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Feline-loving couple opens North County’s first cat cafe

Cats get attention at Cat Craft. At right are volunteers Heather Thomas and her daughter Keely Thomas, 13. At left are visitors.
Cats get attention from visitors on opening day Saturday at Cat & Craft in Vista. At right are volunteers Heather Thomas and her daughter Keely Thomas, 13.
Charlie Neuman / San Diego Union-Tribune

On their first date in 2013, Caroline and Andrew Vaught felt a spark right away. Maybe it was their shared backgrounds in business or perhaps it was the wine. But Caroline thinks something else sealed the deal.

“Andrew told me he owned a cat and I already had two cats at home,” she said. “Right away, I thought, ‘well this has potential.’ ”

On Saturday, the now-married Carlsbad couple combined their shared passions for cats and business by opening North County’s first cat cafe, Cat & Craft, in a Vista shopping center.

The 1,500-square-foot enterprise is essentially two side-by-side businesses. On the left is a full-service coffeehouse with gourmet drinks, pastries and artisan toasts. On the right is the cat lounge, where visitors can cuddle, play and relax with up to 15 adoptable felines for $12 an hour.

Despite a steady downpour on Saturday, it was standing-room-only at Cat & Craft. The cat lounge was booked all day with advance reservations, so most latté-sipping visitors just enjoyed kitty-watching from stools at viewing windows in the coffeehouse.

Inside the lounge, Brent Bystedt was using a fishing lure-style toy to play with Marilyn, a friendly black-and-white domestic shorthair. He’d reserved a spot that morning with his wife and said they are currently between cats at their Escondido home and looking to adopt another.

“We’re cat lovers,” he said. “I like cats because they’re playful, loving and cute.”

Cat & Craft is one of about 230 cat cafes in the United States. The first one opened in Taiwan in 1998 and the concept began spreading internationally in 2005. Most of these businesses in the U.S., including Cat Cafe on Third Avenue in downtown San Diego, are independent mom-and-pop businesses run by avid feline fans like the Vaughts.

The cafes aren’t just tourist attractions. They function as hands-on adoption shelters. All money raised in Cat & Craft’s lounge goes toward the care and feeding of the cats as well as rent on the room and its separate air-conditioning system (so there’s no chance coffeehouse visitors with allergies will inhale any sneeze-inducing cat dander).

The Vaughts said opening Cat & Craft wasn’t easy. It took 18 months to find the right location. Some cities and many shopping centers turned down the venue because it’s such an unusual business model.

All of the kittens and cats at the Vista business were rescued from euthenasia lists at high-kill shelters by locally based Love Your Feral Felines (LYFF) organization. The adoption fee is $100.

“Our goal is to adopt out 500 cats each year, which in effect saves 1,000 lives because every cat we remove from a shelter makes room for another,” Caroline said.

The Vaughts have three cats at home, and Caroline admits she may not be able to resist the temptation to adopting one more. They are also regular caregivers for a community of homeless cats that live outdoors in Carlsbad Village.

The Vaughts became interested in cat rescue back in 2015, when a pregnant feral cat they nicknamed “Callie” took up residence on the back porch of their home in Atlanta. After months of trying to earn Callie’s trust, the cat finally allowed Caroline to interact with her kittens.

“There’s nothing that has happened in my life that’s more meaningful than that moment,” Caroline said.

The Vaughts moved to Carlsbad in fall 2016, but Callie stayed behind. She’s now in the care of the couple’s former next-door neighbor.

In Atlanta, Caroline spent 15 years in marketing, sponsorship and branding for companies including NASCAR, Porsche and Verizon Wireless. Andrew worked as a software product manager in the health and wellness field before starting his own company, Stay Roasted, which home-delivers single-origin coffee beans from more than 50 independent roasters nationwide.

Because of Andrew’s background, the coffee side of the business is more than just a backdrop for cat-watching. He uses beans from Manzanita Roasting Co. in Rancho Bernardo and is creating a rotating program for its pour-over coffees featuring beans from several local roasters including Dark Horse, Ironsmith and Common Good. The café also serves pastries from A Delight of France in Escondido and avocado and other toasts with bread from Bread & Cie.

The cat lounge, decorated with an eye-catching hand-painted mural by San Diego artist Carly Ealey, is filled with couches, chairs, toys and platforms for the cats to crawl, play and sleep on. There are high shelves and ramps to a getaway room for those cats who want some alone time. But on Saturday, most of the cats were quite interested in interacting with visitors.

The cats now available at Cat & Craft range in age from 6 months to 12 years. LYFF senior director Melissa Dunaj said the cats in the lounge were chosen for their comfort level with humans. Dunaj said her group is always seeking foster and forever homes for very young and senior cats. High-kill shelters often euthanize elderly cats because they’re not popular for adoptions and low-weight kittens are euthanized because of their high care needs.

Longtime friends Geri Sterling of Vista and Cindy DiPiero of Escondido met at Cat & Craft Saturday to cuddle cats over cappucinos and pastries, which are allowed in the lounge. Sterling wasn’t sure if it was her or her croissant that was getting the most attention from Saffron, a curious orange tabby kitten.

Sterling, who owns three cats, said she wanted to support the lounge because she donates regularly to pet organizations, including Dog n Cat Rescue Spot and animal rescue programs in Baja.

The lounge staff is supplemented with volunteers from LYFF, like schoolteacher Heather Thomas of Temecula and her 13-year-old daughter, Keely. Over the past year, the Thomases have fostered 41 kittens and cats. Keely shares photos and videos of her foster kitties on her Instagram channel @KeelyFostersX , which has 9,500 followers.

The Vaughts said that so far they’ve been pleased with early response, reservations and the turnout on opening day.

“It’s been overwhelmingly positive,” Andrew said. “We can’t believe how well it’s been received. There are so many smiling faces.”

Cat & Craft

Coffeehouse hours: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Cat lounge: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays.

Where: Vista Palomar Park center, 3211-3B Business Park Drive, Vista

Cost: Cat lounge reservations are $12 an hour (all proceeds go to cat care)

Phone: (760) 295-1181

Online: catandcraftcafe.com

pam.kragen@sduniontribune.com