BABE #180: HADYN HILTON, Owner, Java Cats Café
Today’s babe is a self-proclaimed Socially Accepted Cat Lady who has helped over 250 cats find their forever homes. With no prior business experience, Hadyn put her education on hold, took the leap and opened Atlanta’s premier cat cafe, Java Cats. Her passion for helping animals combined with her hospitality skills have turned the cafe into a place to relax, to work, to caffeinate, and to find that furry friend you’ve been longing for. Hadyn’s entrepreneurial journey hasn’t been an easy ride, but it’s one she’s surely proud of, and we can see why.
Hometown: Savannah, Georgia
Current city: Atlanta, Georgia
Alma mater: Georgia State University
Degree: Five classes away from Bachelor’s in film (dropped out to fully pursue my biz!)
Very first job: Florist
Hustle: Owner, Java Cats Cafe; Socially Accepted Cat Lady
Babe you admire and why?
Hannah Shaw, also known as The Kitten Lady. I admire Hannah because she is a fierce animal advocate and is so passionate about education. She has done so much for the cat community and she truly makes a difference in the lives of cats and those who care for them.
How do you spend your free time?
I sometimes run on very little sleep, so I love to take naps (with my cat, duh!) I also love to skateboard on the BeltLine, hang out with friends and try new restaurants with my husband.
What would you eat for your very last meal?
I love, love, love poké!
What is something you want to learn or master?
I’d love to be a master of organization.
Go-to news source?
Three words to describe yourself?
Compassionate, kind and adventurous.
If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
Taylor Swift or Ellen Degeneres.
What’s something most don't know about you?
I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to running a business. It’s been a constant learn-as-I-go type thing. I had no business background before this—just customer service. I’ve learned a lot on my own and thankfully have been figuring out this whole business thing. I think I’m pulling it off! [Editor’s note: We’d certainly say so.]
Tell us about your hustle.
I am constantly on the go. Running to the bank, Restaurant Depot to pick up supplies, checking inventory, caring for cats, paying bills, doing payroll—it never ends! The business side isn’t all too fun, but it’s the passion for the “why” I’m doing this all that makes it worth it. I spend days working in the cat lounge on my laptop—so it isn’t all that bad.
What does your typical workday look like?
My typical workday usually begins at 11:00 a.m. Despite trying to rewire myself, too many years spent serving late nights at restaurant jobs has turned me into a forever night owl. I get all of my computer work (payroll, emails, bills, scheduling, etc.) all done in the late hours of the night and early hours of the morning. I usually go to bed around 4:00 a.m. and get my day started all over again by 11:00 a.m. It might seem crazy to some, but I’ve embraced that this rhythm is the way I operate best, so I just go with it. I’m in the roles of being a leader to my staff, adoption counselor for guests who want to adopt, barista in the café, errand runner, and trying to learn how to be a better bookkeeper!
What inspired Java Cats Café?
I was inspired after hearing about a similar concept in a film class during my senior year at GSU. At the time there weren’t any cat cafés in the South, and I wanted to be the first! When I first signed the lease for our space, it was a complete wreck. In fact, when I brought my parents to see it, they were literally like, Are you kidding? Thankfully, I had the help of so many friends to paint, clean and transform the five-year vacant space into a cute café. It looked more like a 70s secondhand store at first, and my small budget was to blame for that. Over time I reinvested money into the design and decor of the building and it is now a rustic, homey and trendy café. The most important piece of my vision for Java Cats has always stayed the same: to provide cats with an amazing fostering experience until they find their forever-home, as well as making an impact on the local community by partnering with nonprofits. I also want people to feel genuinely cared for while getting coffee and working in the café. So many coffee shops I’ve been to in Atlanta aren’t the friendliest and can make you feel you’re a burden to even be purchasing coffee. I want people to come for the coffee and the hospitality, and stay for the cats. I want it to be an overall different and warm experience.
