When Pittsburgh natives Olivia Ciotoli and Indigo Baloch first met as college students, they became fast friends. The women — who set up DIY shows together at Mr. Roboto Project — bonded over music, pop culture and, especially, their mutual love of cats.
She and Ciotoli, a 2014 Point Park graduate, booked benefit shows for Humane Animal Rescue. But “it never felt like it was enough,” says Baloch, a 2017 Chatham U grad. “It broke our hearts that we couldn’t be a home or find homes for every cat in Pittsburgh.”
Inspired by the cat cafés of Taiwan and Japan, the pair decided to open the Black Cat Market, a coffee shop complete with adoptable cats. They launched a Kickstarter to fund the café in May 2016. The plan was to be Pittsburgh’s first, but finding the right storefront turned out to be a major challenge.
“It was exhausting and discouraging at times, but we had so many wonderful people supporting us through Kickstarter. We couldn’t let them down and we couldn’t let ourselves down,” says Baloch. “So we powered through and finally found our dream storefront in Lawrenceville.”
Their location at 5171 Butler Street offers separate space for the cats, as required by law. Food is prepared and packaged off-site, and drinks are created in a space sealed off from the cats.
Creating comfort and community
“As recent college graduates, we know how important pet therapy can be when you’re away from home and your childhood pets,” says Baloch. “While a lot of schools offer therapy dog visits, they never do that with therapy cats. As cat lovers, that was always disappointing to us.”
So the co-founders designed Black Cat Market with college students and young Pittsburgh transplants in mind. The café will have a small, carefully curated menu of drinks and snacks with local flair, including coffee from Grounds & Hounds Coffee Co. and Zeke’s and teas by Three Rivers Tea.
The goal, says Ciotoli, is to create an environment that feels “like a home away from home for the community.”
In the coming months, the café will host book clubs, poetry and board game nights, live music, art shows and more. They also hope to partner with organizations like Pittsburgh Action Against Rape (PAAR) to provide pet therapy workshops to survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, PTSD and grief.
“We’ve always just wanted the café to be a space where people can feel safe and relaxed,” says Baloch, “where they can leave all their worries and fears at the door.”
Finding forever homes
As an added bonus, the cats might be more relaxed, too. “It’s easier when they’re surrounded by pet toys and furniture,” says Baloch, “to picture them in your home than it is when they’re in cages at a shelter.”
In fact, when Baloch and Ciotoli first approached Humane Animal Rescue about working together, they learned that most adoptions happen outside the shelter (think pet store adoption events).
“The other great thing about this is that the cats don’t have to live in cages while we foster them,” Baloch adds. “They just get to lounge around the cat room, and eat and play at their leisure. So even up until they get adopted, they’re living a healthier and more comfortable life.”
“Our slogan is ‘cats, coffee and community,’” Ciotoli says, “and we are really striving to focus on the community aspect.”