something different but also cash in on the Shakespeare element as well, hence the name Shakespaw and naming the cats after characters from his plays!

“We are embracing our location because that is so important. I don’t think this would work in the suburbs. We have people travelling a long way, not just all over the UK but all over the world and they will book this before they leave that country because they want to make sure that they can get their slot. It’s part of their tour when they come to visit Stratford.

“We were the first cat café in the Midlands and still the only one in Warwickshire and word of mouth has been helping the business to grow. Our goal is repeat business. It’s easy to get people in once but to get them in two or three times is more difficult so we have just started a loyalty scheme with the hot drinks.

She added: “Like any business you can always do better and improve so what we’re working on now is sweating our assets by offering evening art workshops and kids’ cupcake decorating classes because it’s the same overheads whether we’re here for an hour or 24 hours and we’re here most of the time anyway so we may as well share it.”

Manager Rio has poured her passion into the family business, dedicating more than 17 hours a day to its smooth running and care of its 10 resident cats, even admitting to sleeping there overnight to settle in new arrivals.

She said: “I always used to do a two-hour drive to the nearest cat café at the time, in Bristol and watched the owner walk through with all the cats following her and wanted that to be me. We had the Orangemabel café here anyway so just decided to change the concept by adding the cats.

“When we initially opened a lot of people didn’t really understand what a cat café was. Some people thought it meant you could bring your own cats – or even dogs. But the idea has quickly caught on and it is going down really well.”

The ladies’ close partnership with Pepper’s Pet Rescue Centre in Halesowen has resulted in the successful rehoming of several of their cats over the past year.

The café acts as a feline foster facility while their new ‘forever homes’ are found, often through customers.

Rio and her team are aided by a cat carer manager who carries out weekly weight and health checks on all the cats as well as a band of keen volunteers who take their turns on ‘cat cuddling’ duty every evening. And in those rare midnight hours with no adult company, there’s even a cat cam keeping a watchful eye on their antics.

But customers themselves are left in no doubt about the rules upon entering the café for the first time.

“It’s just about educating the customer so we have some tongue-in-cheek rules on the back of the menu.

“Everyone talks about how laid back and friendly our cats are. That wouldn’t be the case if the rules weren’t in place,” said Rio.

“A small admission fee makes the whole experience more valuable too. Otherwise we would have hordes of people coming in and out which would be stressful for the cats. If they have paid £5 to come in they are more likely to spend the full 90 minutes here to make friends with the cats.”

She added: “I think we succeed because we’ve got that personal touch. People like it because they can see how much love and care we put into the place.”

But running a business with your heart does bring its own challenges.

“It is really hard when we have to say goodbye to them. It’s the worst part of the job,” admits Rio. I spend more time with these cats than I do my own family. Luckily all the people who have adopted them have stayed in contact and send me pictures. The first cat we rehomed lives just around the corner so I can see her sitting in the window when I walk past every day.

“It’s that sort of close-knit community network that we were looking for that you wouldn’t get with a bigger rescue centre.”

In a nod to its famous tourist location, Shakespaw sells a range of branded merchandise such as pinnies, T-shirts, tote bags, trolley tokens and calendars.

But, as Jayne and Rio celebrate a successful first year of trading, they also admit to real concerns about what a post-Brexit future could bring for their business.

“Brexit has been weighing on my mind,” said Jayne. “I’m devastated that we’re even in this situation in the first place. I feel it will have a massive impact on the business.

“I’m worried about footfall from overseas visitors, I’m worried about our reputation as a country, I’m worried about the staffing. We do need Europeans working here and in Stratford. I’m very concerned for our suppliers. We have local suppliers but what’s the impact going to be on them from the ripple effect. The cost is definitely something we have to worry about.

She added: “I don’t think it threatens the future of our business because we have got a strong enough business model to survive, but we will have to work a lot harder at costings. Even vets bills if they have to import their medicines. It will need careful attention and damage limitation from the fall out of leaving Europe!”