A love of cats has inspired a couple to travel halfway around the world to set up a new business based on Japanese cat café culture.
At Neko Ngeru Cat Adoption Café in Petone, Lower Hutt, Ken and Richelle Okada combine good coffee and authentic Japanese food with the opportunity to relax with cats and, perhaps, even adopt one.
They began the café in late 2017. Its name reflects the Japanese and Maori words for cat.
The couple had expected many of their clients would live in housing unsuitable for pets.
While these are a significant portion of their clientele, many people visit because they want to adopt a cat.
A surprise was the significant group of cat-loving visitors who can’t adopt because they already have pets but enjoy meeting more cats.
People also visit the café to get inspiration from the cats’ play equipment there.
Seeking ideas for their cat’s happiness
“They see things they can do in their homes for their cats to be happier,” Richelle says.
Cats occupy the part of the premises with windows to Petone’s main street, Jackson Street. As cats love to climb, the walls have purpose-built climbing equipment and cosy resting places.
The cat room has what appears to be a normal wall unit but it actually has square holes in some shelves so cats can negotiate the various levels.
Visitors pay a fee to interact with the cats and there is always a staff member on hand to facilitate introductions.
University theme to cat status
The cat room has several permanent resident “professor” cats. Cats awaiting adoption are called “student” cats and those who have been adopted are “graduate” cats.
The kitchen – where cats are not allowed – is separated from the cat room by two sets of doors and focuses on barista coffee and Japanese food.
The March Covid-19 lockdown has taught the couple to focus their menu more on Japan, especially the Osaka version of the okonomiyaki cabbage-filled pancake which Ken is a master at making.
The first cat café was begun in Taiwan in 1998.
The concept spread to Japan where the first café opened in Osaka in 2004. They are especially popular with the many Japanese who live in apartments that are too small for pets. Many Japanese apartments have a floor area no larger than a tiny house.
Couple met in Osaka
The couple’s story began when United States-born Richelle was teaching in California but itching to travel. Through a job fair she won an English teaching role at the Osaka International School in Minoh, Osaka, where she met Ken who was teaching physical education.
Their mutual love of animals helped bring them together and they married a year later.
Ken had already visited New Zealand on a working holiday to improve his spoken English and was particularly impressed by Auckland. The couple planned to live there after finishing teaching overseas.
They then visited a job fair together and were offered work in Kuwait teaching English and physical education.
They were evacuated from Kuwait during the second Gulf War and, subsequently, taught in Mexico and Shanghai.
After Ken suffered injuries teaching physical education, they eyed New Zealand but were accepted for a five-year residency in Australia. They used this as a stepping stone across the Tasman.
They now have permanent New Zealand residency.
Looking for a city to call home
Once here, they began travelling the country in a campervan to look for a city they could call home.
They dreamed of starting a cat café, so popular in Japan, where people could enjoy coffee and meet cats. As Richelle and Ken had already been involved in rescuing and rehoming cats, they knew their cat café would include the possibility of adoption.
Friends they knew from Kuwait and Shanghai lived in Wellington so the couple travelled there from the South Island.
Richelle says they loved the atmosphere in Wellington but also visited Auckland where there were two cat cafés at that time.
Wellington ticked their boxes
Richelle and Ken’s research showed Wellington had the right population density and demographics for a cat café.
They looked at potential sites in Wellington, then someone suggested Petone, which is in Lower Hutt city and only short drive north of Wellington.
With Petone firmly on their radar, the couple bought a house in the nearby hill suburb of Korokoro.
They saw that a gun shop in Petone’s main street was closing and contacted a local real estate agent.
Successful rental negotiations followed.
the building owner was really kind to us,” says Richelle.
Neither Richelle nor Ken had much in the way of business experience although Ken had helped in his family’s restaurant business back in Osaka.
Richelle says they have found their bank helpful and the Government has lots of informative websites.
Plenty of helpful advice on offer
She found there was plenty of advice available when it was sought and was delighted to find a general climate of honesty in New Zealand and no need to offer bribes as were common in some countries.
The couple also received free business mentoring through a church connection.
Just as a cat has nine lives, Neko Ngeru has nine different functions on site.
These include selling cat merchandise (popular with cat lovers), hosting private functions and supporting local artists by providing exhibition space. They also teach people how to improve cat health and safety and how to better interact with cats.
Neko Ngeru Cat Adoption Café is at 291 Jackson Street (almost across the road from the popular Buick Street artesian water supply) in Petone.
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For more information:
Neko Ngeru website