The year is 1985. A young Rebecca Mais has just found out that she didn’t get the job after interviewing for a position at the University of Maryland. The next day, she’ll find out that she’s pregnant.
Mais and her husband, Richard, had already left their posts at the University of South Carolina and were set to relocate in Washington D.C. They were ready for something new. But little did they know then that they’d get more than they’d bargained for when things turned 1986.
Not only was that the year that their first-son, Brandt, was born, in January, but that spring, so was McCabe’s Gourmet Market.
“Rebecca and I laugh — Brandt was born in January, we built an ocean front townhouse that we moved into April 1st, we both left our jobs and then we started the business,” said Richard Mais. “Ten years later, we read a list of the Top 10 reasons people get a divorce, and we had done like seven of them in one year.”
Three decades, another son and a whole lot of chicken salad later, not only are the Maises still going strong, but so is their business.
In fact, on Friday, June 3, McCabe’s will celebrate its 30th anniversary, featuring 30-cent coffee and cookies, 30 percent off 1986 favorites including Turkey Tarragon and Honeycup Mustard, free gifts for every 30th customer, giveaways, gift cards and more.
But while the day is meant to honor customers, former employees and the community that’s made McCabe’s a Bethany-area tradition for so many years, starting out wasn’t exactly a day at the beach for the young couple when they risked their steady paychecks to move back to what was Rebecca’s childhood summer hometown of Fenwick Island.
Rebecca Mais was certainly familiar with Fenwick, with her family tree tracing all the way back to John McCabe — one of the area’s original settlers. Hailing from Kansas City, Mo., however, her husband was used to life in a bigger city.
“I was worried about Richard when we moved here,” admitted Rebecca Mais with a laugh. “I grew up summers in Fenwick — come Labor Day, you locked the doors and you left. Even my grandparents would move back to Roxana.”
Despite his wife’s worries, Richard Mais embraced life in a small town and getting to know what seemed like everyone in it. But getting specialty products delivered to South Bethany back in those days was a different story.
It ain’t easy bein’ cheesey
Modeling McCabe’s after their favorite shop in Columbia, S.C., the Maises set out to fill a much-needed niche and offer some off-the-wall epicurean items, such as pâté, imported cheeses, gourmet coffee and fresh baked goods — eventually going on to include their now-famous sandwiches.
But in order to get the goods, they’d have to get creative.
“It was a struggle, really, to get minor things here,” Rebecca Mais recalled. “We had cheese flown into Salisbury from New York.
“Then we had my dad’s old Toyota truck that was still running — it had a cab on the back and it was burgundy, so we painted ‘McCabe’s’ on it, and my stepdad would ride over there and pick it up.”
“Lower Slower Delaware is still Lower Slower, but in ’86 it was really, really Lower Slower,” added Richard Mais, recalling that most distributors’ closest delivery point at the time had been Wilmington. “A lot of the time, we didn’t have any way to get products.”
While there were, of course, plenty of misadventures on the way to becoming the gourmand guru’s that they are today — including the time that their cheese order accidentally landed in Indianapolis and left the store party platter-less one summer weekend — the newly incorporated newlyweds continued to more or less “MacGyver” ways of making things work.
Much of their early success they attribute to Kurt and Rolph Sexauer of Roger Sexauer & Sons — a pair of brothers in the food distribution business who had recently set up shop in Selbyville.
“We were fortunate, because they had just built their warehouse in Selbyville about the time we opened,” said Richard Mais. “Prior to that, they would drive a tractor-trailer to New York or New Jersey, and then they’d bring food back and sell it right off the truck.”
“We couldn’t have started the store without them,” Rebecca Mais said. “Kurt was always working with us — they’d pull right up and I’d say, ‘OK, I need 10 turkeys!’”
At the time, the only grocery stores around were Hocker’s and a Food Lion in Ocean City, Md., which, in hindsight, didn’t much matter anyway, considering that the alcove operation was building its business model on offering the products not typically offered by the average grocer.
Things did get easier, as the area developed and the store moved from its original York Beach Mall location to the end unit next door in 1996. But even as more vendors entered the area, the Mais’ stayed loyal to Sexhauer & Sons and still are to this day.
Growing up gourmet
While the Sexhauer brothers certainly played a role in the early beginnings, so did the family members, friends and employees who helped watch over the Mais brothers while their mom and dad were at work.
Brandt was, of course, born the same year as the shop, and his younger brother, Peter, some five years later.
