The Internet developed sentience over the past weekend, becoming a living, breathing thing, and swallowed whole a downtown Austin coffee shop. The body incarnate of the blips and boops manifested itself in the form of Grumpy Cat—the most famous iteration of the most popular thing in the URLz—and five of her internet feline friends taking over the Congress Avenue location of Caffé Medici. It came as part of the Friskies Haus of Bacon (the Internet’s favorite food group), the cat food brand’s SXSW opening weekend pop-up combining cats and bacon in an attempt to #breaktheinternet. The whole thing was so viral I just about died.
Whereas most lamestream media outlets would report from the sterile formality of Friday’s Grumpy Cat media day, we at Sprudge opted to get grimy with the common people during the Saturday public event. We met Grumpy Cat and her legion of fans at South By Southwest. The atmosphere was electric. The cat? Nonplussed.
A bi-modally aged line of youngsters on the verge of tears and adults a little too excited for their age queued out the door and down Congress Avenue, all anxiously awaiting a glimpse of that steely, fluffy, blue-eyed malcontent. A plane flew overhead towing a massive picture of Grumpy Cat; the zeitgeist was upon us. Waiver signed, cat videos watched, pen vaped, and then finally—it was time to meet Grumpy Cat.
Inside, only Ozymandian vestiges of one of Austin’s most beautiful cafes remained. The espresso machines, the grinders, the manual brewers were all gone. Where once stood retail coffee bags and pastries now stood pyramids of Friskies Tasty Treasures’ new bacon-flavored cat food, presumably the impetus behind the ongoing feline foofaraw. Even the Medici logo that had adorned the walls was painted over.
Technically a pop-up art gallery, the Haus of Bacon instead replaced the beloved coffeenalia with portraits of the cats in attendance—GC, Waffles, Nala, Sam Has Eyebrows, and Oskar the Blind Cat and Klaus—made entirely out of bacon, cat food, and Friskies packaging. Notably absent from the cat parade was Lil Bub. Is there a beef between her and Grumpy Cat? And if there is, can it be made into a flavor of wet food?[Editors note: Lil Bub was not there because Lil Bub is the anti-corporate answer to Grumpy Cat and assorted cat shilling of all stripes. For more on Lil Bub, who is awesome, read Camille Dodero‘s well-drawn portrait of Bub and Bub’s person, Mike Bridavksy, which appeared in Spin Magazine (of all places) last year.]
Finally, after navigating the serpentine line, there she was, napping in her Friskies bed surrounded by handlers and camera equipment. Grumpy Cat is larger than life but smaller in person. Everyone in line got to take a picture with the sleepy internet sensation, and when my turn came, the camera operator ran through her script—she told me to smile big, which I politely declined in favor of an incredulous smirk. From there I was ushered to a printer to pick up my photo (it was not beautiful) and then into another photo booth where I could have a picture taken of me with my picture (it was very meta). And then I was out the door and back on Congress. Just like that, the fever dream was over.
I don’t know how best to sum up this whole experience. It was opulent but family friendly, corporate but viral, like a chicken strip on fleek but in real life. I spent half the time in line asking myself what the hell I was doing waiting around to see a cat, but the other half of the time giggling at the irony-laden badassery of seeing THE Grumpy Cat, inarguably the most famous person/creature I’ve ever met. The best way I can describe is simply this: I went through the looking glass, I saw the living embodiment of the Internet, and I got a photo. And a photo of a photo.
Bonus non-cat-related SXSW tip: if the CEO of your social media panel is a no-show or you have to file in 38 people at a time to see two songs from your favorite ’90s space-rock band (I don’t want to talk about it right now), head over to Houndstooth Coffee in the Frost Bank building in downtown Austin. Only during SXSW, they are serving the Café Cubos: Topo Chico poured over Toddy ice cubes with a twist of orange and finished off with candied coffee cherries. It will make things much less not-ok.
Zac Cadwalader is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in Dallas, Texas. Read more Zac Cadwalader on Sprudge.
All photos by Ethan Billips for Sprudge.com.