Who let the dogs in? Ophélie Poillon opened Europe’s first dog café

Ophélie with her dog Muffy and half-breed Nokia, who meanwhile got adopted.

French animal shelters take over 100 000 dogs in every year. Many people want to spend time with dogs but do not have enough time or space to have one of their own. Volunteering at an animal rescue centre, Ophélie Poillon noticed this situation and made a business out of it: she opened the first dog café in Europe.

Animal welfare is a growing value in contemporary society. People all over the world have decided to live vegan, buy organic food or use cosmetics without animal testing. There has been a worldwide increase in pet ownership recognizable, with dogs being the most popular pet. In France, there are around 17 dogs to every 100 inhabitants, which is one of the highest ratios in the world. However, lack of space and time makes it not feasible for many people who would like to own a pet.

“The idea was to bring together the dogs who need human affection and the humans who need dog affection,” Ophélie Poillon says. Two years ago, at the age of 24, she put this idea to practice, adopted four dogs from an animal shelter and opened the Le Waf in the old town of Lille.

“During the first months, people were queuing outside, so we even had to reduce the time they can stay here. On weekends, we still have to say no to sometimes 15 people a day because we’re full. Overall, it works very well and I’m happy with it. I can live from it,” Poillon says.

Ophélie renovated a former photo studio and adapted the location to the needs of dogs and visitors.

Located in an old photo studio, close to Lille’s biggest park, the café turns out to be a true heaven for dog lovers. It becomes obvious that it differs a lot from conventional cafés. A five euro entry fee contains not only time with the dogs, but also unlimited tea, coffee and squash. Visitors grab their drinks by self-service and then try to search for a seat, which are used by humans as well as dogs, who are usually occupying the cosiest places first.

Poillon introduces the heart of the café, Wookie, Pyme, Muffy, Zazou and Marley exclusive to every visitor. “We have seven dogs here, all half-breeds and all from animal shelters. Four of them are mine one of them is Juliette’s, who works with me. Then, we always have two to three dogs that are for adoption,” Poillon says. They were previously abandoned and she keeps them with her in the café until they find a new home. Visitors do not only spend time with the dogs, they also have the opportunity to adopt one of them. “We work together with different associations. If a visitor wants to adopt one of the dogs, we set up the contact with the association. When one dog is adopted, we take care of another one,” Poillon explains.

During the last two years, over 30 dogs found a new home while staying with Ophélie.

When the café closes in the evening, the dogs stay with Poillon who is living in a house with her parents. “We have a big garden, we walk the dogs two hours a day and of course, they get a lot of attention. When they get home in the evening, they are tired, so they just want to eat and sleep. It’s not as chaotic as it may seem.”

Opening a café, which has never been seen in this form before and adopting four dogs at the same time is a big challenge, personally as well as financially. “My parents thought I was crazy and that this would never work out. But when they saw that I’m going to do it anyway, they helped me a lot. But I didn’t want to get them involved financially. So, first I started a fundraising campaign, then I got a bank loan. I also got funds from organizations who support companies in the region and my plan convinced different private investors to participate.”

For setting up her business plan, Poillon joined the masters degree in entrepreneurship at Lille University where she worked one year on covering all the aspects, like finance, marketing and communications. After graduating, it only took her a couple of months to welcome her first visitors in Le Waf. “The start wasn’t very smooth, there were times where I was just tired. But feelings like this don’t last longer than an hour. It’s been a lot of work and sometimes an emotional rollercoaster, but overall I’ve never regretted it,” Poillon says.

Poillon sees the growing awareness of animal welfare as one of the reasons the café is so successful. “A friend of mine opened a vegan restaurant, not far away and it’s working very well. This idea fits to the idea of a dog café. We also sell one vegan cake, which is our bestseller. I myself am vegetarian and buy mostly organic products when it comes to cheese or eggs. Not only in Lille, everywhere in the world there is kind of an awareness of animal welfare. At the beginning, a lot of associations came to check if the dogs are happy here. We’re perfectly ok with that. Today we have a very good reputation in the animal welfare community,” she says.

In their own territory: Muffy and Nokia enjoying their freedom in the Le Waf.

By entering Le Waf, it becomes obvious that the dogs come first. “In the café, our dogs are allowed to do nearly everything they want. Of course they can’t steal cake or stuff. But it’s important for me that they have a good life. So there are rules for customers, they can’t just do whatever they want here with the dogs,” Poillon says.

Visitors understand and accept the concept behind Le Waf quite fast, also because the idea of a café where people can spend time with animals is not completely new. “Dogs are of course a lot cooler, but there is also a cat café in Lille,” Poillon jokes. “Cat cafés are a trend. It works very well and it’s easier to look after cats than dogs. You have to train dogs and walk them; the cats stay in the café at night, which is not possible for dogs. So it’s definitely less work,” she states.

Last year, another dog café opened in Europe. “There is one Chihuahua Café in Edinburgh now. But it’s a different concept, they have breed dogs, we only have half-breeds. And we’re doing the adoptions,” Poillon says. Although Le Waf is a company and not an association, meaning they have to earn money, animal welfare is Poillon’s driving value. “Just because animals can’t talk doesn’t mean that their life is less valuable. I want to make my money in a responsible and ethical way,” Ophélie says. For the future she thinks about spreading this idea further than Lille: “It’s maybe a bit early to say, but if this one here works so well I can imagine extending it, maybe to a franchise,” she says.