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Coffee drinkers get a purr with their buzz in Seoul

Coffeehouse patrons can settle in with an espresso and a tabby, one of a dozen cats at one of the numerous themed cafes around the South Korean capital.

December 28, 2010|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Seoul — Sure, Oh Yoo-jin wanted a cup of coffee, but what the 24-year-old university student really wanted to do was commune with the residents of her tiny neighborhood cafe — the cats.

On a recent afternoon, Oh and her boyfriend shared the brightly lighted cafe with a dozen felines. There were cats lounging on the windowsills, curiously nosing customers' coffee cups or taking leisurely strolls past the register.

That's the point of Seoul's newest cat cafe: Why just caffeinate when you can indulge with a purring tabby or Russian gray on your lap?

"Mom-and-pop cafes are everywhere and there's a Starbucks on just about every corner in Seoul, but this is different," Oh said as she petted a cat whose coloring matched her leopard-print blouse.

In South Korea's capital, which in recent years has felt the buzz of the coffeehouse craze, entrepreneurs know that it's not enough just to serve up drinks and scones. If you want to stay in business, you've got to separate yourself from the crowd.

So, many have turned to cafes that invite parents to relax while their children romp in supervised play areas, or where English, Mandarin or any other language but Korean is the requisite tongue.

There are cafes where customers can bake a cake, get their hair and nails done, have their fortunes read, or just marvel at hundreds of Barbie dolls.

Want a little unconditional love with your morning coffee and paper? You can head to cafes where dogs of all breeds and sizes are available for petting and friendship. At other coffeehouses, customers play board games such as Monopoly and Scrabble, compete in quiz contests and even dress up in costumes.

One university cafe features statues of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and Woodstock.

"We offer the complete Peanuts experience," manager Hur Su-ji said, sniffing at the green Starbucks coffeehouse logo across the street. "And we do OK."

Unlike coffeehouses in other cultures, many of Seoul's themed caffeine cafes are bereft of customers in the morning. It's only in the evening that the crowds come out.

But in Kwon Hyuk-jin's Cat Cafe, the customers come as soon as he opens his doors at 1 p.m. A cat lover, Kwon saw the success that a friend had introducing cats and coffee drinkers and opened his own business last month.

"Some customers come for the coffee, but most come for the cats," he said as one large tabby nosed a coffee grinder behind him. "A lot of women lead their boyfriends here by the hand."

One woman, an artist, comes in each day to do paintings of the animals. Another is so fascinated by the concept that she often lingers until closing time, Kwon said.

Most tables include a lint roller. Customers are required to remove their shoes and pass through a safety door to guard against cat escapes.

The Cat Cafe has rules: Don't wake up sleeping cats or grab a passing feline. You can't feed the residents, and the menu also politely asks, "Please don't tap the cats' behind."

"This is a place where you can make friends with the cats," a sign reads. "However, cats are not toys."

Two friends sat on the floor and played with several rambunctious kittens. "I like Randall, the gray cat. He's a very special animal," college student Kim Joo-young said.

Her friend, Choi Hee-eun, who lives with her parents, wants her own cat but her mother is against the idea. "In Korea, some of the old-timers still believe that cats bring bad luck," she said.

But there seems to be little bad karma at the Cat Cafe. At a window table, near a box that housed a sleeping kitten, Oh Yoo-jin and her boyfriend looked pretty much at peace.

"I like this environment," said boyfriend Lee Ho, sneaking a glance at Oh. "And who knows, one day I could see myself actually proposing here."

His girlfriend wasn't listening — she was too busy caressing the creature asleep on her lap.

john.glionna@latimes.com

Ethan Kim of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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