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Our Home School Restaurant "Project"

"Create and Run Your Own Restaurant" That is what I advertised via email to our home schooling support group. I was offering a workshop for 9-12 year olds that would meet three times and involve them from beginning to end in what it takes to plan and run a whole foods vegan restaurant. The idea had evolved as a sort of meshing of my own yearning to open the type of restaurant I wished existed in my city, with my children's desire to experience working in a restaurant. Since I am always searching for new ways to share delicious vegan food with others, I thought this would be a great project. I also figured that this would be very educational for the children. They would get to use math to solve real-world problems, advance their cooking skills, learn the importance of good nutrition, sanitation and hygiene and begin to understand some things about running a business and dealing with the public. What I did not anticipate was how educational and even fun it would be for me.

While I had plenty of experience as a waitress twenty plus years ago, and have done a lot of entertaining for large groups since then, my management experience is pretty sparse. (motherhood has its limitations) These days, with regards to food, I usually work either alone or just with my husband. Occasionally my children are involved -- but generally only on small scale, low risk endeavors. So turning my home into a restaurant, and then opening it up potentially to hundreds of families in our homeschooling group, the local animal rights organizations and guests of any of these people was a whole new ball game for me. Further complicating things was the fact that I was working on developing a whole new skill myself --- inclusiveness with a group of children. As a personal goal I wanted, in my dealings with the kids, to be mostly a facilitator, and for much of the planning to be based upon consensus.

Obviously some boundaries needed to be created before inviting the children to participate. I knew that I wanted this all to happen in a certain time frame, and that would mean certain aspects would need to be decided ahead of time. I went through my recipe books and photocopied about 30 recipes -- soups, salads, appetizers, sandwhiches, desserts and entrees. I picked things that best lent themselves to making large quantities with the assistance of children. Then I went through and priced out the major ingredients on each recipe. Before our "staff" met for the first time, I had prepared some of the dishes for our lunch that day -- expecting that some of these kids would not be used to eating this type of cuisine, and would need some experience with the food before they could choose which items (from the one's I pre-selected) they wanted for the menu. Once the group settled upon what items to serve, we calculated the cost of one serving of each dish, and then came to an agreement on how each item should be priced to cover our costs and hopefully make a profit. We also discussed the importance of a business name to attract and inform potential customers and brainstormed names, discussing various possibilities before agreeing on "VEGGIE TABLES" for the name of our restaurant.

The second time that we met was exactly one week later. This session also included our first time in the kitchen together. We started with something pretty simple -- croutons for the Caesar salad. We discussed the needs of the various jobs -- server, chef, and hostess. We practiced taking orders (but not nearly long enough!!) As the group got to know each other better, there was an increase in silliness which I found challenging to work with. When it became hard to continue serious planning with them, I suggested that we "practice" our cleanup skills on my kitchen (which was at that moment trashed from our earlier lunch and a few pieces of air born ice which had now assumed a liquid state on the floor ) Although several times I had to herd them all back into the kitchen when the piano, and other instruments in a nearby room lured them out, I found that by keeping them actively "working" the clowning around disappeared. We didn't get to cover as much as I had hoped to that day, but my kitchen ended up very clean!

One week after the second meeting, was the big day. I had already put in two full days with late nights just getting ready for the group to come and do their part. I was tired even before the day started. When I woke up that morning, there was one overwhelming thought that permeated my mental sphere...."WHAT was I thinking?!" By this time I had emailed our menu and pricing to all the various individuals we were inviting to patronize us, along with repeated disclaimers informing them that this was a homeschooling learning experience! Orders would be taken between 5-7 pm only, and there were no guarantees of things not running out. Cash only, no checks nor credit cards and tips were most welcome!

