A gray, cloudy Monday afternoon. Students chasing each other on their bikes, trying to be on time for their next lecture. Cars racing down the street, while people hectically pass by, staring on their phones, texting in a rush, ignoring their surroundings. A typical Monday on Groningen’s Oude Ebbingestraat.
But in all this rush, there is one particular shop window that people stop in front of, and take a moment to free themselves from their stress bubble. Then they smile, when they realize that they are being observed.
This shop window belongs to Hielkje Wester and her cat cafe Op Z’n Kop, which translates to ‘on its head’.
Inside, people are enjoying their coffee, sitting on vintage sofas, which give the cafe a comfortable, living room-like atmosphere. Every now and then, one of the ten cats living at the cafe will politely interrupt the guests’ conversations with a gentle “meow” or request attention by smoothly rubbing its head on the guests’ legs.
Opening in 2016, Op Z’n Kop was the first cat cafe in Groningen and only the second in the Netherlands to introduce this new concept.
Having her own company has been Hielkje Wester’s dream, since she was a child. However, the path from the initial idea to ultimately opening her own place, was not a straight one.
Growing up in Eernewoude, a village of just 400 inhabitants in Friesland, Wester got her first impressions of what owning a company would be like through her parents, who owned a small tourist boat rental company. A thing that fascinated her about her parents’ company was how happy it made the customers and gave them the chance to have a lovely time.
Nonetheless, the 28-year old always strived for more. Although she initially wanted to take over her parents’ company, traveling made her realize that there is more to explore in the world than her hometown, “I am more of a city girl, so I wanted to go from the village”, Wester told The Scoop.
With the business skills learned at the boat rental company and her passion for making people happy, Wester knew she wanted to start her own company. After earning her Bachelor’s degree in Hospitality Management, she worked as a recruiter in Human Resources in Communications for five years.
In the beginning, the job, which included luring people away from their companies, seemed to be the right path for her, because she was constantly interacting with people. However, after having worked in the job for a while, Wester realized “that it was really commercial”, criticizing the superficiality of her job.
A turning point in her career was when she was told to promise a contract to a woman to come work for the company. However, when the woman had already quit her job, the company Wester worked for was not interested in recruiting her anymore.
“She was jobless and I felt so miserable. That was the worst situation I ever had”, Wester explained.
“It was just smooth-talking,”, and pretending to help people was something she refused to continue.
But it was not until a vacation with her boyfriend she started questioning her job and her intentions. Working over hours in a job she did not like made her feel “like having to go to jail every day from 9 to 5 and then come home and don’t feel happy because it wasn’t a great day”. The constant feeling of stress and the low recognition she received for her work, were the last straw. She was going to quit her job.
On that same vacation, reading about a cat cafe opening in Europe, Wester put her plans into practice.
Tomcat Puck relaxing at Op Z’n Kop, ©Valeska Schietinger, The Scoop
Planning and opening the first cat cafe in Groningen seems to be the fulfilment of Wester’s dream. However, there is more to it than just a simple business idea.
Wester wanted to give people who felt alone a place to go to. “People come here because they feel safe, and they feel loved by the cats or by the people who work here”, she said.
The cafe owner beams with joy, speaking about her team and the community she has created throughout the years, while Mr. Bojangles Jr., a cat living at the cafe, joins the interview by strolling around the table.
Coming from a stressful job experience herself, she acknowledges that she had the “luxury to even choose”, but that not everyone can do that, “so if someone has a really bad job, I’m just happy that they can come here and have a lovely time”, she said.
The cafe is filled with people having conversations over coffee, while a boy is holding a feathered toy, playing with Moby, a grey tabby, who enjoys the attention.
Wester and her cat cafe do not only offer people a place to relax but a second home, “that they are obviously looking for in the current busyness of life”, she explained.
With this concept in mind, Wester has succeeded.
Leaving the cat cafe feels like leaving a safe space, bursting one’s personal bubble of relaxation.
Especially, when you find yourself to be back in the hectic life on Groningen’s Oude Ebbingestraat, and wish you could’ve just stayed for one more coffee and a cat cuddle.
Tue, 30 January