When you approach Java Cats, you’re instantly welcomed with the smell of roasting coffee and the sound of soft pop music. Catherine, the barista behind the counter with purple hair and colourful nails, asks if you have reservations. “We can’t take you if you don’t have one,” she says. “We’re all booked up.” What’s so special about this coffee shop? Why are they booked up for weeks? And most importantly, why is there catnip next to the tip jar?

Zoe Hughes-Nelson, manager of Java Cats Café, holds Daisy (now named Dolly Purrton), one of the largest cats to ever come into Java Cats Café.

Java Cats is a ‘cat café’ based in Atlanta since 2018, opened by animal lover Hadyn Hilton. She came up with the idea while in college after writing a paper about YouTube Cat videos. During her research, she discovered cat cafés, and the rest was history.

Cat cafés came into prevalence during the mid-2010s, with the idea being introduced in Japan. In a city where most apartments don’t allow pets, these modern coffee shops allowed patrons to enjoy some furry companionship while enjoying coffee-shop-inspired drinks. Soon enough, cat cafés started popping up around the world, with countries like Russia, Taiwan, and Sweden all joining in on the fun.

With her cat café, Hilton wanted to shoot higher and solve the ever-present problem of cat overpopulation in Atlanta. With 3.4 million felines entering shelters every year, there’s an abundance of cats in the U.S. looking for homes.

A Java Cats resident plays with toys.

All the cats in the store are from the Humane Society of Cobb County, a “no-kill animal shelter serving Cobb County and the surrounding area in Georgia.” In the lounge, they foster up to 20 cats at a time, with all the cats being ready for adoption. Hopefully, while customers visit the store, they may find a connection with a special cat and add him to their family. It’s proven to be an effective system, with Java Cats in specific adopting out over 1,800 cats since opening.

Java Cats founder Hadyn Hilton snuggles a cat.

Caroline Perkins, a student from the Atlanta area, adopted Mitski (formerly known as Bebe) after finding Java Cats on Instagram. Although she didn’t plan on adopting a cat while visiting the café, she instantly “fell in love” with the black and white cat on the windowsill. “She was overly friendly toward us and was rubbing on our hands,” says Perkins. “We knew we had to take her home after she wouldn’t stop cuddling with us for 10 minutes.” After Perkins and her partner decided to adopt Mitski, they filled out paperwork with a volunteer and were called back to the store when their adoption was approved. Fast and simple, they were able to add a new member to their family just by visiting their local coffee shop.

Hilton and her staff had crafted a perfect model. In the environment of Java Cats, guests could enjoy drinks and snacks, relish in the company of 20 felines, and hopefully give a home to one of the adoptable pets. Being the first cat café in Atlanta, it was an exciting new novelty and found enormous success. Over time, the store racked up over 20 thousand followers on Instagram, all while booking up both an Atlanta and Marietta location. Java Cats’ customers found a place of love and relaxation up until its abrupt closure this spring.

Hadyn Hilton, owner of Java Cats, bottle-feeds foster kittens.

The shutdown came as a surprise to most. Hilton penned an emotional Instagram post in late November 2021. “Java Cats Fam, it’s with a heavy heart that I need to break some news,” she wrote on the official Java Cats page.
“I’ve put off making this post for a while because it makes it so real. Grant Park’s five-year lease will end March 2022, and we are sadly not in the position to renew after the pandemic.”

Java Cats manager Zoe Hughes-Nelson with her foster kittens, Scribble and Scrabble.

Zoë Hughes-Nelson, who was a manager of the Atlanta location, was able to experience firsthand the pitfalls that COVID had on Java Cats. She was one of the sole employees during the peak and was consistently anticipating its consequences. “I think I always had a feeling that at some point the café may close,” says Hughes-Nelson. “Due to COVID, we had to cut our capacity in half and increased prices. However, at some point expenses kept coming up.”

“I would engage in very deep, intense conversations with complete strangers, and it was completely normal because that is just the type of space Java Cats provided.”

Despite applying for two separate Paycheck Protection Program loans and working around the clock, it still wasn’t enough. “Our rent ended up tripling in price, and the building was sold to new landlords who were completely unwilling to work with us,” says the cat enthusiast. “I had never been so devastated.”

Kitty poses for a photo in the café.

The loyal customers of Java Cats poured out support in person and through social media. They were heartbroken by the closure as well. According to Hughes-Nelson, for many, Java Cats was a safe haven. “(We were) hugely beneficial for (their) mental health, mine included,” she said. “I remember some days I would engage in very deep, intense conversations with complete strangers, and it was completely normal because that is just the type of space Java Cats provided. Everyone has had such a hard time coping with the idea of Java Cats no longer existing, and it has been absolutely heartbreaking to watch.”

A Java Cats Café foster kitten.

In the five years of Java Cats, they were able to accomplish exactly what Hilton originally set out to solve. Almost 2,000 cats were adopted into loving families, all while building strong connections in the community. Although the closing has been tough, the dedicated employees are looking forward to the future. Hilton has begun working with local animal shelter PawKids, and Hughes-Nelson will continue fostering kittens—something that the store introduced her to. Although they have no idea if Java Cats will ever return, Hughes-Nelson does know one thing for sure:

“Java Cats will never come to an end in terms of the community it created and the lives changed, both human and animal.”

This article originally appeared in the award-winning Modern Cat magazine. Subscribe today!