A longtime vet clinic employee is on the cusp of opening Alabama’s first cat adoption café.
Kelli Steward’s spunky style and spiky hair may be what catches people’s eyes when they first see her behind the desk at Alford Avenue Veterinary Hospital in Hoover, but her compassion and care for the animals that come in is what captures the hearts of clients who know her. She has been the clinic’s receptionist for more than 20 years, almost as long as she has lived in Hoover.
“I always wanted to work at a veterinarian office in some capacity,” she says. Even as a little girl her passion for animals was evident and only grew. “I saw a box of puppies for sale outside a Walmart at one point. I wanted them all.”
Every day is different at Alford Avenue Veterinary Hospital. With three veterinarians on staff, Kelli manages schedules, products and clients like a pro. Some days are calm, and others bring one emergency after another. There are times of sadness and times of joy; that’s veterinary medicine. But amid the daily grind of making sure the clinic is operating as it should, Kelli also has had the opportunity to help many animals abandoned or neglected by owners to find forever homes.
In her 20 years, it’s not unusual for her to arrive at work early one morning to find a crate of cats or a dog left on the front steps. No veterinary clinic is set up to be a surrender site for unwanted pets, but it does happen at times. “I have rescued so many cats and dogs over the years,” Kelli says. “I can remember them all so well. Many of them lived at the clinic while I tried to find them their forever homes. Some longer than others. It is a catch-22 when you put an animal in a cage for an extended period of time knowing it’s better off than it was before you found it, but at the same time seeing that sad face day after day until finally, you find the right home. It’s such a wonderful feeling.”
Her work to find homes—the right homes—for abandoned animals has brought Kelli to her next journey in life. “My husband Stephen and I have been talking about a café for over a year now,” she says. Not just any café; a cat café. “I guess I saw something about a cat café on social media in another state, and I felt like that was something I would enjoy. It’s not something we planned and saved for. We just ran with it and it felt right.”
What’s a cat café?
No, they’re not serving cats. “A cat café is a coffee shop/wine bar with an adoption center inside,” Kelli explains. “This is a place to come enjoy a beverage of your choice and spend time with adoptable cats. One half of the building serves as the coffee shop, and the other houses the rescue. The admission fee covers your drip coffee (Red Bike Coffee) or loose leaf tea, or you can upgrade to a latte or glass of wine. Then, you get to go hang out and relax with cats who need a home. It is a win-win for both people and cats.”
The cats get to socialize in a cage-free environment while waiting to find their forever person. The café, named Gatos and Beans and located on 3rd Court South in Birmingham, is the first of its kind to open in Alabama.
Unlike adoptions in the past, Kelli says the cage-free environment they are creating at Gatos and Beans will aid in finding the right connection between a person and cat. Over the years, she has worked with and made contacts with several rescues including Save Our Strays, Have A Heart and Kitty Kat Haven. Her expertise in cat rescue and rehoming is unmatched.
Gatos and Beans has partnered with Kitty Kat Haven to provide the adoption area of the café with cats who are in need of a forever home. The rescue will also oversee the vet care and supplies like food, litter and other needs of the cats. “All the feedback we have received from this idea is so positive. There are a large number of cat lovers in this community,” she says.
Gatos and Beans will not only serve as a platform for adoptions, but will also help provide education (spay/neuter), philanthropy through showcasing local artists on display monthly in the café area and adoption days with other rescues. “There are so many ways we can reach out to other communities in the surrounding areas,” Kelli says. “Other ideas we have are cat yoga, cat paint nights … all those fun, crazy things to incorporate and engage the social life of Gatos and Beans.”
On their cat café journey, the Stewards participated in REV Birmingham’s The Big Pitch, a competition for new and upcoming small businesses. “A friend of ours mentioned the competition to us, and Stephen immediately entered. I had no idea what we had gotten ourselves into, but it was fun and scary at the same time.” The Stewards took second place last November in the contest and won $10,000 in startup money.
The Stewards have six cats at home, including: Dannon, a Torti who is 11 years old; Monkey, charcoal gray and also 11 years old; Thomas, a 7-year-old who came to them with a broken leg and tail and is now tailless; Frank, a 6-year-old, blue-eyed Siamese mix; Bette, their 3-year-old Tortoise Shell; and Lanie, a three-legged cat. Kelli also is never seen without her faithful pup companion, Jada, a 12 ½-year-old black and white mix. Jada goes to work at the clinic with Kelli every day and has become part of the Alford Avenue family.
“Working at Alford has been so meaningful in so many ways,” Kelli says. “I have made many friends and connected with people who I now consider family; people who make my life so much better just hearing their voices on the phone. I am going to miss that part so much,” Kelli says. “After 23 years of being a part of that community, I hope they will all come to visit me regularly in my new space.”
The big change in life is something both Kelli and Stephen are looking forward to. “To bring something new that I am passionate about to our state and locally to the Birmingham area is exciting,” she adds. “I am confident that we will find so many ways to give back to the community.”
Find Gatos and Beans on social media and online at gatosandbeans.com.