In matters of kids’ dining, Asheville’s always been progressive

According to the latest issue of Restaurants & Institutions, the next trend in kid-friendly dining will be children-dominated sections where tots can hurl food and dart beneath tables without bothering other customers.

But Asheville’s been there, done that, and is highly unlikely to try it again.

In 1985, the manager of an Asheville-area Stuckey’s—whether it was located in Maggie Valley or Old Fort is a matter corporate historians haven’t yet resolved—experimented with segregating his underage diners.

According to Daniel Rogov, the wine critic for the Israeli newspaper HaAretz who has documented the debacle on his Web site, the hapless restaurateur-cum-camp-counselor quickly discovered “the concentration of children within a given area encourages rather than discourages noise and hyperactivity.” Rowdy children shattered dishes, shredded drapes and pocketed salt and pepper shakers.

After staffers spent two weeks scrubbing stubborn carpet stains created by overly exuberant grape-juice drinkers, the manager declared the end of the seating revolution. Rogov quotes him as writing: “The first and second World Wars were nothing compared to what happened.” The incident has been mostly lost to history—although the poor manager is unlikely to ever forget it. The crack reference librarians at Pack Memorial Library couldn’t find any record of it.

But the story resonated with W.S. Stuckey, Jr., son of Stuckey’s founder and current chairman of the board. “I believe it!,” he told company spokesman Chip Rosencrans after reviewing Rogov’s Web site. So would any one who has ever spent time in a restaurant overrun with children. Diners frequently complain of children at nearby tables screaming, crying and blowing straw wrappers at them: A North Carolina activist in 2005 collected nearly 1000 signatures on an online petition demanding child-free dining before a bouquet of harassing e-mails forced her to abandon the project. It isn’t hard to imagine that seated at the kids’ table, writ large, hungry tykes would devolve into demons.

But Christie Nordhielm, the associate professor of marketing at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business who has advocated for child-centric dining rooms, believes restaurants could improve their youngest customers’ behavior by becoming more child-friendly. Rather than create leper-colony-like seating sections, Nordhielm suggested to Restaurants & Institutions that restaurants offer spacious family areas with tables arranged so children can wander freely. “I don’t think the notion of kid-friendly has been as well-defined or as well-executed as it could be,” she told the industry publication.

Asheville’s restaurants haven’t yet started setting up family dining sections. But most restaurants offer kids’ menus. The following creatively child-friendly meals from downtown eateries are more sophisticated than the de-rigueur chicken-finger or corndog-and-fries basket. If nothing else, the surprise factor of these progressive little entrees should go a long way toward reducing tears and stolen salt shakers.

For the discriminating little Ashevillean

Mela
70 Lexington Ave.
Dal Makhani, $3.95. This plateful of black lentils, cream and kidney beans is served over rice, a white food even the crankiest children love.

The Lobster Trap
35 Patton Ave.
Lobster Macaroni-and-Cheese, $6. Lobster is downright weird, but hidden in creamy mac-and-cheese, it’s as innocuous as a hot dog.

Mamacita’s
77-A Biltmore Ave.
Kid-Sized Burrito, $2.50. A step up from the quesadilla, stuffed with chicken or pork.

Tupelo Honey Café
12 College St.
Fried Peanut Butter-with-Banana Sandwich, $4. Every kid’s favorite, with an added dose of potassium.

Making restaurant-friendly kids starts at home

Kids like to help and love to create. To get them more involved—or just more interested— in what they’re eating, or to try to get them to eat something new, make it fun.

Model: Alyssa, Photo and text: Kathy Wadham

For breakfast or lunch, cut out shapes for their sandwiches, toast or eggs by using large cookie-cutters. Make their peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich in the shape of a star, or turn their toast into a butterfly. Also try making faces in their food, such as using fruit to make features on their pancakes or waffles—or let them do it.

A smoothie is a healthy snack that’s fun to make—lots of noise! Here’s a great recipe that can be adjusted easily for different tastes.

Alyssa’s Shake-It-Up Smoothie
1 cup of soy milk or regular milk
4 large strawberries
1 banana
1 cup of low-fat ice cream, yogurt, or frozen yogurt
1/2 cup of ice

Mix well in a blender or food processor. Any fruit can be substituted—we have fun trying new flavors. Give it a try!

— Kathy Wadham

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