Selma Cafe celebrates its 2nd anniversary

Selma Cafe is a local-foods breakfast salon began in February 2009, founded and hosted by Lisa Gottlieb and Jeff McCabe, organized these past six months by Gottlieb, as McCabe has focused on the farming initiatives.

Borden - Anne's picture of Selma Cafe

The first time my husband and I went to Selma Cafe, we arrived at 6:25 a.m. so he could be at work by 7:15. It was dark. It was winter. I could barely believe we were going to be welcomed into a stranger’s home at 6:30 in the morning for breakfast.

We entered the glowing entryway and stopped. “What do we do now?” I whispered. We could hear voices and smell bacon. A prodigious number of nametags and masking tape adorned the walls –Jim, Mary, Susan, Lynn, John, etc. “Those must be for the people who belong here.” I whisper again. Right when I was about to turn around and sprint back to our car in embarrassment and nerves, a greeter bounded around the corner and our introduction to Selma Cafe began.

As I wrote in September, hoop houses are being built with the money raised from the breakfast funds. I did not mention the amazing experience one has eating breakfast at the Friday morning Selma Cafe. There is a palpable energy of good cheer and community.

I watched Lisa Gottlieb and Jeff McCabe this past Friday clearing dishes, answering questions about the laying habits of their chickens, extolling the prowess of masseuse Ed Weymouth (offering complimentary massages to those waiting for a seat) to first time eaters to the cafe, sitting down with participants, laughing and smiling at the community centered around their kitchen. It is a remarkable gift they are giving to our community.

Because in contrast to my first trepidation as I viewed the entryway nametags, the legion of names on masking tape illustrate an important precept of Selma Cafe Jimeveryone belongs.

I asked Gottlieb if she would answer some questions for me about these past two years and where she thinks things are moving forward. Her voice is the best way to describe what has been happening in her home. Yet, before we hear from Gottlieb, I want to share this one anecdote.

Last week, I was able to join Karl and Cara Rosean of Real Time Farms at a presentation they gave for Food Tech Connect in New York City. The mavens of the tech food world were there to listen to them speak. One of the participants noticed that Selma Cafe is listed on Real Time Farms as one of their locally sourced restaurants. Then the entire room of 30 people began talking about what a fabulous and amazing institution Selma Cafe is – it was exhilarating and I felt very lucky to live in Ann Arbor.

Here is the interview with Lisa Gottlieb:

According to your blog archive, the first breakfast "cafe" took place on Feb. 27 to organize future breakfast "cafes." What gave you the idea in the first place? The first breakfast was on Feb. 20, 2009, and it was a casual breakfast to celebrate Jeff's 50th birthday. It was such a high-energy party, and people were so enthusiastic, that afterward a small group of people met to discuss the viability of continuing the breakfasts each week. Jeff and I decided that as long as we had volunteers to help, we would continue to open our home, and create a manageable way to find chefs each week and source local food.

Borden - Silvio at Selma by Myra

Photo courtesy of Myra Klarman

How long did it take for a regular routine to be developed with sufficient volunteers? We decided pretty quickly that we would do the breakfasts every week, as opposed to bi-weekly, or once a month – to avoid confusion. As we moved forward, and the workload became apparent, we needed more volunteers to take over some of the chores that got to be too much for us. For the first month or so, I was coming home after work to a pretty messy kitchen, and I was doing a lot of extra cleaning every Friday afternoon. And, the more the number of guests increased each week, the more need there was for extra servers, a steady dishwasher, people to clear plates and set tables and an expediter to make sure the food orders were going out to the right tables. We started out our first few weeks with 35 guests, then 50, then 75 and then 150. Our highest so far was 186 guests in December of 2010. In December of 2009, we were really needing more volunteers than we had. One week our chef was making breakfast, and no servers showed up to volunteer. So, we had guests fill out their own meal tickets, and when we called their name, they'd come get their order. The dishes piled up, because the dishwasher had to leave, the tables weren't being cleared, and it was a good bit of chaos. It was pretty obvious to everyone that without volunteers, Selma Cafe was not going to happen.

A core group of us sat down, and we sent out an email, and we basically said if we don't have enough volunteers by Wednesday of each week consistently signing up, we'll have to stop Selma Cafe. And that was all it took. Since then, over a year ago now, we haven't had any problem with a lack of volunteers.

