Sustainability at home: Friday morning breakfasts at Selma Café

By Chelsea Landry, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 31, 2012

Lisa Gottlieb and Jeff McCabe do not have wallpaper in their mudroom. Instead, tiny strips of masking tape bearing the names of Selma Café regulars in Sharpie cover every inch of drywall, some name tags even creeping up onto the ceiling. Robin’s egg blue and pastel yellow paint is barely visible underneath the multitude of peeling tape.

Erin Kirkland/Daily
Erin Kirkland/Daily
Erin Kirkland/Daily
Erin Kirkland/Daily

It’s eight o’clock in the morning, and the café has been open for almost two hours, but Gottlieb is bounding with a frenetic energy, reciprocated equally by the dozens of diners filtering through her doors.

She has never considered hosting breakfast at Selma Café in any location but her home.

On six days of the week, Gottlieb and McCabe’s quiet, unassuming house on Ann Arbor’s west side resembles any other home. Only on Friday mornings does the quaint suburban setting transform into Selma Café, a makeshift bistro serving up locally grown meals on a by-donation basis. Each week, Gottlieb and McCabe invite one local chef to their home to cook breakfast for the customers, donating the majority of the proceeds derived from that morning toward a local cause.

In its nearly three years of existence, the café has spread in popularity by word of mouth. Gottlieb said it has fed as many as 210 people within its three-and-a-half hour time frame.

Perhaps the café’s appeal derives from its remarkably cozy atmosphere. Diners are found anywhere from the dining room table to the kitchen to the sofa, deftly balancing plates on their knees.

“My goal is that I want someone to come to Selma Café and feel (as though) they’ve been invited into our home for breakfast,” Gottlieb said.

Despite its low-key surroundings, Selma Café dishes up some of the highest-quality cuisine imaginable. The morning I visited the breakfast salon, chef Dan Vernia of The Ravens Club served traditional mincemeat pierogies and winter vegetable coulibiac.

The menu’s presentation seems to contradict its elegance, as it's merely handwritten in permanent marker and tacked to a wall in the dining room. Nevertheless, it is the food that serves as the forefront of every breakfast. Each week at Selma Café offers a new assortment of culinary dishes one wouldn’t find anywhere else.

“Eating more locally can make measurable change,” Gottlieb said. “And it’s also a really healthy way to eat because we’re starting with fresh, simple, healthy ingredients.”

The variety of options has brought LSA senior Jodi Solway to Gottlieb and McCabe’s home more times than she can count.

“It’s great food and a great experience,” Solway said. “It’s a great way to start your day, especially on a Friday.”

Noticeably missing from the truly gourmet menu is the expected hefty price tag. Selma Café operates on a by-donation basis and Gottlieb said that the average donation is between $10 and $15 a person. A typical breakfast at Selma, Gottlieb said, could raise up to $1500.

One-third of this money is used to buy fresh, high-quality ingredients from local farmers that Ann Arbor’s best chefs use to create that Friday’s fare. The rest of the funds are allocated as micro-loans to local farmers to buy hoop house kits, another integral part of Selma Café’s mission.

Hoop houses allow farmers to grow food during all four seasons, extending the growing season exponentially and greatly increasing the availability of local produce. Selma Café volunteers install the hoop houses, keeping the cost minimal to farmers.

So far, Selma Café profits have helped to build 30 hoop houses in the surrounding community, with four built in Detroit.

“We want to buy local (and) I love the variety and the creativity in local food,” Gottlieb said. “We want to keep farmers in business.”

This initiative is one of the major reasons Matt Merrins, a long-time volunteer with Selma Café, continues to dedicate his time to the organization.

Merrins, who everybody at Selma calls “Scooter,” said much of his passion for the organization was strengthened by Selma’s efforts to aid local farmers. Merrins said he first came to help a friend poach 100 eggs for a Friday morning breakfast in March 2009 and has been coming back ever since.

Selma Café started as a party in its earliest days. The whole idea of a locally grown café got started when Gottlieb threw a breakfast party to celebrate McCabe’s 50th birthday in Feb. 2009. From the party, she said a “core group of people” who wished to continue the tradition developed.

It’s an unlikely start to an extraordinarily unique nonprofit organization, one that has fed thousands of Ann Arbor locals and assisted a number of local farmers.

But sitting on Gottlieb’s living room couch, surrounded by family photos and paperback books, it’s possible to forget you’re even part of a working nonprofit. It feels, just as Gottlieb had hoped, like you’ve stepped inside her home, invited as an old friend.