What makes you passionate about helping animals find their homes?
I have always been drawn to animals of all kinds. I grew up with a family (in particular, my mom) that cared for animals who were abandoned, sick or injured. We were known as the “animal house,” so baby opossums, squirrels and other little critters found their way to us through people who found them and didn’t know what to do. We were friends with several vets and vet techs I was able to shadow, so by 14 I was able to administer IVs, give vaccines, insert microchips and properly care for very sick animals. Caring for animals was second nature and nothing made me happier. I love cats because you have to work for their affection. They are so incredibly intelligent, regal and intuitive. The companionship I’ve found with cats I’ve had growing up—and even now—far surpasses any other animal in my experience. There’s just something really special about them.
What did your hustle look like before Java Cats Café?
I was a full-time student and worked full time in fine dining—both things with my husband, actually. When I dropped out to open Java Cats, it took over a year from idea to doors opening. I stayed in school along the way and that was the most stressful time I’ve ever experienced. Juggling school, work and trying to open a business was hard and beyond exhausting. I was able to quit my job once a lease was signed and I finally dropped out of school to focus on my new business. Going from a two-income household to just relying on my husband, who was also juggling being in school full-time, was a challenge. We went through months of cutting back on groceries, not touching our bank account and just being very cautious with spending. I cashed in the rest of my college fund into Java Cats, so I literally invested everything.
What is your approach to leadership? What advice do you have for babes who want to start their own business or manage a team?
I went from working under a boss to being a boss—and not to mention, a boss at 24. This transition was not easy and I felt a lot of pressure from my staff in the beginning to have it all together, when I was still trying to navigate this new territory. I was trying to figure things out, on top of needing to be a leader to a team of 12. If I had to give advice, I would say to just trust yourself and make decisions based on your opinion. I made the mistake of second-guessing myself and I would go to employees for validation about decisions. This turned into everyone having a different opinion, and in the end made it harder to make decisions based on what I thought was best. I would also say, be a boss and not the “best friend” boss. I thought of my employees as my friends and treated them as such, but that did not turn out to be a good thing. Having boundaries with staff will help staff respect you as a boss and a leader.
How many cats have you adopted since opening Java Cats Café?
As of right now, we have adopted 257!
What kinds of organization do you regularly partner with?
We partner with Paws Atlanta for our kitties. Paws is Georgia’s oldest non-kill animal shelter, and we’ve had such a great relationship working together. We partner with The Gathering Industries for our pre-packaged cookies, scones, granola bars, etc. The Gathering employs the Atlanta homeless who are looking for work. I love supporting them because they are helping those who need to get back on their feet by giving them a means to do that—a job. We also give our coffee grounds to a local farmer named Maurice Smalls who uses them for compost to grow organic produce in underdeveloped parts of Atlanta. I love being able to partner, even in small ways, to help give back and invest in a greater good.
How have your past internships, education, and work experiences prepared you for your work today?
The Ford Fry restaurant group, where I was a host captain for over two years, helped prepare me for the role of business owner. I was empowered to be a leader of a team, treat guests with the best hospitality and learned how to handle difficult situations with guests. I truly am thankful for my experience at St. Cecilia (the restaurant I worked at in the group) because I honestly can say, my job prepared me for my journey with Java Cats. The only things I really had to learn on my own were the admin side of running an actual business, but because of Ford Fry, the top-notch quality customer service and hospitality I had down for sure. That really gave me a lot of confidence.
What’s been your biggest career milestone?
Opening Java Cats, with no previous business background, at the age of 24, and now counting down until the grand opening of my second location is my biggest career milestone. Because of my experience, I wanted to create a support system for other likeminded women. Thus, the Java Cats Creatives was born! The JCC has 75 members, and growing, with an average of 30 who meet by webcam or in-person every Wednesday night for a span of 12 weeks to talk about entrepreneurship. I had so much self-doubt and fear of failing that I’m honestly glad I pushed through it all to see how everything would flourish. I’m also so proud to see the women in the group gaining the courage to take a risk to do what they love. That has been super rewarding.
