When Ben Triola was in Thailand visiting his father — who taught there as a Webster University full-time faculty member in the early 2000s — he decided to take a trip to a cat café in Bangkok on Christmas Day, 2014. It turned out to be an experience Triola would never forget, one he sought to recreate when he returned to the United States.
About two years later on Nov. 12, 2016, Triola did just that with the opening of Mauhaus Cat Café and Lounge in Maplewood, a St. Louis suburb. Mauhaus allows patrons to pet and cuddle with 13 adoptable cats as well as two resident cats on one side of its 1,500-square-foot facility. On the other, customers order from a menu featuring small plates, baked goods, coffee and tea, which they can then bring into the cat lounge via a vestibule that connects the two spaces.
Cat cafés originated in East Asia countries like Taiwan, Japan and Korea, while the inaugural American one opened in Oakland, Calif. in late 2014. Mauhaus is the first of its kind in St. Louis. As Triola — who graduated from Webster in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in interactive media — and his partner, Dana Huth, built Mauhaus, they did so with the vision of modeling it after the incredible cat cafés they visited overseas.
“The cat cafés in Asia, at least the ones we’ve been to, are like the next level. There is nothing quite like them in the U.S., just in terms of the experience you have when you go there,” Triola said. “That’s really what we wanted to create — the experience. Let people experience that sort of magic. Disney’s mission is to create magic. Kind of the same thing with Mauhaus — you want people to have this feeling when they go that is just amazing. We wanted to do that. We wanted to give that to people.”
The desire of Triola, 31, to develop a cat café was validated when he launched a Kickstarter campaign in March 2016. Less than 48 hours after the Kickstarter went live, Triola’s goal of raising $15,000 was met. Many of the backers were first-time Kickstarter users, meaning they created an account specifically to donate to the project. Triola estimated the campaign doubled, if not tripled, Mauhaus’s audience and reach.
Early returns have legitimized the business, too, as Mauhaus’s online reservation system (there’s a 16- to 20-person capacity for the cats’ safety) has been consistently fully booked. Triola pointed to a decision he and Huth made years ago to value quality and the customer experience over margins and money accumulated as the basis for their success. That’s reflected by Mauhaus hand-making almost all their food and beverage items in-house.
“That is something that was important to us for the experience. And the same goes for the construction of the lounge. We built a lot of elements to it to create something more than just a shelter with a coffee pot,” Triola said. “It really needs to feel like this magical, boutique café experience. Very little of that has to do with making a profit. It all has to do with making a great customer experience. We will in turn be rewarded by that. There are probably ways to make it more profitable, but that involves sacrifices we’re not willing to make.”
Triola credited Webster’s broad education for encouraging him to tackle a vast array of projects and dabbling in different areas he enjoyed. One of those was education, as Triola taught video game-related courses as an adjunct professor at Webster from 2011 to 2014. He said the relationships he’s forged during his time as both a student and teacher at the university have been a massive help throughout his career.
Triola helped form Rampant Interactive — a software development studio that also designs games — seven years ago. The company is now building a PlayStation 4 quest-based hovercraft racing game, titled “SmuggleCraft,” that is slated to be released in mid-2017. As with Mauhaus, Triola emphasizes creating exciting custom experiences with Rampant. Triola has intentionally elected to keep Rampant small so the company can choose which projects to take on and which ones to bypass. Thus leading to a greater sense of control and higher motivation and satisfaction levels for Rampant’s members.
As someone who has been an entrepreneur for almost the entirety of his working life, Triola dispenses the following advice for those considering an entrepreneurial pursuit.
“Just do it,” he said. “We didn’t have any experience with any of this stuff. We’ve never run a restaurant before. We’ve barely worked in restaurants. And we just did it. Nothing is outside of the realm of possibility.”