Of kittens and coffee

Vietnamese café on Portage serves coffee, tea and adoption papers

Coffee flows and cats frolic at the Cleocatra Café.

Photo by Keeley Braunstein-Black

The Cleocatra Café (Quán Cọp Phê), opened at 859 Portage Ave. in May, is perhaps one of the most fascinating, fuzzy experiences one can have while sipping a cup of joe.

In a business model still novel in Winnipeg, the cozy coffee shop offers a more traditional, animal-allergy-friendly atmosphere in the front, but it’s all party in the back.

“It’s therapy ... we wanted to create a space that is special for people who live here. We want people to support the cats,” Harry, the manager of Cleocatra, says. He refers to the playroom, sealed off with glass panelling, that allows customers to reserve an hour or two with a number of playful kittens.

“We create happy times for people, and we create memories,” Harry says, using a pseudonym to preserve mystique. He explains that while this may be a relatively peculiar concept for Winnipeggers, overseas and closer to home, the cat café has become a profitable venture since they first began popping up at the turn of the century.

The business model “is from Asia, specifically from Taiwan. We’re from Vietnam, and, back there, we see a lot of stray animals on the street. Cats, dogs, all kinds on the street, and they’re not treated well,” Harry says.

Partnered with local non-profit foster organization Tails of Freedom Rescue, Cleocatra allows the kittens in the playroom chances for stimulating activity – and a chance at finding a forever home.

“I came here as a university student, and I love animals. In general, it just begins with a love for cats. When we opened the cat café, it gave more space for the shelter so they can save more cats. All the cats here are under special care of people who are professionals.”

“We hold the cats for the shelter. The application process and forms are done directly with the shelter. We’re just here to help,” Harry says.

Barista Sunny Huynh admits it can be hard not to get attached to the revolving door of critters, although it is a built-in stress reliever in the workplace.

“There are so many cats, but you’re always going to pay attention to one or two favourites. When you hear they’re going, you feel so happy,” she says.

Cleocatra sources their opulent, vintage furniture from an unnamed local antique business and sports commissioned art on the walls.

“We have a whole team doing all the design and ideas for the café. For the prints on the wall, we have an artist in Poland, and she drew all that. We import them here, and we have a whole bunch for sale, as well,” Harry says.

The café also boasts a carefully curated menu, which includes coffees, teas, espresso and smoothies. Sunny recommends the strawberry green tea, while Harry extols the rationale behind the coffee tradition in Vietnam.

“When you order a Vietnamese coffee, you have a cup and then the filter on top. In my culture, people will start watching the coffee drip down, and while they watch, it’s time for them to chat about whatever is happening in their lives, daily events, anything,” Harry says.

“It’s basically just time for you to communicate with the other person. It’s not just basic coffee with cream or sugar. We don’t sell anything like that. We serve Vietnamese culture.”

Published in Volume 78, Number 05 of The Uniter (October 5, 2023)

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