If a bar turns into a cat café in 2021, one could assume that it is due to the pandemic. For the Shot Heaven Bar, however, it wasn’t just the pandemic that prompted owner Dan Manchanda to transform the South City Bar into the Cat Heaven Café (5233 Gravois). It was a stroke too, and ironically, shots were fired in December 2020 considering the name of the bar.
Manchanda bought the bar in the Bevo Mill neighborhood from his sister in 2007 and has taken on many roles, from manager to bouncer. Prior to his stroke in 2017, Manchanda, who also owns Hi-Way Florist in the same neighborhood, was usually able to control fists from flying in his facility. However, the stroke made him difficult to move his left arm and leg, and he was no longer able to handle the rowdy clientele.
In December 2020, a customer reportedly left the bar after an argument, got a gun out of his car and fired three shots through the door. Two people suffered injuries to their feet and another person’s stomach was grazed. Because there was a pandemic curfew at the time and the shooting took place after the curfew, Manchanda had to close for 30 days. Amid the pandemic, when bars and restaurants were already struggling to stay afloat, a month-long shutdown during the holiday season was like a death knell for business. About the violence that sometimes occurs at night in the neighborhood, Manchanda says: “It’s difficult in the city: if you want business, you get problems.”
After the temporary closure and a circulating petition to permanently close the place, Manchanda was ready to let go of the bar. His partner Jessica Milot, who moved in with him after his stroke to help him recover, asked what he’d like to do each day if he had a choice. “Be with cats,” he replied. Milot said, “OK, let’s make a cat café.”
Cat Heaven Café was born. Although Manchanda has several cats at home, he had never heard of the idea of a cat café, so he started researching and spoke to Paul Scimone, the co-owner of the Cheshire Grin Cat Café, also in town. In both Cheshire Grin and Cat Heaven, the cafes are home to adoptable rescue cats that live together and roam freely in a designated area, much like a nursing home. Customers can interact with the cats for fun or as potential adoptive parents. After Manchanda obtained the necessary permits, attended a virtual public hearing, and passed an inspection by the Missouri Department of Agriculture, Manchanda was ready to welcome its first group of cats.
The 10 cats currently at the Cat Heaven Café are from the Center for Animal Rescue & Enrichment of St. Louis (CARE STL), a nonprofit that has contracted with the city to provide the upkeep portion of animal care and control manage the city. For cats, who normally live in kennels at an animal shelter, living in a comfortable, home-like environment is significantly better for their physical and emotional health and improves their chances of adoption. Manchanda had never heard of CARE STL until Liz Mausshardt, the local cat manager, reached out to him after seeing his post on Facebook announcing the cafe. One of his goals is to get the word out about the organization’s adoptable animals.
Manchanda said that “80 percent of the [his] Dreams have cats in them somewhere, somehow – they keep popping up. ”The same could be said for the room itself. The eye can’t land anywhere in the cafe’s cat room without seeing a cat or something feline. One cat sleeps in a tower while another poses on the top level under a sign joking about owning multiple cats.
Drawers have been pulled out of a dresser and sit on the floor with plush beds inside that provide convenient burrows for napping. Tiny bowls with cat drawings are distributed for pampering and a water fountain waits for water-loving kittens to dip their toes. (Manchanda itself bears the telltale sign of a cat lover: an abstract pattern of red scratches adorns its arms and legs.)
While the adoptable Cattrick Swayze, Backpack and Baike vie for his attention, Manchanda explains that the food in the café is similar to what was previously served at the bar: hamburgers, hot dogs, french fries, mozzarella sticks, soups and mini tacos , for example with a sausage board and cat dishes such as the Kitty Heaven Platter (chicken salad, tuna salad and cottage cheese). Breakfast includes pastries, bagel sandwiches, yogurt parfaits, and the house specialty, cat cakes.
Instead of beer and spirits (the liquor license is gone) the café offers coffee, tea and specialty drinks. With the help of coffee advisor The Bean Doctor, Manchanda selected the Dubuque Coffee Company’s products for serving. Monthly tea specials are in the works, according to Milot, who shared the taste of October is butterfly pea flower, a blue herbal tea that turns purple when lemon is added. While she is showcasing the collection of blooming teas that will be available, a kitten approaches for inspection and dresses up if she gets bored of the conversation. “They stay noble here,” jokes Milot.
To meet the cats in the café, guests pay a modest donation that supports both the non-profit organization Cat Heaven and CARE STL – a donation that comes with a free drink. The friendlier cats and kittens quickly appear in the room, competing for chin rubs, while the shy ones hold back a little. Manchanda will help socialize the shy cats to prepare them for adoption, and customers with enough patience (and treats) can partake in the enrichment too. While no food is allowed in the cat room, you can bring a drink with you, relax on the couch, use the free WiFi and feel the stress go away.
If you want to adopt a cat, you will be forwarded to the CARE STL online application system. Once the cat is adopted, another cat will be sent from the shelter to the café. One cat, Dopey, is already in a trial adoption at Manchanda and will live as an ambassador in the café. Dopey – now called Big Papa – hit the jackpot for a cat that came out of a hoarding situation and struggled to find a family forever.
“These cats brought so much life into the room,” says Milot. “I remember this room and even with all the people it was never as full of life as with all these kittens.”
Note: Agnew is a former CARE STL employee.