MASON, Ohio -- First cats took over the internet. Now they're conquering coffee houses.
Cat cafes -- a concept in which people pay a cover fee to mingle with furry felines while enjoying a relaxing beverage or snack -- are all the rage in cities across the world, but so far Greater Cincinnati has been left out of the party.
Cat-loving entrepreneurs Jenni Barrett and Ken Molnar want to fix that.
The Fairfield couple recently signed a lease for two spaces at 6011 Tylersville Road in Mason with plans of opening Kitty Brew Cat Cafe in January.
One side of the combined 3,499-square-foot space will be a traditional cafe serving up a full espresso bar, fair-trade organic coffee and other beverages, baked goods, sandwiches, paninis and soups.
The other half of the space -- separated by a windowed wall due to health codes -- will be a lounge area featuring comfortable chairs and Wi-Fi with up to a dozen cats freely roaming about, most of which will be adoptable through Butler County's Animal Friends Humane Shelter.
Cat-obsessives will be charged an as-yet undetermined fee, likely around $7, to enter the cat section of the café, which will be used to provide for the daily care of the animals.
Part indoor play space for cat aficionados and part adoption center, Barrett and Molnar say the goal is to promote adoptions by showing cats off in a more relaxed home-like environment than in a shelter cage.
"At the shelter, sometimes the cats are stressed and scared," explained Barrett. "Not that shelters are bad places, but it's sometimes not conducive to seeing how an animal would behave in the home."
"It's a more comfortable environment where we promote people staying for an hour or two at a time," added Molnar. "They can experience the cats and hopefully we can decrease the percentage of the kill rate in Butler County."
Launching and operating a small business are new challenges for Barrett, a former probation officer who now works as an investigator with Butler County Children Services.
In that role, Barrett is used to seeing families at their worst times. But although social services exist to address many of their human struggles, Barrett increasingly found herself at a loss as to how to handle an all-too-common problem among many of the poor families she encounters: the burden of multiple pets they can't afford to sterilize.
"I found that this was a stressor for some families on top of these other problems," she said. "They have eight cats breeding out of control, and some families felt like they were feeding the cats before they could take care of their kids. This is something I could fix."
Barrett spent her own time and money to help often-overwhelmed owners with their oversized pet populations before signing up to volunteer with Animal Friends Humane Society and SNIP, a foster-based animal rescue organization.
Since 2014, she's since helped 352 cats -- she keeps meticulous track on her smartphone -- by rounding up stray and feral kittens and cats as part of a trap-neuter-return program and fostering others that can be socialized as pets.
"No sooner than I get everything put away, I'll get a text or see something on Facebook and send Ken a text saying, 'There's four more.' He's never told me no," she said with a laugh.
Molnar admittedly wasn't a big "cat guy" before meeting Barrett, but the couple's three rescue cats and revolving door of foster kittens have grown on him, he says.
"I'm not at her level with the love, but the kittens are pretty awesome," he said, chuckling.
Barrett first heard about the cat cafe concept after watching an episode last summer of "Shark Tank." She jokingly suggested the idea of starting up a business to Molnar, not expecting him to take it seriously.
At first, the idea -- people pay money to play with cats -- struck him as absurd. But after doing some research, Molnar discovered that the concept, which originated nearly 20 years ago in Asia, has increasingly pawed its way into American cities nationwide with great success.
"It seemed kind of silly, but I know that she has a passion for animal rescue and that we should at least look into it," said Molnar. "It looks like there is a huge popularity and a lot of people are asking for them, so we are hoping to fill that niche in this area."
Barrett signed up for a 12-week course through the Butler County Small Business Development Center, where she learned how to write a business plan and the fundamentals of being her own boss.
The couple first sought out spaces in West Chester, but were thwarted by zoning rules dictating where businesses with animals could be located.
They finally found a cat-friendly zoning code in Mason, but Barrett first had to sell the idea to the business center's other half-dozen or so tenants and seek approval through Mason's Planning Commission.
With those hurdles out of the way, the couple are now focused on finalizing their funding and plan to begin construction of the space soon. They've launched a GoFundMe page to assist in the efforts.
"I found that when you help animals, you're helping people," said Barrett. "When you find the perfect cat for the perfect family, the angels sing."