Borden - Anne's picture of veggie tart

At this point we have a volunteer base of more than 450 people, including volunteers for the breakfast, hoop house build volunteers, and volunteers who help out at Selma Cafe fundraiser events and other local food events where Selma Cafe is represented. And that isn't including the couple of dozen chefs we have who come make the food. These days we have specific volunteer roles that are filled in order to keep things running smoothly. [CB: Check out the Selma Cafe blog for volunteer spotlights.]

Since this is a University town, volunteers come and go, but we love having volunteers who commit to taking on a role consistently for a period of time, since it means we have less training to do, and it's easier to give really great customer service when people are encouraged to own their volunteer role.

These past two years, what elements of the "cafe" have been the most fun/exhilarating? Nearly all of it is fun. If there wasn't fun and joy and enthusiasm and energy, we just wouldn't have the juice to keep it sustainable week in and week out. A couple of my favorite fun things lately have been the addition of live music from various artists and the massage therapists who come and give complementary massage samples to our guests and volunteers. I love it when we are really busy, and there is this wonderful, happy energy in the house. There is the sound of people laughing and talking and connecting with each other. And the chefs are in a groove, and the food is coming out fast and hot and beautifully plated and delicious. And there's music, and the smell of waffles cooking, bacon frying, and fresh ground coffee. And folks are hugging each other, and babies are being passed to open arms, and kids are kissing their parents good-bye and heading up to Eberwhite to school. And then it's somebody's birthday, and I cut a little slice of bread pudding and put a birthday candle in it, and everybody stops for a moment and sings to that person, and it's just the sweetest, exhilarating feeling, all of that combined. And it happens pretty much that way each week.

Most people I speak to are in awe of your willingness to open your private home to strangers on a weekly basis. Has your relationship with your home changed these past two years (i.e. does it still feel like home)? We've always had a lot of activity in our home, with people staying with us and coming and going. Jeff and I are pretty gregarious, and our kitchen and dining room are really set up to have lots of people cooking and eating together. Our rule is that no one goes upstairs –  the upstairs is our private space, and that works pretty well. You know, we have the house to ourselves all week, except for Thursday evening and Friday morning. It still feels cozy and lovely to us. We are so lucky to have our own home, so why not share the abundance? Sometimes things get broken or put away in the wrong place, but those things are pretty minor when I look at the big picture of what Selma Cafe is accomplishing.

What is your vision for the next two years? There are several big projects that we are working on. Jeff received a grant from the USDA to create an incubator farm program which is currently in the works just north of Ann Arbor, and we are planning a 20 Hoops in 20 Days event for this summer, which will include building 20 hoops starting June 15, finishing up on the 4th of July with a big party celebrating Independence Day by focusing attention on creating independence from big corporations controlling our food supply. We are funding those hoop builds with breakfast funds but also from our recently developed Farmer Fund, an investment fund managed by Ann Arbor's University Bank, where people can invest in our hoop house projects and earn a bit of interest while supporting our local farmers. Borden - Anne's picture of duck poutine

I've been working on a Selma Cafe cookbook and hope to have that available sometime in the future. As far as the weekly breakfasts go, the plan is to keep the food coming every week, while offering lots of events for folks to get involved with our area's local food adventure.

Anything you would like to add that I have not specially asked about? I am very proud of our accomplishments, like the nearly dozen hoop houses we've built, and the two years of weekly breakfasts we've provided, but just as meaningful to me is the environment we have created of inclusion, appreciation, physical and emotional safety, and the value we place on finding a spot for everyone, regardless of their skill set, to take part in our activities. As a social worker and yoga teacher, my view is that it isn't enough to be productive if the work we are doing doesn't reflect in the positive experiences of people involved in what we do.

A good part of our mission is to build community, affiliation, and connection in our modern world, which tends to separate people into virtual, surface level connection. I want to focus on giving people opportunities to prepare and eat good food, to getting their hands dirty in the soil, planting and harvesting vegetables, learning to swing a hammer and work as a team with others, and have their over all experience be that they know the work they do has a positive, measurable influence on their daily lives.

Thank you Lisa Gottlieb and Jeff McCabe for what you do!

Thank you Anne Savage for the use of your beautiful photographs!

Here is the article on