For the past three months Portland’s premiere cat cafe Purringtons has been in a state of soft reopen. The first Purringtons closed in January 2019 when the previous owners moved out of state. They passed the cat cafe torch to new bearers—Helen Harris and Garrett Simpson.
After that, Purringtons stayed closed for nine months, and the space underwent a major renovation aimed at making the cafe and lounge even better places to look at cats, play with cats, and just in general embrace cat fancy.
Harris and Simpson are the sort of people who beam, especially when they talk about cats. Life partners as well as business partners, they’ve discussed owning a place like Purrington's since their early 20s. “We had a pipe dream about owning a bar with a cat component,” Harris said, when we met up for an interview in the newly remodeled space.
But what makes Purrington's really possible is its relationship with Cat Adoption Team (CAT), a nonprofit cat shelter located in Sherwood, OR. All the cats visitors played with and adopted during the cafe's first run—600 cats adopted!—were from CAT. When Simpson heard about the opportunity to purchase Purringtons, he’d been volunteering with CAT for four years, helping with a variety of tasks from assisting in the hospital to ferrying cats from Sherwood to Purrington's. “Especially if they were cats I’d seen when they weren’t feeling so well,” Simpson said, “I’d volunteer to bring them because I wanted to see them flourish in this environment.”
“It still doesn't seem real,” Simpson added. “It feels like this fell into our lap.”
But it’s obvious Harris and Simpson have put extraordinary amounts of thought into Purrington's second life. They looped in a wide network of creative friends, plus Simpson’s food and wine knowledge, to revolutionize Purrington's into an even better space. The cafe’s wood tables were made by Stumptown Reclaimed and the benches in the lounge itself by Dinihanian Design/Build. A friend of theirs at Paetra Wine held a tasting event during the soft open period and ended up adopting a cat. As I took notes, Simpson ran across the room to grab a deck of tarot cards the cafe sells, made by Danielle Gundry Monji Moyle (AKA Bunny Dee). "We're partial to these because one of our cats is in the deck," Simpson said.
Then there’s the gorgeous wood-bordered windows that now wrap around the length of the lounge. At the old Purrington's there were a couple places to sit and drink tea, but those chairs were also under the only window that looked in on the cats so there was often an uncomfortable build-up of people hovering around it.
When Harris and Simpson decided to enclose the cat lounge in windows, they also wanted to respond to another of the space's frequent snags: When groups showed up, there were sometimes one or two people who were allergic. “This way they can still sit out here and see what their friends or family are doing and still feel like they're part of it, “Harris said. During the course of the interview I saw a first date unfold, a child’s birthday, and the stressed out-studying of a college student—all happening outside the lounge itself.
The crowds were light, but steady. Part of the reason for Purrington's soft open was to get the staff fully trained and to iron out hiccups before creating too much hype. “We’ve worked out the kinks with our reservation system!” Harris said with much more enthusiasm than I expected to hear about a reservation system. She mentioned reservations many more times throughout the interview. (A hint?) The original Purrington's opened to local news cameras and a line around the block. The chaos was off-putting. Also the first cafe opened in January, which according to Harris is “just about as far from kitten season as you can get.”
The new Purrington's is likewise having a hard time filling the lounge with cats right now, possibly because they've been doing so many cat adoptions. Since Purringtons reopened they've adopted out more than 80 cats! When cat-pacity (No one at Purrington's said this. This is my own word!) is low, Purrington's announces via social media that visitors can get a discount on entry to the cafe—the cost of admittance under normal conditions is $6 for every half hour. On the day of the interview they were only charging $3 per half hour for access to one super friendly cat, one hand-shy cat, and two mercurial brother cats who were more likely to be energetic in the evening time.
Simpson explained that CAT receives cats from all over the country, but bad weather predictions can delay the transports. “The shelter is always scrambling trying to get us cats. It’s a good problem to have, but a funny situation to be in.”
One surefire way to get the lounge cats to come to you, I learned, is to bring in a Gilda Sandwich, which nestles marinated Spanish white anchovies and piparra peppers on a bed of frisee inside some glorious crusty bread, sauced with Spanish olive oil aioli. “The cats will swarm you!” Harris laughed. Simpson advised eating it before entering the lounge to bring that wild anchovy energy down to extreme interest. “The cats will still try to give you kisses.”
Purrington's new menu is a cut above the predominantly chips and salsa, cheeseboard situation of Purrington’s first life—though they still have cat cookies. Simpson plans to rotate some of it seasonally. For instance, the Roasted Delicata Squash Sandwich will change come spring, but the Gilda is probably here for the long haul. “It’s really fun when people come in and see the wine and food we have,” Simpson said. “It’s more than people expect from a kitschy cat cafe.”
Simpson explained his culinary background as, “fortunate.” After culinary school, he worked at Screen Door, which connected him to a job at the hyper-local small plates restaurant Evoe. Then when Kevin Gibson opened the detail-oriented, unassuming Davenport, he tapped Simpson to be on his staff. Eventually Simpson began to focus on wine, which finds him currently still holding down a night or so at Division Wines because he loves it too much to step away. I tell you all this so you’ll look at the Purrington’s drink menu—which includes Paetra Coast Range Pinot Blanc, Aerea Gamay Noir, and Pfriem IPA—and know it’s not an accident. Simpson puts a lot of effort into the menu—which, like everything in the shop, is filled with excellent things their friends make. He also explained that he thinks if he opened a cafe solely for food there’d be more pressure. “Each side sort of takes pressure off the other. Who would come to my cafe? But we have cats so maybe people will stop in and realize they really like both the cats and the food and drink.”
Purrington's soft open abruptly came to an end mid-January, when someone broke into their shop. “We got a call from the alarm company at 4 am,” Harris said. “[Simpson] sped up here. The police said there was no one here when they arrived." Their shop had been rifled through, but Simpson said nothing of value was gone. ”Of course the cats were our first concern,” Simpson said. “But it didn’t appear anyone even went into the cat lounge. My heart was racing and I went in there to do a headcount. Meatball and Hamburger ran up excitedly because they thought they were being fed early.”
Once the story went out on the newswire, they knew press would start inquiring about the cafe. But if something bad had to happen, they're both grateful for the support they've received since.
"People [are] stopping in to make sure we're okay, that the cats are okay," Simpson said. "It's really touching."
Purr Yoga, a favorite Purringtons activity, returns Sun Feb 9. That session is sold out, but you can make reservations for the subsequent sessions, happening every other Sunday, here.) Purringtons is located at 3529 NE MLK. Hours: Tues-Sun, Cafe 8 am-8 pm, Lounge 10 am-8 pm