Founder, Java Cats Cafe
STORY: Laurel-Ann Dooley
It’s been only a year, and Haydn Hilton has already found homes for more than 255 abandoned cats. And we’re not talking kittens, those tiny balls of fur that melt even the hardest of hearts. No, these guys are past the adorable baby phase. They’re a tougher sell.
But Hilton makes it happen, usually within two months of their arrival at Java Cats Cafe, the combination coffeehouse/cat rescue she opened in Grant Park in 2017. Since that time, the list of what she’s accomplished is nothing short of remarkable.
Hilton stumbled upon the cat cafe concept while working on a paper for a Georgia State film class. The idea is to create a relaxed coffee house atmosphere where customers can hang out with adoptable cats. The phenomenon started in Taiwan and spread worldwide, but at the time, it hadn’t hit Atlanta.
Hilton was intrigued. Not surprising, given that she’d grown up in Savannah immersed in animal rescue. “We were known as ‘the animal family,’” she says. “Whenever anyone found an injured animal, they brought it to us.” A bird without any feathers or a crow needing leg surgery—“The kind of creatures that no one really cares that much about.”
Fast forward a few years. Hilton was a senior at GSU, majoring in film and four classes away from graduation. She’d been single-mindedly preparing for a career in film production, and the movie industry had just landed on Atlanta’s doorstep. The stars seemed aligned.
Except she couldn’t stop thinking about that cat cafe. “All my life, I’d been going to do this one thing, and then my plan completely changed,” says Hilton. She decided to leave school and partner with PAWS Atlanta, the Decatur-based no-kill adoption shelter to open Atlanta’s first cat cafe.
The undertaking was significant, with complicated permitting, business planning, fundraising and siting. And Hilton had a further agenda: She wanted to support the local community in the process.
She teamed with The Gathering, a nonprofit that teaches homeless Atlantans culinary skills, to supply packaged food. She called on local artists to create cat-themed merchandise. She hosted animal rescue classes, brought in “cat celebrities” to spread awareness and started a support group for young women entrepreneurs.
The community has responded in kind. She recalls one Thursday morning when she discovered the city had shut off the water. It was a mistake, but one she was told wouldn’t be fixed until Monday. “I had 20 cats and no water.”
She posted on social media, notified local press, and before she knew it, she had 60 gallons of water. Weeks later, people were still dropping it off.
Another time she posted that her litter supply was low. “I had 1,100 pounds within four days.”
Social media, she says, is key, and she devotes about five hours a day to answering messages and posting on Instagram and Facebook. But even with all the photos and updates, many people don’t understand the way it works. A common misconception is that the cats have the run of the house.
But they have their own well appointed lounge with cushioned perches and cozy nooks on one side of a glass partition. Visitors pay to enter and spend time getting to know them. The other side is 100 percent coffee shop, with string lights, couches, tables and, like any self-respecting coffee house, Wi-Fi.
It’s been so successful that Hilton opened a second location in Marietta in May. Profit is measured more in placement and community outreach than in dollars. “It’s a labor of love,” says Hilton. Her feline charges agree.