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Underground diner supports local farmers

Volunteers at Sema Cafe in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Myra Klarman
Breakfast volunteers: Lisa Gottlieb, Shana Kimball, Bridgette Carr, Jeff McCabe, and Maria Bonn.

(by Rebecca Williams with The Environment Report)

So what would you think about opening up your home to 120 people every week? Letting them come in with their shoes on, sit anywhere they wanted. Oh, and by the way, they’ll be expecting a full breakfast.

That’s what happens at Jeff McCabe and Lisa Gottlieb’s house in Ann Arbor. From 6:30 to 10am every Friday, their house is transformed. It’s kind of weird. You walk in and you know you’re in someone’s home, but it feels like you’re suddenly in a little diner.

“We call it a breakfast salon because we’re not a restaurant. We’re making food for family and friends, people who are interested in supporting the local food economy, who want to come and have a good time on Friday morning before they go to work,” says Gottlieb.

The idea is, it’s locally grown food, cooked for you by local chefs, with all the proceeds going to support Michigan farmers. Selma Café is on Ann Arbor’s west side. You can’t miss it. Their whole front yard is a giant garden, with onions and sweet potatoes and beets.

And in case you’re thinking it’s just toast and eggs, here’s the morning's menu from my server, Amy Moss, “we have braised pork with polenta napoleon, rhubarb chutney with poached egg and we also have a strawberry bread pudding, so that’s on the menu today.”

Today, there's a hunk of prosciutto on the counter, and a guy with a little blow torch caramelizing the top of the bread pudding.

Claire Rice is here for breakfast, and she also sometimes volunteers to wait tables.

“The food is fabulous, if the food was crap no one would ever come back!”

When you’re done, you pay for your meal by putting a donation into one of the jars on your table. In the winter, local fresh fruits and veggies just don’t happen in Michigan. With the money from the jars, Jeff and Lisa are trying to change that, "we got a little crazy and decided to just start doing something regularly that we could do to try to change the food system here, create more four-season farming.”

Lisa and Jeff have raised $90,000. A third of the money goes to buy the food from local farmers for the breakfasts and the rest goes to build hoop houses. Those are lightweight greenhouses that allow a farmer to grow food year-round.

These hoop houses don’t have to be on farms. A couple have even been built in downtown Detroit.

Kate Devlin is the master gardener at the Spirit of Hope church. Most of the food she grows goes to the church’s food pantry. She’s hoping her new hoop house will help get more fresh food to people in Detroit, "there are no major grocery chains in Detroit anymore and even where there were, they were so spread out, people couldn’t get to them. It sounds crazy, but in the Motor City, 40% of the people do not have cars.”

Devlin built her hoop house with a loan from the money raised at Selma Café. Her hoop house, like all the others, was built in one day by volunteers recruited at the Café, and some of the food grown in the hoop houses comes back to the Café. You might see greens on your plate in February.

Lisa and Jeff are both pretty unphased by the hundreds of diners who come into their house every week, "it does open up its unique challenges of where does public and private begin and end, so we’ve had people kind of wander in at any time of day and say, is this the place? But in general, I think it’s been a really nice fit.”

And they say they’re happy to have even more people come over for breakfast.

Mark Brush was the station's Digital Media Director. He succumbed to a year-long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in March 2018. He was 49 years old.