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Community Support Keeping the Gem City Alive

Downtown Dayton | Photo by Michael Krieger | The Wright State Guardian

Community support keeps the gem city alive and purring in the midst of a pandemic. 

Yes, purring.  

The Gem City Catfe, located in Dayton, Ohio, provides a cat lounge filled with 18 adoptable cats along with the traditional coffee and tea experience. The business serves the community and finds homes for rescue cats through a partnership with the nonprofit Gem City Kitties. 

In March 2020, the cafe put all operations on hold in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Gem City Catfe Owner Karin Gudal-Johnson, the pandemic contributed to a business loss of over $150,000 from 2019 to 2020.  

Small businesses account for half of the overall employment in Ohio according to Wright State University Economics Professor Dr. Kevin Willardsen. Smaller businesses are also less likely to absorb fixed costs and maintain profitability through a pandemic.  

This is especially true for businesses requiring a social environment like the Gem City Catfe.  

The pandemic forced entrepreneurs to adapt while covering costs and staying healthy to run operations.  

Gudal-Johnson says most customers come to the Gem City Catfe for interaction with cats – a business aspect not easily turned virtual.  

The Catfe closed from March to May of 2020 and decided to pause all cat adoptions and business transactions.  

They offered to-go orders and eventually inside dining as the pandemic progressed. In August, the cafe opened the cat lounge at limited capacity.  

Other businesses, like Now and Zen Terrariums, took a different adaptation approach.  

Co-owners Paula Willis and her daughter Alleah Cooks started in 2014 with a booth at Second Street Market. They now own a brick-and-mortar store, a do-it-yourself terrarium building studio.  

“At the end of the day, we really were not impacted that much [by the pandemic], it was just a shift from where our income was coming from,” Willis said. “You just have to be flexible, and honest about your strengths and weaknesses. Where you are weak, you really just have to find a way to compensate for it.” 

The mother-daughter duo compensated their inability to provide an in-person service with a creative e-commerce business model.  

In response to the March Shutdown, the business owners reconfigured their entire business plan. Instead of focusing on the in-studio experience, they sold DIY terrarium kits online.  

Although hard work and adaptability played a part, Willis and Gudal-Johnson agree the community was the biggest contributor to the survival of their businesses.  

“I think downtown people are pretty invested in certain local places that they’ve built relationships with or have special interactions with,” Gudal-Johnson said. “I think that’s really the only reason we’re not closed.”  

Loyal customers supported the catfe buying gift cards and merchandise and extending their memberships.  

Willis says the DIY kits expanded their customer base and gave original customers a new-found appreciation for the in-person studio, which is now open again.  

The Gem City Catfe will continue to offer a cat-filled café experience at low-capacity while it adapts to the anticipated effects of the pandemic. Willis and Cooks are preparing to move locations to the fire blocks district at the heart of downtown Dayton at summer’s end.  

The survival of these two Dayton gems and countless others rests on supportive Daytonians with generous hearts.  

Makenzie Hoeferlin


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