They’d eventually go on to learn top-secret chicken salad recipes and develop a justifiable dread for dishwashing, but, back then, it took a team to juggle running both a budding business and hectic young household.
“In the summer, we took them up to my mom and stepdad’s, and they’d stay there,” Rebecca Mais recalled. “They did lots of babysitting for us.”
“When they would go Boogie Boarding, she would freak when they went out past the wave break, so it wasn’t much fun going to Grandma’s,” Richard Mais added with a laugh. “It was nice for me personally, because we’d split the day. Rebecca was home with the kids in the morning, and I had them home in the afternoon, so I spent a lot more time with my kids than I think a lot of dads get to.”
Even some of the McCabe’s employees would ditch their aprons to sign up for a babysitting shift every now and again, so that Brandt and Peter could swim out past the breakers without getting scolded, and give Grandma the day off.
Since the shop stays open for the majority of the off-season, during the school year, the bus would simply drop them off at the store, where they’d have a snack and start their homework before Brandt sorted the recycling and Peter tried to duck doing the dishes.
“Peter was helping me one day and he goes, ‘I like helping you, Dad — you do all the easy work,’” Richard Mais joked. “He lucked out. He had a buddy that lived across the street, so he often was able to go over there and hang out.”
When they were old enough, they started helping keep shop themselves, and the Maises would hire the boys’ friends from school and River Soccer Club — which Rebecca also runs, as the club’s president.
“Matt Poly in high school — he was one of Brandt’s friends — he would give out his number to cute girls while he was working the cash register,” Richard Mais recalled. “I’d count the register at the end of the day, and it’d be over because of a phone number.”
Both brothers are now grown, with Brandt teaching and coaching soccer at Indian River High School and River Soccer Club, and Peter at Salisbury University.
But just because they were direct descendants of the owners doesn’t mean that they were the only McCabe’s employees who got treated like family.
‘The Bagel Bunch’
One of those now-former employees, is Shari Burke — who, after making the move from Philadelphia, found a job right away when she stopped at McCabe’s back in 1992.
After meeting Richard and Rebecca and hitting it off, Burke joined the McCabe’s crew at the old shop and even managed the new location back in 1996.
“It was just like a big family — it was so fun to go to work,” Burke said. “We had a blast — we hung out, after work we would all go out — I still keep in touch with the people that I worked with there.”
From local kids looking for a summer job to former corporate kingpins and government officials not quite ready to retire, the extended McCabe’s family is a tough demographic to slap a label on. But as Burke described, they all do have one thing in common.
“We close for two months in the winter, and the staff hates it. They’d rather be here. It’s always been that way,” Richard Mais said. “Some of our best customers are now former employees. Initially, a lot of our summer workers were kids whose families had houses in the area. As they’ve grown older, they had families of their own, so they’re still coming back.”
In 2011, McCabe’s’ hired its first international employee, which they’ve continued to do ever since — offering up one of their rental properties in Fenwick to travelers from around the globe and even lending them out a car so that they can get to work.
Just like any of their other employees, the Maises, of course, grew close with their new foreign friends, even taking some off-season trips to Croatia and beyond for weddings, special events, or simply just to visit.
“They bring so much to the store — not only for our staff, but for our customers,” Rebecca Mais said, noting that they recently hired their now-50th foreign student for the summer. “More than anything is the relationship. We love to travel and travel a lot, but it’s always fun when it’s about people.”
Let the Gouda times roll
While there’ll be plenty of stories about the good ol’ days when the store hosts its 30th anniversary celebration next Friday, McCabe’s is, at the same time, ready for the next 30 years in business, catering to the customers who have made it all possible.
“Being a part of the community is very motivating to us,” said Rebecca Mais. “We really have loyal, wonderful customers. They’ve grown up with us.
“They’ve listened to us yak about our boys and what they’re doing, and we talk about their grandchildren and children. This is such a great place to raise a family.”
The community, feels the same way.
“Richard and Rebecca are just the best people in the world to work for,” said Burke. “They’re just so personable. They make friends with everyone. I think that’s a big reason why everyone comes back — everybody just loves them.”
McCabe’s 30th anniversary celebration is an all-day event being held on Friday, June 3, starting at 7 a.m. Past employees, longtime customers and new customers are all being encouraged to attend. The store is located at 34444 Coastal Highway, in York Beach Mall in South Bethany. For more on McCabe’s, visit www.mccabesgourmet.com or call (302) 539-8550.