New cat cafe provides space for humans, felines to relax

NEKO offers a unique experience, Owner Caitlin Unsell said. // Photo courtesy of NEKO: A Cat Cafe in Seattle

By Audra Anderson

Cat and coffee lovers alike will soon be able to enjoy both at NEKO: A Cat Cafe, coming to Bellingham in late-fall 2019.

NEKO, which means cat in Japanese, is owned by Western alumna Caitlin Unsell and her partner, Cory James. Unsell, who graduated from Western in 2005 with a degree in journalism, first opened NEKO in Seattle in November 2017, she said. Unsell is excited to be opening a second, larger branch in Bellingham at 1130 Cornwall Ave later this year, she said. 

Unsell credits her inspiration for the quirky cafe to her two years spent living in Sapporo, Japan, where cat cafes are a common part of the culture, she said. 

Photo by Hannah Gordon-Kirk

NEKO offers drinks including beer, wine, coffee, tea and kombucha as well as snacks, and the opportunity to lounge with cats, all of which are up for adoption, Unsell said. 

“It’s unique,” Unsell said. “When people walk through the door they always have this look of shock and excitement on their face, and most people are like, ‘oh my goodness, did I die and go to heaven?’” 

Unsell wants everyone to feel like they have a place at the cafe, she said. The cafe opens its doors to anyone, from people in bachelorette parties to families on a Saturday morning coffee run, Unsell said. 

“I know that the community would love something like this because it’s something different to do,” she said.“It’s just a fun way to spend your afternoon.”

Unsell said her favorite part of her business is the cats. Most of the cats that come and go through NEKO have been in a shelter for years, she said. 

The cafe finds cats from all over the US, often hosting special needs cats that were on track to be euthanized. Specifically, NEKO works with cats diagnosed with feline leukemia, who are typically the first ones to go when shelters are full, she said. 

“It’s just incredible to watch [the cats] blossom,” Unsell said. “Most of the time when they first arrive they’re terrified, and they’ve been through so much. Then a month down the road they’re cuddling in people’s laps and snuggling and getting all the love they had never had before.”

Although Unsell said the majority of customers aren’t looking to take a cat home when they walk into the cafe, NEKO adopts out around two cats a week. 

Being a Western graduate and longtime Bellingham resident, Unsell has strong ties to the town, she said. Unsell also said she has learned so much since opening in Seattle, and she is excited to bring the changes to the Bellingham location. 

Photo by Hannah Gordon-Kirk

“I can’t wait to have an excuse to move back to Bellingham,” Unsell said, laughing. 

The cafe will be separated into two rooms by a glass wall: the cafe area and the cat area, Unsell said. This way the cafe is accessible to everyone, and even people who have allergies can sit in the cafe area and watch the cats through the glass. 

Anyone can enter the cat room for a small cover charge, where they can bring their drinks and snacks, Unsell said. NEKO Bellingham plans to expand to around three times the size of the Seattle location, offering places to lay, sit and play with the cats in the cat room, she said. 

“Animals are like therapy,” Unsell said. “If you’re having a bad day and you come and hang out with cats, you can’t help but leave a little bit happier than when you arrived.” 

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