How ‘People Before Profits’ Warms a Tea Café and Maine Community

Bobby McGee outside of Selah Tea Cafe, photo by David Learning, Morning Sentinel

The Selah Tea Café in Waterville, Maine, took creating a sense of community to a whole new level when it became a place of refuge during a snowstorm.

“We value the person and not just the dollar that goes in our pocket, and I think that is what makes us different,” said Bobby McGee, co-owner of Selah Tea Café.

Last November, thousands of the Waterville’s more than 16,000 residents lost electricity in their homes for days. On Nov. 2, Bobby and Rachel McGee offered up their entire café menu by donation. They welcomed and fed everyone who needed food and warmth and only asked that those who could donate to do so in return.

“We really tried to think about people in the community. We all need to eat,” said Bobby.

They also wanted to bring joy and hope to people during the power outage when much of the town was dark.

Customers paid what they could, and the McGees gave away free food and beverages to those who were not in a position to donate.

Photo by Bobby McGee

“A family came in and she fed her entire family of eight people for free. She cried and said, ‘I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from. You don’t know how much this means to me.’”

The McGees said it was not only an opportunity for them to give but became an opportunity for the community to give to each other.

“Some people gave us a nickel for a cup of coffee, others gave us $10 for a cup of coffee,” Bobby said.

Rachel added, there were other people who went to Selah Tea Café not to get food but to drop off money to be put toward other people’s meals.

“We were thankful that we were in a position to offer this to our community,” Rachel said. “It was beautiful to see everybody participate. It wasn’t just us giving free food, it was also other people giving to their neighbors and maybe they wouldn’t have known how they could have helped before.”

Selah’s community spirit spread far beyond Waterville, Maine. A man from Oregon who found out about the café’s donation-centered day called the café and offered to pay for the next 20 coffees. A woman from Florida offered $100  to the McGees to give to a family in need. Bobby expanded on this gesture by giving envelopes with cash to people in need.

“That day was really special to a lot of people,” Bobby said.

Selah Tea Cafe, photo by Emma Wrin

On more typical days, Selah Tea Café fosters its community atmosphere by hosting musicians and by being a regular meeting spot for hobby-focused groups, Colby College students, professionals, retirees and nonprofit organizations. The environment is conducive to people spending quality time together. The café has a 14-foot-long table that is referred to as the “community table,” which exists to encourage people to connect with each other. The café’s seating also includes comfortable chairs and a sofa.

The McGees want people to take a break from the rat race and meet new friends. They also want all of their customers, who are from all walks of life, to feel like they belong. The staff is trained to make all people feel welcome and accepted.

“It’s for everyone,” Rachel said. “A lot of teahouses feel very feminine. I think that we’ve been able to create a space that is open to everyone and where everyone can have a great time.”

Selah Tea Cafe interior, photo by Bobby McGee

“Selah” is a Hebrew word and thought to mean “stop, ponder, reflect.”

“Our mission at Selah Tea café is to inspire the community to pause and calmly think,” Bobby said.

“Tea is a contemplative drink,” said Rachel. “It’s one that you drink slowly. The word Selah seemed to really fit with tea.”

The 2,200 square-foot café seats about 60 people and resides in downtown Waterville’s historical Cyr building, which was built in 1923. The McGees opened the tea café on May 11, 2011, after Bobby decided to transition out of a career in medical sales. They chose to open a tea café because Rachel loves tea and Bobby drank it for health purposes. The McGees take pride in creating and offering a healthy, diverse menu of soups, salads, sandwiches, smoothies, and desserts along with 40 internationally sourced teas and herbal tisanes, which are served in tea presses with tea timers. Selah Tea Café adds variety to a region that offers a lot of fried seafood. The McGees also incorporate tea into some of their fare, such as using Early Grey in gluten-free chocolate cake. A local chocolatier incorporates Selah’s teas into chocolates, which are sold at the café.

Photo by Michael G. Seamans

“We wanted to look for what was missing and help bring something new,” Rachel said. “People in Waterville loved us from the get-go,” Bobby said, adding the café won Business of the Year in its first year of operation from Waterville Main Street, a local nonprofit, and additional awards for its food since.

Bobby imparts the importance of focusing on others instead of being self-oriented.

“As tea retailers, we really want to think about other people, our customers, our community,” he said. “Obviously we all want to make money, but if we can put money on the back burner and try to put people before profits—that is one of the biggest things that has led to my personal success—trying to put the needs, wants and desires of other people above my own.”