The staff all arrived at 10 am in the morning. I had encouraged them to be well rested, well fed and ready for a long busy day. (Although I myself was already very sleep deprived!) Prior to their arrival, my husband and I had removed most of the furniture form the great room and brought in some of the necessary tables. My two days of prep work meant that most of the sauces, fillings and dressings were done. I had ground most of the flours and premeasured many items. "Stations" were set up around my kitchen, with a recipe taped up on the wall and all the necessary ingredients and instruments right there as well. This way the kids were able to work largely independently with me moving around between stations as needed to assist. I think the children were quite amazed at how grueling it became to wash 60 potatoes, stir a pot for 30 minutes to keep it from sticking, stuff tofu filling into three pints of cherry tomatoes, assemble dozens of little black olive penguins and other similar tasks. After several hours of this, they were needing a break, so they went outside to gather wild flowers for the table settings. Eventually we managed to get everything prepared and the room set up nicely according to our floor plan. There was even time for a quick dip in the pool with my husband. During this break, I reorganized the kitchen for serving.....there was a wash station with three tubs -- a wash, sanitize and rinse, mugs were positioned by the soup pot, small plates by the appetizer area and so forth. A bulletin board hoisted up on a counter chair was set up to hold the "tickets" as the orders came into the kitchen. One last preparation I did was to put a basket of sidewalk chalk just outside the front door to give children something to do if their family was waiting for a table.

As five o'clock neared I could feel the excitement building. The staff had washed up after swimming and were anxiously watching the clock as I tried to review with them the requirements of each job (signs were also posted all around with this information too. It was clear to me that they had no frame of reference for what a "rush" at a restaurant might be like. I was expecting that most of our patrons -- concerned about us running out of foods would try to show up early....and I was right. The first customers arrived about 4:50. As they were seated by the hostess, the servers all gathered in the kitchen and in hushed tones giggled nervously. With only one table filled in our restaurant, things were going great. The order was taken. The ticket placed perfectly on the bulletin board, and the chef went right to work assembling their order.

What happened next is largely a blur in my memory. Our dining area had seating for about 42 people. This was divided into three separate server sections. Some of the tables were normal size with regular adult chairs. Others were coffee tables with child-sized chairs or floor cushions to sit upon. I was in the kitchen preparing plates to go out when I suddenly realized just how busy we had become. It was at that point that numerous flaws in our set up became obvious. Then things got really fuzzy. I do remember hearing the phrase repeatedly, "Does anyone know where my ticket for this order went?" I was moving as quickly as I could to help the chef fill orders, but was becoming increasingly confused by the fact that some orders were being put on the board, some handed to me, and some merely requested verbally. I was attempting to fill all three with equal urgency. I heard several more, "I've lost my tickets!" After a while, a few customers actually started coming into the kitchen hoping to finally have some success at procuring sustenance. This prompted me to scan the dining area and see exactly what was going on. The chaos was obvious. There were a few desperate looking souls who seemed to have been sitting at tables with nothing to do for quite some time. Having filled orders for all the posted tickets, I reflexively grabbed a paper and pencil and decided to "take a table" myself. It was actually quite a thrill. I had forgotten just how much I had loved waitressing. My first thought as it all came instantly rushing back to me was, "This is just like riding a bike." A part of me was also thinking..."I will jump in here and show everyone how to do this efficiently." Order in hand, I scurried back to the kitchen, ready to fill it myself.

At that moment, after 9 years of struggling with this amorphorous thing called "parenting  with its nebulous goals, constantly changing requirements, and sparse ego gratification, I knew I had finally found my niche in life. WAITRESSING! There was just one problem. There were no clean plates left. "That's easy enough to fix" I thought, still feeling confident. I hurried over to the wash station to clean up a few plates for use. But had to quickly abandon that idea. The wash tub was overflowing with dirty dishes and the water was gross. "It will be quicker to just clean a few up at the kitchen sink I thought." But as quickly as I could clean dishes, others were nabbing them -- including my husband whom I then discovered was also multitasking -- No longer was he just a supervisor of the cash register, but like me had taken pity on a different table and was endeavoring to be their server.