How has being a woman affected your professional experience?
I faced sexism very early in the Java Cats journey, from realtors not calling me back (but retuning my husband’s calls) to landlords meeting with me and not taking me or my concept seriously. The worst of it was being taken advantage of by men who knew they could quote me for work higher than normal, since it was assumed I wouldn’t know any different. It was tough. I had to have my husband handle many, many situations for me because it was clear I wouldn’t receive the same respect.
What is one of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your work?
Fear. The fear of failing sometimes would be so overwhelming I would just shut down. I remember the day before the soft opening, I was going into Kroger to grab a few things, and I just broke down in my car. I was so scared I would fail, despite being at the finish line of a long struggle just to get open. Fortunately my mentors, husband, family and friends all made failure seem so small, as if, if I did fail, it’s not the end of the world like it might seem to be. I had to reflect on all the milestones and I knew my heart was in the right place and with that I wouldn’t fail. I still believe the fear of failure is actually more crippling than actually failing.
What advice would you give to a babe trying to break into your industry?
The most important thing about opening a cat café is to realize ahead of time, it’s going to be challenging if there’s not one in your city or state already. It’s such a new concept here in the States, that you are basically going to bend regulations and navigate thick governmental waters. (Our city took four months to give me permits and also lost my plans three times.) While a cat café is such an amazing concept, the city of Atlanta was hesitant about it—and by that I mean, I got a lot of no's. Just push through it and the reward will far outweigh the challenges. The challenges make it that much more of a reward. I’d also say find mentors from failed businesses and successful businesses and learn from them. Soak up advice and give yourself some grace. You’ll make mistakes, but that’s how we learn.
What does success look like to you?
I measure our success by our adoption number and seeing families who adopt make Instagrams for their kitties and tag us on social media. I love keeping up with all of our kitties in their new lives. I care so deeply for each shelter cat that comes through the lounge and I always wonder what kind of life he/she is coming from, where he/she has been, what he/she has experienced—it makes me want to make sure they find the best home and family. That inspires me to keep doing what I do, because I’m so invested in these kitties.
What is your philosophy on work-life balance?
Get stuff done and go treat yo’ self. It took me a while to figure this one out. I was running myself into the ground, working crazy-long hours and the exhaustion was killing me. I figured out quickly that due to the nature of what I do, compassion fatigue is a very real thing. If I’m empty, how can I keep pouring out? Self-care is so important to be able to keep doing what you’re doing, especially if it’s caring for others. Thankfully, I’ve had amazing friends along the way who treat me even if I don’t treat myself. One, being an amazing lady-boss hairstylist named Kelsey (@paintedbabesatl) who reached out many months ago about doing my hair for free because of what I do for kitties. I see her regularly to keep my hair up and I can’t tell you what a treat that has been. Being able to treat myself to a hair appointment every month has been something I look forward to. I’m very thankful for generosity like that!
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Be kind to everyone and always use whatever platform you have to give back. I always want to be an example of how easy it is to truly make a difference and love on each other. If you focus on doing good, giving back to others, and staying true to your passion, I think you’ll find yourself really happy and fulfilled.
In partnership with:
Created by our very own babe, Lacey, Beyou is an emerging jewelry boutique with deep roots, a bright future and a dedicated following. Voted the Best Jewelry Boutique of 2017 by Jacksonville magazine, the collection is available online and currently in 12 of Jacksonville's local retail shops. Check out the Beyou collection online and receive 20% off your entire order when you use code 'BWH20' at checkout!
*This is an affiliate partnership. That means when you shop using our links and/or promo codes, a portion of your purchase goes right back to us, so we can then roll out some awesome new things for you. Of course, we only promote brands and products we genuinely stand behind and know you babes will enjoy.