Teatotaller in Somersworth is known for its creative and sometimes controversial billboard statements on West High Street. [Deb Cram/Fosters.com]

Teatotaller at center of LGBTQ-friendly culture

Emmett Soldati's cafe offers tea, sweets, advocacy and political activism

A downtown Somersworth cafe that serves breakfast, sandwiches, light and airy macaroons, bubble tea, espresso drinks and other delectables is pivotal in any conversation about the city as a warm and welcoming place to the LBGTQ community.

Teatotaller, a café at 69 High St., serves up much more than sweet treats and caffeinated beverages. It is also home to educational programming and political and entertainment events centering on LBGTQ youth and adults.

Emmett Soldati, 30, owns Teatotaller. He grew up in Somersworth and returned to found several businesses in his hometown, a place he said is accepting when it comes to individuals of all sexual identities.

Tolerance and acceptance are subtle in Somersworth, according to Soldati. The city is not filled with rainbow flags and there's no gay pride parade, but acceptance is there in quiet ways, he said. People aren't shouting it from the rooftops, but it's happening, Soldati said.

"What's interesting for me and friends of mine who grew up in Somersworth and still live here — who are super liberal, progressive millennial hippies in a lot of ways — I think we have always sort of naturally felt very comfortable in Somersworth and have always been just sort of always accepting and open-minded and embracing. And, we just assumed that most of our community members are," Soldati said. Even with Donald Trump in the White House "it still feels like Somersworth is sort of this nice, very small welcoming open-minded environment," he added.

The city is home to an openly gay mayor and the leading transgender activist in the state. But Soldati believes it's not just the high-visibility leaders in Somersworth who are welcoming to the LGBTQ community. "Even if you look to groups that are more average citizens, local church-goers and the townies who have been here for awhile, they still have remarkably wonderful perspectives on the world and on people," he said.

"I think it's a little bit unusual given how we are sort of this quiet, small, sleepy, somewhat working class community." The openness in Somersworth spurred Soldati at the start of Teatotaller in 2011 to be adamant about being a welcoming and safe environment and to take the extra step of actively branding the business that way.

The branding has worked. "Someone refers to us on like Yelp or something as a hipster and queer oasis and we really took to that name. We think it expresses how hip we do feel and how we do want to push the envelope a little bit," Soldati said.

The business has definitely succeeded in pushing the envelope in a small New Hampshire community. Teatotaller, being true to its branding, created a series of somewhat provocative billboards on West High Street, a key corridor in and out of the community.

The first Teatotaller billboard went up in June 2017 and featured a young man leaning back and eating a breakfast sandwich with the text, “I like my men, like I like my coffee — with breakfast at Teatotaller.”

The billboard got a lot of mostly positive attention on social media, Soldati said, giving the establishment added appeal. Three months later, a vandal or vandals defaced the billboard with graffiti, but Soldati was not concerned. “While it’s a bit obnoxious, we’re not losing sleep over it," he said at the time and promised a new and exciting billboard to take its place.

The next billboard featured the same male model, Somersworth High School graduate Michael Cummings, with the phrase “Chai Curious?” Soldati said one of the wonderful things about the billboard was that it started a lot of conversations around gender and sexual identity in advertising.

Someone egged that billboard, but it didn't stop Teatotaller. The next one was a bold political statement that once again featured Cummings as the model. In that advertisement, Cummings wore bold, dark eyebrows and a long pink wig. He's holding a peach bubble tea in a tall glass showing tapioca pearls at the bottom. The headline read: “DID SOMEBODY SAY IM (picture of a peach) MENT?"

Soldati said he was inspired by his father, Lincoln Soldati, who ran in the Democratic primary for Congress in September, but did not win. On the campaign trail, Lincoln Soldati made his case for impeachment of President Donald Trump.

It got Emmett Soldati thinking about how to marry those ideas and sell bubble tea at the same time.

Billboards aren't the only attraction putting Teatotaller on the map. The cafe's calendar is packed with events for a multi-generational audience. There is no alcohol, so kids are welcome. Drag Bingo usually packs the house along with gender expression events like teen drag queen pageants, LGBTQ burlesque shows and transgender clothing swaps.

Liam Mills, who, as an 18-year-old Oyster River High School student was named prom queen last spring in his female drag persona, "Raya Sunshine," often performs at Teatotaller. He said the opportunity the cafe provides to teens is huge. Mills came out when he was 12. His mom, Tracy, knew he was gay when he was 3.

According to Mills, it’s difficult for teen drag queens to find a place to perform that isn’t an establishment serving alcohol and restricting access to those 21 and older. Teatotaller opened a venue for teen drag queens and prides itself on welcoming all people from kids to adults.

Mills said Teatotaller is very exciting to him. “I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but I would literally lie awake at night just like, ‘Oh this would be so good’ or ‘I can’t wait to be in front of an audience.’ This is what I want to do. And so to finally not only have that opportunity myself, but to give that to other queens who are 16, 17 years old for an audience of people who want to see drag shows but can’t because everything is 21-plus, it really was, I almost got emotional on stage. There were a couple of times, when I was like, ‘Nope, not with the makeup,’” Mills told Foster's in an interview.

In addition to entertainment, Teatotaller is a venue for LBGTQ political activism. In January, the cafe hosted a packed house for “Ask A Trans Person Anything” in anticipation of the vote on transgender rights in the New Hampshire legislature. The evening was conducted by Freedom New Hampshire, a transgender advocacy group that held similar events across the state. The bill, which has since been signed into law, aims to ensure equal protections for all Granite Staters regardless of gender identity.

Soldati said it has been illuminating to see that an outwardly queer, pride-branded business can do well in a small town.

What's next for Teatotaller? Soldati, who earned a master's degree at the London School of Economics, is encouraged to keep pushing that envelope and may only be limited by his passion for other businesses and interests, including technology startups. As chief product officer at Weather Analytics, he spearheaded a team that designed nine decision-support applications for the insurance and U.S. intelligence community.

He also runs programs for an international nonprofit, FarmersFirst:Africa, to strengthen food security in Sub-Saharan Africa by providing free weather and climate information to subsistence farmers.

Soldati is a busy man who acknowledges he doesn't get much sleep. Despite a sometimes grueling schedule, he fully intends to follow his passion for his pride-branded cafe. "It surprised me how responsive Somersworth has been to that type of business," he said.

Next story: A rainbow flag flies, thanks to now-retired pastor and a welcoming congregation.