By the time everyone in the available seats had food, some customers were ready to leave and wanted their bills. Since the lost tickets had not yet been found, my husband and I started going to tables and asking people to try and recall what they had ordered, so that we could recreate their tickets and know what to charge them. By this time, the servers were either looking totally overwhelmed, or were walking around vigorously chewing mouth fulls of food. The patrons however seemed pretty happy -- the food had been a hit!

I was soooo glad when 7 pm rolled around, and we weren't taking any more orders. About this time I noticed that several of the server's parents had stepped in at the sink and were washing dishes. (For this I am grateful!) Even with two of them on this task, I think they were there for close to an hour! Other parents helped us move furniture back to the room it belonged in. The kids were obviously tired, and needed a lot of encouragement to help with the clean up. (which I insisted be complete before counting up the money.) As it turned out, we about broke even on our expenses, but did collect about 50 dollars in tips which was divided up equally between the participants. Clearly we all learned a lot. One child commented, "I am never going to do something like this again!" Another said, "I will never again complain at a restaurant when it takes a long time for my food to come." and another said, "I know now that it takes a lot of work to be a waiter or waitress. So now when I order I know what they have to do." and my own daughter said, "When can we do this again?" As for the outreach part of our experience, one of the parents commented to me afterwards. "My husband and I enjoyed the food we had at the restaurant, even though we are not vegetarian. What a pleasant surprise to find that it tasted so good!"

All in all, I consider our "Create and Run Your Own Restaurant" workshop a huge success. However I did learn a lot myself and there are many things that could be improved upon if I were to do it over. First off I would keep the menu much simpler! Second, instead of using actual generic order pads for taking orders, I would have created my own, with all the choices clearly marked on the pad and the costs printed there as well. Severs could simply place a check mark in front of the item being ordered. Then when it was time to tally the bill, the prices would be there too. Instead of having them write the table number on the pad, they would put the name of the customer on the pad and write up a separate order for each individual, this would have eliminated a lot of confusion about which orders got rung up together, or having to split tickets. The math would have been simpler for the staff too. Another important thing I realized....I did not spend nearly enough time training the staff for what to actually do once customers arrived. It would have been very helpful to have each child practice taking and filling orders several times before we ever had real customers. A dedicated dishwasher right from the beginning would have been a good thing too....this position would probably have had to rotate with the chef in order to make it attractive for one of the kids to want that job.

My final thoughts on the whole experience is that it was a lot like labor. When I was in the thick of it, at its most intense point, when I was thoroughly exhausted, I said to my husband, "Well this just cured me of all my restaurant fantasies..." but now, with my house back together, and once again caught up on sleep, I find myself considering that someday in the future I might try something like this again...maybe

How Many Kids?

I limited the participation to eight children. But only five signed up. As it turned out, I think five was the perfect number. Much more then that, given my "managerial naive" and the group dynamics, would have probably been too challenging. Less then five would have left us "understaffed".

The Physical Space...

I knew ahead of time that the restaurant's dining area would be our great room. So as part of my advance preparations, I took some graph paper and drew the room to scale on it. Then I went through our entire house, patio and basement measuring all the available tables and drew them to scale on a separate sheet of graph paper. These were then photocopied for each participant. Each of us cut out the tables and played around with them on the graph paper. We discussed functionality of the space and aesthetics concerns as we played around arranging the room. The kids loved this activity. Then we discussed everyone's plans and worked to incorporate aspects of each child's floor plan into one final plan

Creating the Menu

In selecting which items to include on our menu, we took into account possible dietary concerns of our patrons (allergies, heart disease, diabetes etc.) We made sure that there were choices that were low fat, soy free, wheat-free, nut-free, corn- free, as well as all raw. In addition, we made sure that our menu had choices for those on a tight budget. Of course being a vegan restaurant, everything was dairy free to begin with -- that made our menu very friendly to those with health concerns.

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