Exclusive: Starting a Small Business as a Cat in America

Photo by Kaique Rocha

Being a small business owner in the United States has never been easy, but there are certain characteristics that make it even harder: being a member of a minority group, happening to exist in the 21st century (an era dominated by massive retail chains and businesses like Amazon), and happening to exist during a global pandemic, just to name a few. Countless pieces have sought to investigate the plight of American small businesses and their owners, but there is one group that remains woefully underrepresented: felines. Cats have been the backbone of American business since the beginning, and their influence continues to be felt today in bodegas and bookstores. But how are feline small business owners surviving these unique and trying times? More specifically, what’s it like to be an American cat starting up a small business right now? I spoke to Ivy and Alfred, owners of Chicago-based taco truck El Gato, to get the scoop.

I approached the truck, which can generally be found on the northwest side of the city, on a cloudy winter day. The truck is a bit ramshackle. Many of its windows are missing glass, and certain parts are held together with nothing more than duct tape. Of course, very little of that sort of thing matters if the food is good.

The matriarch of the business, Ivy, eyed me suspiciously through a window. “What do you want?” she asked.

I explained that I was the journalist who had contacted her to do a story about her business, at which point she hissed at me and ran away, her primordial pouch swinging madly. Though admittedly confused, I could understand Ivy’s frustration and fear — she was here to sell tacos (fish tacos are El Gato’s speciality), not spill her secrets to the world. Now is not a great time to be putting one’s business at risk.

El Gato’s matriarch, Ivy, eyes me suspiciously as I approach the truck. (Photo by Kara Fagan)

Fortunately, I was not left alone for long. I spotted a young cat — who I would soon learn was the co-owner, Alfred — approaching the truck. He seemed friendly and curious, and I chose to ignore the flecks of catnip all over his coat. We all have our vices to get through the work day.

I introduced myself, and he replied, “You can call me Alfie!” He then proceeded to roll onto his back, belly-up. “Just for looking,” he explained. “No touch.”

I asked him if business had been good since opening the taco truck. “Oh yes,” he said. “Both our moms have come. Have you seen my mom, by the way?”

I told him no, and asked about the struggles of starting a small business during a pandemic, especially those that may be unique to cats. I noticed Ivy staring at us from underneath a nearby table.

“Panorama?” Alfie asked.

“Pandemic,” I corrected.

“What is that?” His eyes were large. Cute but, I had to admit, giving off a vibe of, “no thoughts, head empty.” I cursed myself and my internalized anti-feline prejudices.

“You know, the coronavirus pandemic? Has killed over 375,000 Americans?”

“What?” Alfie asked.

I was flabbergasted. “You’ve never heard of COVID-19?”

“What’s nineteen?”

I wondered if perhaps Alfie was a little too young for this conversation. Though Ivy was still underneath the table, the curiosity in her eyes told me that she would be back shortly. I decided to save the hard questions for her.

“So, Alfie,” I began, “is there a specific taco I should try?”

“Tuna,” he replied.

“Great! Can I try one?”

“Oh no. The tuna is all for me.”

I asked if I could try something else — maybe some tilapia or, if all else failed, some nachos.

“Have you seen my mom?” he asked. Before I could reply, Alfie let out a loud, “HEWWO?” that left me quite startled. He then took off running, the sound of his paws hitting the ground akin to a stampede of horses.

Co-owner Alfie begins his shift. (Photo by author)

It was at this point that Ivy returned. She rubbed up against my legs, which I took as an apology for her earlier abruptness.

“He’s very young,” I said, feeling unaccountably sad. Young, uneducated, and dependent on catnip. He probably hoped that the taco truck would eventually bring him a better life.

“Do you have any food?” Ivy asked.

I assumed she was joking, and laughed. “I thought you were supposed to give me food.”

She looked at me blankly, her form suggesting the endless abyss of a void. “Nothing? Not even chicken?”

“No,” I replied, confused. “I don’t generally carry chicken on me.”

At this, she hissed and batted me with her paws before running off again, leaving the taco truck unattended during the lunch rush. I noted that she had kept her claws retracted — she had been merely frustrated, not angry. Food and ingredients, I reflected, were expensive. Perhaps she had hoped that I would bring her some chicken in exchange for the interview. If so, I and everyone else had truly underestimated the plight of feline business owners in America.

As I walked away, I spotted Ivy and Alfie in the distance. They were in a play fight, batting at each other, Ivy hissing and Alfie looking like he was having a blast with his best friend. It gave me a sliver of hope. Even if the business failed, they would always have each other.

For more information on El Gato, you can visit their website, provided to me by Alfie: ???////!!eqgjwe

Cat mom, librarian, and writer in Chicago.

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