“Do you own a cat?” is the number-one question received by Diane Foland, the owner of a prospective cat cafe set to come to New Market in the next six to 12 months.
She does not, ironically (her boyfriend, Tony, is allergic). But another top question, one that Foland, 32, has answered time and again on Facebook, Instagram and in-person, is whether cats themselves can visit the cafe.
“A lot of people have asked, ‘Can I bring my own cat?’” Foland said. “And unfortunately, they may not. It’s not a socializing your cat with other cats kind of environment. We’re not a rescue organization, either, so we can’t take in stray cats off the street.”
That is not the point of a cat cafe. Photo opps are not the point of a cat cafe. Food and drink are not even the point of a cat cafe, despite the catchy branding. The real point, of course, is the cats themselves — the 15 full-grown bundles of fur that could one day inhabit Foland’s long-planned venture. Mature specimens, Frederick County Animal Control will source the cats in hopes of finding responsible homes for the shelter’s more unassuming residents.
But of course, a cat is never simply a cat. A cat is fur. A cat is claws. A cat is four bean-toed paws digging enthusiastically through a litter box, then jumping up on the table. A cat, in short, is a possible health violation. And in her quest to open the county’s first cafe full of them, Foland has run the regulatory gamut, from the Frederick County Health Department to the vestigial laws of historic downtown New Market.
But let’s start at the beginning.
A love for animals
Foland was born and raised in Frederick County, and like most children here, she grew up eating meat.
“I was just a cheeseburger, bacon-loving, steak-loving lady,” she said.
That changed almost instantaneously three years ago (Jan. 11, 2016, to be exact) when Foland was skimming a magazine article in bed.
“The article asked, ‘Do you know the difference between cage-free and free range eggs?’” she said. “And I thought, ‘No, I don’t know the difference.’ I started reading, and it took me down a big rabbit hole of learning about animal cruelty and factory farming.’”
Foland had never imagined that the animals she ate might not be — happy. But once she learned they very likely weren’t, she couldn’t stop imagining it. The very next day, she swore off factory farmed meats. She called almost every grocery store in the area and started asking questions: Where does your beef come from? Where do your eggs come from? She learned that Whole Foods was the only store with certified humane products, so she started driving 45 minutes to Rockville for her grocery shopping.
“I quickly realized that wasn’t really sustainable,” she said. “So, I decided to just go the vegan route instead.”
Like most vegans, she embraced the lifestyle with zeal and fervor. She started volunteering with Mercy for Animals, a nonprofit agency that advocates for farmed animal rights, then joined PETA as an animal rights activist. The position, which called on Foland to mobilize at the merest whiff of injustice, left her with a heightened awareness for what she described as potentially exploitative situations. Her senses were triggered on a historical tour of Georgetown when she walked past a cat cafe called Crumbs & Whiskers.
“At the time, sirens were going off in my mind,” Foland said. “I thought, ‘What is this?’” But upon entering the cafe, Foland discovered the opposite of an exploitative situation. A room of free-range cats, just begging to be adopted by eligible visitors.
“I went from being concerned to becoming a huge fan,” she added.
Her path in life narrowed and a single objective became clear: Bring a cat cafe to Frederick.
Foland had lived near the city her entire life, matriculating from St. John when it was still downtown and then from Linganore High School.
“In my naiveté, I thought downtown Frederick would just die for this business model,” she said. “I thought I would have my choices of places and the city would just open its arms.”
But for whatever reason, landlords in Frederick were not jumping at the chance to host 15 purring, pooping, hair-shedding cats in a single downtown space. Thirty-two times Foland inquired about downtown vacancies, and 32 times, “the doors slammed in my face.”
“Cats can cause problems,” pointed out Michael Kurtianyk, a realtor with MacKintosh in Frederick. “They urinate. They cause smells. They scratch things up. The clean-up is something that some owners just don’t want to deal with.”
Moving to New Market
If you’re looking to start a cat cafe in Frederick County, Kurtianyk — a solid man with closely cropped silver hair — is your Kevin Durant.
Sure, he’s a good real estate agent, elected twice as president of the Frederick County Association of Realtors. But more importantly, he loves cats. Loves them. His family has two house cats (Misty and Shimmer, named for their gray fur) and a little black stray they feed outside their home in Middletown. He’s visited cat cafes in Georgetown, Orlando, Florida, Annapolis — six in total — just for fun. For the love of the animals.
“I just think they’re cool to hang out with,” Kurtianyk said. “I like their attitude, like they’re the ones owning me.”
