I run a cat café in Kaimukı, Popoki + Tea, where we foster up to 15 cats or kittens at a time and sell milk tea, iced tea, and coffee. We celebrated our 100th adoption in November 2020 and our first anniversary in February 2021.
If you had asked me five years ago if I had any plans to open a business, I would have said, “no way.” I thought I’d spend the rest of my life in media production, which I pursued since I was 13. I came up through the multimedia program at Waianae High School, Searider Productions. After high school, I worked in tech retail and website development before landing a dream job as a writer at PBS Hawaii. I was there for nine years in production and leadership roles before starting my cat café.
I picked up skills along the way that help me as a business owner today. I built and maintain a website. I do my own marketing, including social media, email newsletters, and videos. I set and manage budgets. And I manage an employee.
While I was working at a startup, our manager organized a volunteer project for us at an animal shelter. I had never been around cats before and I fell in love with them. From then on, I knew I wanted others to feel the same way I did while saving the lives of more cats. Since Oahu has a major cat overpopulation issue, the need is there.
I also thought the cat café model was brilliant. Cat cafés originated in Asia, where densely populated cities make it hard to own pets. When the concept reached the U.S., it evolved into an adoption vehicle for abandoned and homeless cats while continuing to serve people who can’t have pets.
I knew I’d face a long list of hurdles: finding a location, overseeing renovations, securing suppliers and collaborators, hiring and training team members, and building a following. Navigating a global pandemic was not on my radar.
We opened in February 2020, and like many businesses, temporarily closed at the end of March, not knowing how the pandemic would play out. We pivoted by making appointments for pre-approved adopters. Since our reopening in June, we’ve been operating at half-capacity with up to four guests at a time. During the pandemic, people are turning to pets for momentary therapy and lifelong adoption. We’ve managed to weather this storm, though not without difficulties.
The most challenging part of being an employer is knowing that your decisions will affect those who work for you. Six months after we opened, I had the most difficult conversation with my team: letting both of my employees go. We had received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but after that funding ran dry in the summer and with the uncertainty of a second lockdown looming, the need to downsize became clear. Fortunately, things turned around for us and I was able to rehire one employee.
The best part of being an employer is having people who share my vision and help make it a reality.
If you’re thinking about starting a business, examine your motivations. Why is this important to you? You’ll be faced with so many challenges and you’ll need to overcome every obstacle. For me, it’s about saving cats and enriching people’s lives. Seeing our guests light up when they’re with our cats and witnessing every adoption are constant reminders of why I’m doing this.
Hero photo: We Go Film
Other photos: Reese Kato