Mara’s Restaurant and Cafe: a grand opening

One of the deepest held hopes I have for my daughters is that when it comes time for them to earn their bread they are able to imagine ways of doing so that do not involve punching a clock or collecting a paycheck. If they really want to be software engineers and work for Apple (or better, some company that does not outsource the manufacture of their products to countries whose labor laws lag our own by a century) then fine, I will do all I can to speed them on their journey and try to keep an open mind and an open conversation with them about what it is about that kind of work that floats their boat.

Welcome to Mara's Restaurant and Cafe. Note the name and face on the menu.

A taste of what it might be like.

But my true wish is that my girls become craftsmen or tradesmen or small business owners — landscape designers or fixers of engines or sculptors or creators of fine chocolates or soap or mandolins. Or restaurateurs. I want them to love what they do, that’s all. My belief, and there is research to support the belief, is that in the main people who work with their hands are happier and healthier on more levels than are people who work in abstractions only. (It’s important to note that I’m not talking about my daughters becoming assembly line workers in Detroit. I refer you once again to Matthew Crawford’s book “Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Nature of Work.”) 

Sometime last year Mara expressed interest in opening a restaurant here in our house where she would make food for her friends. We jumped all over that idea, and said that maybe sometime we could have a few friends over, give them a short menu, and we would help her cook. Mara’s sixth birthday was last week and we celebrated today by inviting her fellow étudiantes from her homeschool French class and her two closest non-school friends to a grand opening of Mara’s Restaurant and Cafe.

Jay and Mara make the rounds.

Jay waits to take Amelia's order, which turns out to be Combo #3.

Learning to walk with beverages has to be one of the hardest parts.

We didn’t actually cook, but we put together a menu of snacks and sat the party attendees at kid-sized tables in our large kitchen, each table adorned with real flowers in a vase. We told all of them to bring a purse, which half of them forgot to do, and we gave them each a wad of play money, and we charged exhorbitant prices for the snacks so that they would get to count out and spend plenty of it.

It was a riot. Mara wanted to be the server, and while her original vision had assigned me to the kitchen to help Angela chop vegetables and fruits and slice cheese, one of the other parents beat me to these tasks while I was answering the door, so I photographed the doings and helped serve. It was such an inspiring event that I took a frillion photos.

Not hovering, not neglecting. The ideal server.

By the time it came to paying the bills the veneer of refinement had begun to wear off.

My hope is that as Angela and I take their ideas seriously, even in play versions, our children will grow up confident that their ideas are worth trying and that their interests and passions could precede (and ideally guarantee) making a living. In that regard we thought that simply being able to pull this off today was a huge success. Also, Mara worked her butt off today serving her friends, which we feel is a beautiful way of being. She got to be the center of attention during Present Opening Time, but for a solid half-hour she circulated among the small tables, wearing an apron her aunt in St. Louis had made with her name embroidered on it,  and asked what else her friends would like to order. She had help from Jay, an 11-year-old girl who is also one of the homeschoolers and, being the sweetest child on Earth, is like a big sister to many of them. Jay wrote down the orders and added up the bills afterward. Like waiters in a real restaurant, Mara and Jay sat down to eat only after having worn themselves out bringing food out to the guests.

Something for every palette.

Time for some sugar. The Birthday Girl still has her serving apron on.

The children took it all very seriously. You might be astonished at how easily young children adapt to the idea of being led to fancy tables and making their own choices from a menu. Even when they chirped “This is the nicest restaurant I’ve ever been to”, they did not sound as though they were playing or pretending. They looked like small adults dining. Sure, there were moments when they cut up, and Mara had a blast shouting “Three #1 Combos!” to the kitchen. But by and large, it seemed to me that the girls were all feeling extremely grown up and honored by this unusual birthday theme, which was just a bonus we hadn’t anticipated.

And then they all turned into children again and started chasing balloons.


15 Responses to “Mara’s Restaurant and Cafe: a grand opening”

  1. 1 kiwidutch April 10, 2011 at 01:14

    Please please please I wish to ask permission to steal this idea!
    What an excellent idea, brilliantly executed and wonderful enjoyed.
    I LOVE the concept and it’s amazing to see how both the guests and the “staff” rose to the occasion.

  2. 3 Janet April 10, 2011 at 06:05

    This is so neat. I have a 6 year old grandaughter, soon to be 7, – I’ll tell her mom about this idea for a party. I think it might appeal.

    • 4 Matt April 10, 2011 at 09:58

      Some notes to pass on to both you and Kiwidutch:
      1. We found that six guests was about right and they kept us hopping. More would have been stressful.
      2. We planned an activity first (decorating party hats at a craft table, with an adult manning that station while we prepped food). Then the restaurant, then presents, then birthday (cup)cake(s), and then it was to be a game like Duck Duck Goose or Hot Potato or Telephone but we ran out of time and the sugar high pretty much ended organized activity. We had figured two hours but you’ll need more if you do this restaurant thing.
      3. An older kid to help take orders and serve food worked out really well.
      4. We let the attendees keep their extra play money and we sent them home with their plate and cup from the cafe as mementos, after washing them up first, of course.
      Good luck.

  3. 5 Tony Ramirez April 10, 2011 at 06:14

    Bravo! for encouraging your daughter dream, whatever that dream may be!!

  4. 7 Louis April 12, 2011 at 04:00

    How wonderful this is! The table cloths, flowers, the menu…I love the expressions on the girls’ faces mulling over the menu…”hmmm, what shall I have..” I’d like to make a reservation for two the next time you do this!

  5. 10 Marni April 12, 2011 at 17:29

    It looks lovely….and they didn’t have to mimic eating, which is what we always did when we played restaurant. So much more satisfying to actually get food! Happy Birthday to Mara.

    • 11 Matt April 12, 2011 at 20:33

      No mimickry, and only the money was play. There was even a moment after they ordered where all the girls at both tables stopped talking and looked around quietly as if to say, “I wonder when the food’s coming.” I got a picture of it, just couldn’t fit it in.

  6. 12 Invisible Mikey April 16, 2011 at 00:31

    I found this utterly and entirely charming. Such unaffected behavior from the kids, and so well illustrated. Loved the scaled down stuff too, like the reduced-size cash register. It even looks pretty vegetarian-friendly. I could eat there!

  7. 14 Rachael April 19, 2011 at 13:30

    “Frillion” . . . my new favorite word!

    And sweet story–heartwarming, as so many of your tales are!

    • 15 Matt April 20, 2011 at 10:42

      I had been overusing “crillion”, and it occurred to me that these things are probably not policed very strenuously so I’ve been minting my own denominations of muchness. Thanks again for a kind word.

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