Hosts greeted guests at the Harlem Senior Center with a smile. Servers bustled around catering to patrons. The kitchen staff worked quickly to prepare food orders.
It wasn’t a traditional restaurant, as none of the staff has reached their teens.
The Dream Academy Restaurant celebrated its grand opening Friday.
“It’s their restaurant,” Dream Academy Director Betty Kelley said. “It’s theirs.”
The Dream Academy is an after-school program operated through Columbia County Community Connections. It promotes academics and character development, physical activity, health and positive youth development, said Executive Director Julie Miller.
The second- through fifth-graders planned every aspect of the restaurant from the pay scale and food costs to the menu, which included ham, turkey and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chips and cupcakes, Kelley said.
“I’m very proud of them,” Kelley said. “I did (the restaurant project) to give them real-life experience and working. Socially, I wanted them to be able to adapt to different situations like in the workplace. Talking to adults, talking to strangers. Math was my main objective.”
Kelley said academy pupils are rewarded for accomplishments and positive actions with Dream Academy bucks that can only be used at the academy’s store or the new restaurant. They’ve been planning the restaurant, testing and training for their chosen positions since early November.
“I was nervous when I found out I was going to do it,” hostess Tristen Crawford said. But once she got started greeting and seating customers, Crawford and her colleague Nathan Irby, 7, worked like experienced professionals.
Kelley said she sent out invitations to Harlem and Board of Education officials and the pupils’ teachers and parents.
“It’s awesome,” said Tameika Ivey, who was served by her daughter, Morgan Ivy, 9.
Morgan said she thought serving was fun.
Bryannah Jenkins, 9, said she chose to be a server because “of the money they make.”
The restaurant will be open every other Friday to academy pupils and others who get invited to what Kelley called an “elite restaurant.”
All 50 of the academy pupils helped plan it, and most will rotate working in it to serve their peers.
Kelley also has set up the store, where pupils can use their reward bucks to purchase small prizes, and the bank, where they can cash their Dream Academy checks and withdraw money to fund the restaurant.
“We believe in teaching kids about the value of work,” Miller said. “It gives them something they are really proud of.
“I just see it as a real opportunity for these young people to build self-esteem, an opportunity to gain skills, dealing with peers and adults, and they have the chance to really just show off a little bit about what they’ve learned.”