INDIANAPOLIS — Companionship and the company of others may have felt far too scarce the past few months as people remained socially distant in protecting themselves and others against COVID-19.
Companionship is a mental health necessity that Kelley Niiyama understands all too well. Niiyama and her husband, Hidetaka, are the new owners of "Nine Lives Cat Cafe" in Fountain Square, a themed cafe that allows cats to roam free and permits patrons to watch and play along.
Kelley can relate to how much a four-legged friend can bring much solace.
"There are a lot of reasons we exist as a cat lounge," Kelley said. "You know, people just can't have a cat because other people have allergies ... or maybe your landlord doesn't allow animals. And sometimes it's just great for your mental health to sit and be with a cat."
Kelley had worked at the cafe for a year as a "cat wrangler" when she decided she thoroughly enjoyed her job. When the originators chose to sell, Kelley pitched the idea to her husband, who was preparing to move to Japan for a new job.
"I just wanted to be around cats ... And when the business came up for sale, I said to him, 'this is something I want to do.' he said, 'no way!'" Kelley explained, chuckling. "I talked him into it, and then finally, we were selected, actually, from a couple of other different buyers by the previous owners."
The Niiyama's were all too happy to start on this new adventure as business owners in March after months of working through acquiring the cafe. They were open for just over a week, however, when the coronavirus pandemic forced them closed.
"It was really wild," Kelley said. "I was immediately depressed."
Instead of regretting his decision to join his wife on this venture, Kelley says her husband picked up where she couldn't find the energy. Hidetaka researched every part of the business, found ways to improve the shop and its online presence.
They had to creatively turn their business model around to focus on only curbside coffee and baked goods, and their cat adoptions through IndyHumane became obsolete.
Slowly but surely, as the state began to ease restrictions, Nine Lives started to bring cats back into the cafe.
"I personally think it's safer (coming here) than the grocery store," Kelley said. "We do feel like we're taking every precaution that we can."
Nine Lives is now implementing reduced seating and a cat capacity. The cafe typically allocates space for 12 cats at any given time, but now only permits three. Patrons cannot merely walk-in and, for the time being, must make reservations through their website.
Kelley is also happy to announce that Nine Lives is back offering adoptions of the cafe's cats through IndyHumane.
"IndyHumane is really great in how they vet applicants. They're wonderful," Kelley said. "They really just want to make sure it's a good fit."
"I tell people, 'we're working on the business, in the business, and at the business constantly.' One of our goals is to engage with the local community more," Kelley said.
Nine Lives Cat Cafe
1315 Shelby Street, Ste. 1
Monday: 10 a.m. - 7 p.m.
Wednesday - Sunday 10 a.m. - 7 p.m.