Kurtianyk heard of Foland’s plight through a mutual acquaintance, the designer who created the logo for the K.A.T. Cafe (the brand, Foland said, is both her mother’s name and an acronym for Kitties, Adoptions, Treats). Kurtianyk knew he could offer a unique blend of real estate prowess and genuine affection for cats, so he reached out and asked if he could help.
“I’ve been to these cafes and I’ve seen firsthand the joy it can bring to these felines,” he said. “I truly believe in this. And It’s so unique to Frederick County that I think there really is a need.”
The general store in New Market, owned by Tobias Gregory, was not the first yes for Foland and Kurtianyk. But it was one of the first properties where they made real headway in negotiations.
If everything goes according to plan, Foland said, the New Market Zoning Board of Appeals should issue a definitive approval or denial of her building permit within the next month. But she’s had to work through a special appeals process the whole way through, largely due to the vestigial remnants of New Market’s economic past.
Mayor Winslow Burhans explained that New Market was once the “Antiques Capital of Maryland.” It’s a little unclear how the town earned the moniker — local lore suggests that a state legislator once used the phrase in the late ‘60s or ‘70s and it stuck — but New Market decided to embrace the branding.
At the height of the antiques industry, 30 or 40 years ago, the town had 40 shops lining its colonial streets, said Rick Fleshman, eponymous owner of Fleshman’s Antiques at the western end of historic Main Street. To enhance both uniformity and a sense of local cohesion, the town passed an ordinance establishing downtown New Market as a residential antiques district. There were a few shops that didn’t sell antiques, Fleshman said, and those were open to all kinds of businesses. But if there was an antique store already established on the property, it had to remain an antique store. No exceptions.
“At the time, the goal really was to have more antique shops,” he added. “We wanted to make it a destination point. We’re already a historic district” — with 70 properties recognized by the National Register or Frederick County Landmarks Foundation — “and the antiques district kind of tied it all together and made for a nice attraction.”
Of course, all trends fade. And the antiques industry, as Fleshman ruefully noted, has settled into a bit of a decline, hastened by the 2008 financial crisis and a general lack of interest in pieces predating World War I (“It’s actually a great time to invest because the prices are so low,” Fleshman said, pointing to a 19th century cabinet constructed in New Market).
When Burhans took over as mayor 18 years ago, one of his earliest decisions was to repeal the antiques ordinance. It opened up new opportunities for stores like Peridot, a New Age store specializing in crystals and tarot cards, but the town has yet to reclaim the vibrancy it lost during the economic downturn.
“A couple of girls in my office thought this cat cafe could be a really big thing,” Burhans said. “And I’m hoping it could add to our variety of businesses, moving forward.”
Obstacles to opening
While New Market modernized its land development ordinances in 2009, there’s still an existing law that bans any business with animals in the historic district. Foland is seeking an exception to that rule before she even begins to tackle the county’s permitting process, which includes a site approval from the health department.
Right now, plans for the cafe are still so preliminary that the department hasn’t done any inspections or walkthroughs, said Wendy Cochran, the food program manager. But they’ve progressed farther than other animal-related concepts brought to her office.
“Maybe four different people over the past two years have come to us with the idea of cat cafes, specifically,” Cochran said. “We usually don’t hear from them again. Whether it’s building permit requirements or the expense or just finding a space that works, it seems like they’re running into some difficulties.”
And if you’re looking to run a full-service cafe, the expense can be significant. Foland, who’s been consulting with the health department for the last several months, said any food preparation area would need a separate ventilation system from the rest of the space — a cost that could run into the low five figures. Food storage would need to be kept completely separate from the animals, too, Cochran said, to remove any risk of cross-contamination.
Luckily, Foland is opting for a different model. She’s partnering with Hippy Chick Hummus in Frederick to purchase premade vegan food prepared offsite, a workaround that allows her to avoid the issue of food prep altogether. She and Kurtianyk already have plans to keep the litter boxes in a sealed-off room with a separate air purification system.
Foland’s plans are nailed down. She knows the future decorating scheme — “tabby chic,” as she’s dubbed it — which her mother, Kat, will help implement. She’s planned out the visitation schedule and admission fee for the cafe: $15 for an hour and 10 minutes, a charge that will help offset some of the costs of running a nonprofit adoption center. She’s already laid out some rules, including a strict ban on flash photography and waking a sleeping cat.
Now, she’s just waiting for permission.
“I have people asking me every week when I’m going to open,” Foland said. “And I just tell them, ‘As soon as I possibly can.’”