First Cat Cafés in Finland and Estonia Were a Dream Come True

Starting a cat café is not impossible: it just takes a little bit of extra on the part of the premises and the founder. Cat cafés in Helsinki, Tampere and Tallinn are purrfect places for all cat-lovers.

Cat Café Helkatti in the centre of Helsinki is in a drowsy mood. What looks like a furry throw pillow on the couch suddenly stretches out his legs and jumps to the floor. There's another feline curled up asleep in an armchair. For now, the remaining five denizens of this cat café are no-shows.

The cats and their moods must be treated with respect. Customers may not engage a cat if the cat wants to be left alone. The rules are more or less the same here at Helkatti as at Purnauskis in Tampere and Cat Café Nurri in Tallinn – and at the inspiration for all three, Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium in London.

The cat café concept originated in Asia, where their popularity is partly explained by the fact that small city apartments often do not allow residents to have pets. The circumstances may be different in Europe but the popularity is the same: Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium founder Lauren Pears raised her initial capital through crowdfunding. Purnauskis in Tampere is said to have become something of a tourist must-see. The owners and operators of Nurri commissioned a market survey to gauge demand in Tallin, and they have been pulling in a steady stream of locals and tourists alike for three years now.

Cat Café Finland Helsinki

Cat cafés have very strict rules

The first cat cafés in Finland and Estonia were sparked almost at the same time in 2014 by sheer coincidence: JJ Illend and his wife Helen Jõudna, who own Nurri, had seen Lady Dinah's on television while Purnauskis founder Tiina Aaltonen had read about it online. "Never in a million years would you get licensed for that in Finland," she remembers telling her husband.

Getting licensed did indeed turn out to be something of an ordeal. Having cats in a café imposes special requirements on the premises. In addition to negotiating regular food service bureaucracy, cat cafés must also obtain an animal keeping licence and a permit from the health authorities and furthermore pass an animal welfare inspection. As a trailblazer for the concept in Finland, Aaltonen found the going particularly tough.

"The health authorities told me that if there was any way they could prevent me from starting the cat café, they would," Aaltonen reminisces.

JJ Illend seconds the sentiments: it was no walk in the park to start in a cat café in Estonia either. Cat cafés are accepted in the EU but, just like in Finland, they are subject to very strict rules on hygiene. 

Playing by cat rules: Always plenty to do

Both in Finland and Estonia, cat cafés must be accessed by double doors that can only be opened by a member of staff. Two doors are also required between the kitchen and the customer premises, and these doors have to be kept closed as well.

"A cat café requires highly effective ventilation with positive pressure in the kitchen and storage facilities to ensure an outward flow of air into the areas where the cats spend their time, as opposed to an inward flow," Illend explains.

For many employees, the cat café is the workplace of their dreams. Still, there is always plenty of cleaning and organising to do, and not only because of the strict hygiene rules. "Any other place, you set the tables in the evening and in the morning and everything will still be there where you left it. Not so much with us," Illend laughs.

Cat Café Finland Helsinki

Café cats are highly sociable

Aaltonen has designed her café to provide an enjoyable customer experience whether or not the cats deign to appear, but a cat café is by definition more than just another place that serves great food and coffee.  Cat cafés run on the cats' terms, however; sleeping cats must be let lie, and the premises are equipped with high perches and other hiding places for cats wishing to find peace from their fans.

The cats in Helsinki, Tampere and Tallinn come from a wide range of backgrounds. Nurri has given a home to many cats from Läänemaa cat shelter while Helkatti and Purnauskis work closely with cat rescue association Kisu ry.

You cannot just plunk down any old cat in a cat café, however. With the constant attention showered on them, café cats need to be highly sociable. Aaltonen says that an understanding of cats is vital: it takes a cat person to recognise who is a good fit and who is not.

Cat wellbeing comes first at cat cafés

"Sometimes we'll have someone reach out to us with a cat they feel would be right for Helkatti or Purnauskis. It's a decision that always needs to be made on a case by case basis. Sometimes a cat and an employee will connect, and the cat will retire from the business to live with the employee. The wellbeing of the cats comes first, no matter what," Aaltonen explains. At Nurri, attachments between regulars and cats have even led to adoptions.

Aaltonen had zero café experience when she set out to launch Purnauskis in Tampere, but she loved the work so much that she ended up buying the Helsinki cat café as well from its original founder. Aaltonen and her husband have nine cats at home, eight at Purnauskis and seven at Helkatti.

"To anyone out there dreaming of starting a cat café of their own, I'd say, 'Get in touch with me first.' I'd be more than happy to give them pointers," says Finland's only cat café proprietor.