Q&A with Kelley Niiyama, owner of a cat cafe

(IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Kelley Niiyama is never far from a feline.

Niiyama, 51, and her husband, Hidetaka, have five cats at home. They also own Nine Lives Cat Café in Fountain Square—a coffee shop with an adjacent lounge where patrons pay to interact with adoptable cats.

The Niiyamas acquired Nine Lives in March 2020. They’ve also established an organization, Indy Adopts, that both handles the café’s cat adoptions and promotes Japanese culture—Hidetaka grew up in Japan.

After leaving her career as a classical musician, Kelley Niiyama worked at Nine Lives for about a year. When the previous owners decided to sell, she jumped at the chance.

You acquired the business, what, a week before the pandemic hit?

Eight days.

So you had an unusual first year. How is business now?

It’s good! It’s good.

Have you made some changes?

We put in flooring, we got all new furniture that we could sanitize because, you know, everybody was very worried about sanitizing surfaces. And put paint on the walls, did a lot of other decorations. We changed the menu; we changed processes, cleaning; we upped cleaning standards.

Where do you get the cats from?

Right now, we have three main partners. One is Bartholomew County Humane Society. Another is Columbus Animal Care Services. And then the third partner is Misty Eyes in Avon. And we’ve reached out to other potential partnerships … but so far, these are the three we are working with.

Previously, all the cats were from Indy Humane, right?

They were. We created an organization called Indy Adopts. Indy Adopts has several missions, but one of the main missions is to help these smaller shelters get their adoption numbers up so they can get more funds. But [the partner shelters] also pull from southern Indiana shelters that still do euthanasia on animals.

What traits make a cat more adoptable?

Shy cats are less likely to get adopted. And kittens are most likely to get adopted. … Good-looking cats, even black cats. Black cats, you know, there’s always a stigma that they don’t get adopted. Black cats get adopted. Some people come looking for that. … Sometimes edgier-looking cats get adopted—or cats that are three-legged or have some other sort of malady that they recovered from.

We had a cat last week who had bullets in his arm. And he had to have a surgery. His name was Rico, which I’m thinking is short for “Ricochet.” He was a street cat. He was a great, great cat, but he was the first cat of all of those to get adopted—because people have a heart for this poor baby, you know?

Cat cafés are hugely popular in Japan. Has your husband’s background influenced the operations at Nine Lives?

Perhaps not—but [there are] a couple of things I want to say. One is, people just don’t own pets over there. … So the cat cafés in Tokyo … it actually serves a lot of people’s needs. The cat has a really important place in Japanese society. So, if I talk about Indy Adopts again, our third sort of mission is promoting Japanese culture. … We eventually want to lead tourism trips to Japan visiting cat cafés, but also all the cool places that you’re not going to find if you just arrive in Tokyo.

When might that first trip happen?

We hope by the end of next year. Whenever we talk about it, people are very interested. We also want to explore having a Japanese learning club here and that kind of thing.•

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