For cat lovers who enjoy a warm cuppa with Japanese food, Catonomy in George Town is a tranquil haven to spend some quiet and quality time with friends and felines. It is the reason Tan Guan Zhi and wife Ooi Jie Wen established the cat café last June. “We wanted to spend more time with our cats and hunted for a space where everyone could come and play with them.”
Besides the lack of such establishments in Penang, they also thought it would be a good business opportunity.
Understanding the importance of a strategic location, the couple found an ideal spot for the café, which is in the compound of the Boon San Tong Khoo Kongsi [not to be confused with the famous Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi in Cannon Square] on Victoria Street, Penang. Owned by the Khoo clan, Khoo Kongsi is a temple built in 1878 and one of the few attractions in the humble neighbourhood. Apart from its historical value, the café owners are pleased with the extensive yard around the building.
“We’d been searching for a nice place for a long time and our biggest concern was parking because of the scarcity of such space in Penang. One day, we saw a post on Facebook offering this building for rent. Without much hesitation, we contacted the agent and said, ‘We want this place’. It is especially easy for customers because they don’t have to worry about parking,” says Ooi.
The interior concept of the café is vintage, with a blend of Chinese and Japanese influences. It is furnished with wooden tables and chairs ideal for small groups. The café can accommodate bigger groups as it is equipped with Japanese-style tatami tables and cushions.
Large windows in the shop bring the outdoors in, inviting natural light to illuminate the area. The cosy wood-centric furniture makes one feel right at home almost immediately.
“We could not do major renovations, only minor ones like setting up a cattery and installing air conditioners. We are located in a traditional Chinese building, so we wanted to maintain the concept and blend in with the original space.”
Preparations to launch the café took about six months, about half on planning and the other half on renovation, assembling furniture bought online and ensuring the space would be ready to welcome Penangites. “We did almost everything ourselves and enjoyed the process immensely.”
Ultimately, the partners decided on a Japanese menu for Catonomy because “it is easy for us to prepare since we do not have a proper kitchen. The recipes are more straightforward and the food is easy to put together”, says Tan. Although both had previously worked in marketing and sales, they are also fond of cooking.
“We had to learn food plating and presentation, so we watched a lot of videos. As for beverages, our suppliers are very generous with their knowledge and taught us how to brew good coffee. We also learnt a lot through trial and error.” Their Spanish and matcha lattes are not to be missed.
Catonomy serves a decent variety of Japanese-inspired fare including rice bowls, ramen, sandwiches and desserts. For the past two months, it has been serving an assortment of donburi with mouth-watering toppings such as tempura, scallops and unagi, as well as sides like Wafu fries. However, customer feedback spurred the couple to modify the menu.
“Some visitors pointed out that the store has a strong smell from the kitchen and we discovered this happens when we deep-fry selected ingredients. We do have an exhaust hood, but it is not good enough to remove unpleasant smells,” Ooi admits.
Taking into consideration the indoor area and limited equipment, they need to ensure the food and drinks do not affect overall customer experience. Therefore, they have removed fried food — including the best-selling Wafu fries — from their menu, opting instead for Wafu sausage. “It was not an easy decision, but we just had to do it to ensure everyone has a pleasant experience here.”
A play on the words ‘cat’ and ‘anatomy’, Catonomy was coined by Ooi, who was not a cat person initially. Thanks to the pandemic, she discovered a newfound love for felines. “We were bored at home and got our first cat, a Maine Coon named Hansem.” Sadly, Hansem passed away last year.
Ooi contemplated getting more cats because she had not completely let go of their “first baby”. However, one cat always leads to another. After chancing upon Dawn and Aki, she was more than happy to welcome the two new Maine Coons to the family because “they reminded me of Hansem”. The couple now have three Maine Coons and one American Shorthair.
Are they concerned about their pets mingling too freely with strangers?
“We certainly do. But we believe those who patronise our café are also cat lovers, so they must know how to treat the animals.”
Customers are welcome to bring their pets to Catonomy as well, as the restaurant is not limited to just cats. But there are precautions they should heed before stepping into the café, such as removing their shoes and sanitising their hands. “We do what we can to make sure the environment is safe for our cats.”
Ooi and Tan took a huge risk by quitting their jobs to run their own business, but have no regrets and feel optimistic about Catonomy. It is everything they have ever dreamt of — getting to spend most of their time hanging out with their beloved fluffy tribe comprising Dawn, Aki, Colby and Fu while building a community of individuals who share similar interests.
117A Victoria Street, George Town, Penang. Daily, 11am-9.30pm; closed on Mon.