A nonprofit not-a-bar
by Sally Mitani
From the March, 2013 issue
Lisa Gottlieb's pop-up not-a-restaurant is now taking a run at occasionally being not-a-bar. And it will be doing it as a federally recognized nonprofit. "We are on track to receive the final confirmation of our 501(c)3 [tax-exempt] status," says Gottlieb.
Every Friday morning, Gottlieb serves a lavish breakfast at her home just a few doors down from Eberwhite school. Made from locally grown food, often cooked by a well-known local chef, the meal is free, which allows Selma Cafe to sidestep stacks of regulations about food and commerce. But diners are asked to make a contribution to the cause of local food production, and they give generously (mostly by stuffing wads of cash into glass jars on the tables). Gottlieb says most weeks Selma feeds around 150 people who donate an average of $12-$15 each; the profits fund local projects in sustainable agriculture.
It sounds impossible that a regular-sized Old West Side house could possibly feed that many people, but it does. To begin with, she has a very, very large kitchen that she and husband Jeff McCabe installed when they moved in back in the late 1990s: "We liked to cook with friends," she says. Seating works like a restaurant, though it's a little more communal, spread out over a number of large and small tables and the long kitchen bar. Selma opens at 6:30 a.m., and diners sign in as a party. As soon as a contiguous block of seats is available, they're ushered in. Selma has made early risers out of a number of Ann Arborites--it's open until 10, but most weeks the sign-in sheet closes by 8:30.
Selma is staffed by an energetic and dedicated bunch of mostly young volunteers. "I volunteer most weeks because it's gotten to a point where that's where all my friends are," says Madeline Smith, a twenty-something who works at a conservation nonprofit.
In the four years since Gottlieb and McCabe started Selma, it has raised "a couple of hundred thousand
dollars" (income and expenses are clearly detailed on its website, selmacafe.org.). But Selma has until now been piggybacking on Food System Economic Partnership, a regional nonprofit that supports local Ag, and Gottlieb wanted to be freer to choose her projects. Gottlieb and McCabe separated last August, and she now runs Selma on her own.
She'll still be partnering with FSEP and other nonprofits for the once-a-month happy hour--March 13 this month--which requires a temporary liquor license and insurance. "It will be a typical happy hour like you'd find in a restaurant or bar," she says. "We'll sell drink tickets, and have artisanal drinks, Michigan beer and wine, and a nonalcoholic option."
On March 17, she'll also repeat the "Kripalu yoga and local foods lunch," she had in February (Gottlieb, a social worker for Washtenaw County, is also a certified Kripalu instructor). She says at the moment the proceeds from the yoga lunches and the happy hours are funding the legal work needed to secure Selma's nonprofit status.
[Originally published in March, 2013.]