‘I Joke That We Have Free-Range, Cage-Free Cats’
Five hours before her flight home, on her 24th birthday, Kanchan Singh walked into a Thai cat café and felt like she’d been hit by a brick wall.
‘I was by myself in Thailand and I met a German and a British guy who saw me feeding every stray dog and cat in sight, so they took me to this café. I remember walking in and it was that feeling of—I’m in the answer to the question I’ve been asking.’
Namely, ‘What am I doing with my life?’
The answer once seemed so clear, before cultural expectations and parental pressure took hold of Kanchan’s ambitions.
Born and raised in India, Kanchan’s childhood revolved around animals. Her first pet was a peacock, and by kindergarten she was a vegetarian.
‘I’ve gotten kicked out of a Marriott because I brought in a bleeding goose I found on the road. I’ve snuck an injured bird into a Westin.’
After immigrating to the U.S. when she was 14, Kanchan spent her teens volunteering at local shelters, where she was distressed to see such high euthanasia rates—most often due to a lack of space. She founded the Terps for Animal Welfare club her freshman year at the University of Maryland, and vowed to work on systemic changes after graduation.
Instead, her passion was pushed aside.
‘I forgot all about it because I was too busy trying to impress Dad. I couldn’t be an aerospace engineer, then I tried computer engineering and I was failing at that, and then I finally ended up with IT and finance. I was like OK, he’s disappointed but I’m not disowned. I took a job in IT and business strategy consulting. I did that for two years and I truly lost myself in it. Every day I kept being like what am doing? I would wake up and just feel empty.’
Waking up in Thailand, she felt full again.
‘I reconnected with the fact that I had to do something with animals. This is it. This is what’s been missing. It’s so funny how the universe works.’
Looking around the cat café, Kanchan noticed nothing but Americans and Europeans. She’d never heard of the concept before, and could already see a business taking shape back home—incorporating an adoption model that didn’t exist in Thailand.
‘I’m sitting there having a great time, but the whole time it’s hitting me how this could solve a problem for shelters, and people. When I was consulting, I was always traveling and I was never home. I missed my pets. But there’s nowhere to go in cities where you can experience animals that are not in captivity.’
Kanchan recognized a cat café could also reduce the high return rate for shelter cats who are stressed out and shut down inside a cage—their personalities a guessing game.
‘People are like I just wanted a Netflix and chill cat and now I have some crazy cat getting in my ceiling, and another person is like I wanted a playful cat for my kid and it’s not doing anything. You don’t get their personalities in those cages.’
Sitting with a pile of cats and a brain full of inspiration, Kanchan announced she was quitting her job. Flying back with nothing more than a backpack, she mapped out the entire business plan for Crumbs & Whiskers on a stack of United napkins.
The plane ride felt minutes long, but her excitement was quickly tempered by a lackluster response when she landed. Still, she saw the need, and forged ahead.
‘I told everyone and they thought it was the stupidest idea. The opening was very talked about in the city. They were like this 24-year-old dumb Millennial chick is trying to start some cat café. I cried to sleep so many times, because I’m very sensitive, and when people hate on me, I absorb that. It’s a weak spot. I’m like, am I dumb? But something in me really believed in the idea.’
Kanchan was far from dumb. When the cat café debuted in Georgetown in 2015, there was a line down the block more than two hours before the doors opened. They did $22,000 in sales in one day, and were booked for an entire month.
‘We had to turn away all these people who showed up. A lady was so pissed she broke our door down. I had no full-time employees, and it kicked my ass. It was a shit show.’
Kanchan was praying business would actually slow down during those first few months. She realized the café could only comfortably accommodate 18 people at once—not 30, as the architect had suggested—and adopted the model accordingly.
Today, business is steady for the 70-minute experience, where guests can interact with 25 cats—all in need of a permanent home. Food and drinks are ordered onsite, and delivered by Olivia Macaron.
‘You’re just playing with cats and drinking coffee and eating cookies and being like is this even life.’
Crumbs & Whiskers partners with rescues that pull cats scheduled to be euthanized at high-risk shelters. If the cats are comfortable in a communal rescue room, they come to the café.
Although Crumbs & Whiskers doesn’t allow same-day adoption—their antidote to ‘impulse buying’—nearly 1,000 cats have been successfully adopted between Georgetown and Los Angeles, where Kanchan opened a second location in 2017. The goal is to create an upgrade for each cat until they find their forever home.
‘We want these cats to have a rags to riches story. We want them to go from a cage to a fabulous Georgetown loft home. The idea is to never downgrade. All the cats that come to us have to be OK with other cats, and they have to be OK with other people. If they’re not, we’re actually putting them in a worse environment than a shelter.’
After a day full of cuddles, kisses, and Instagram stories with people, the cats have free range of the café at night.
‘Sometimes we come back and it looks like a frat party happened overnight. We’re like what did you get into last night? But most nights, they’re just lounging. We have cameras, but we don’t really need to tune in. It’s like going to bed and your pet is doing its thing.’
With Crumbs & Whiskers established on both coasts—the likes of Bella Thorne, Keith Urban, and Nicole Kidman among its California patrons—Kanchan tested a new kitten party concept that proved wildly successful. When she learned their partner rescue was desperately trying to save kittens at risk to be euthanized during kitten season—early spring through late fall, when the greatest number are born—Kanchan knew she could do something.
Serendipitously, she found an M Street space whose lease overlapped by five months with Crumbs & Whiskers’ O Street location. Kanchan seized the opportunity and opened The Kitten Lounge in early March—a four-month pop-up before Crumbs & Whiskers permanently relocates to M Street.
Kanchan says the 15- and 30-minute Kitten Lounge bookings provide quick therapy, with ‘giant floofy things’ resembling clouds for guests to sit on while playing with the kittens.
‘If there’s a purring kitten next to you, you’re like—I’m fine, I’m OK,’ says Kanchan, who now lives in LA with her cat, Luna. ‘Animal therapy is real.’
Crumbs & Whiskers receives weekly requests to expand worldwide—from Moscow to Mumbai—while animal cafes in Japan have moved on to owls and snakes. Kanchan won’t entertain the latter—uninterested in models that don’t have an end-goal of adoption.
‘We get a lot of controversy around ‘making entertainment’ out of animals or turning them into a commodity. I’m not stealing your cat and putting it in the café. That’s a downgrade for sure. I’m taking a cat that’s in a cage or about to be euthanized. We agree the ideal place is a home, and we work toward that. These animals should be in a home. They shouldn’t be in a café. I wish there was no need for this, but there is.’