VAN NUYS : Children Open, Close an Eatery, All in One Day

Tables at the Hungry Wolf Cafe were no larger than a child's desk. Reservations had to be booked a week in advance. The menu was limited to sandwiches, and the help occasionally mixed up the orders.

For all that, patrons unanimously praised the Van Nuys eatery Thursday.

"It's great," said customer Anthony Aceves, despite being denied the bean burrito he first requested. "I might just go for seconds."

"I'm completely amazed," agreed patron Sandra Juarez. "We're going to leave a good tip."

Their enthusiasm is understandable. The Hungry Wolf Cafe boasts an entire staff of third- and fourth-graders, and its customers were parents and school officials.

The makeshift eatery at Erwin Street School completed a series of hands-on lessons about the restaurant industry. Thirty-one students were involved in the program by teacher Helene Hirsch.

"The most important thing is that they have a feeling of accomplishment," said Hirsch. "If they know a little something about interviewing for a job later or pick up some skills, that's great."

Students wrote menus, created place settings and interviewed for the cafe's various jobs over the past few weeks. One boy was so concerned about making a good impression he wore a tuxedo to his interview.

The children bought supplies at a local grocery store, sent invitations to potential customers and even chose the restaurant's name--a wry reference to the "Three Little Pigs" tale they read for a recent assignment.

The Hungry Wolf Cafe was open for a single day of business Thursday.

Clad in construction-paper hats, blue pants and white shirts bearing their names and job titles, the student restaurateurs greeted customers, took orders and prepared the food. They checked on patrons during their meals and quickly cleared tables in preparation for another wave of customers.

Diners paid for their food with play money, although several left real currency as tips.

"I didn't think it was going to be like this," said Aceves. "It's very organized. I thought we were just going to come in and grab a plate."

Students were excited about the project, and several gained new insight into the restaurant industry.

"I never knew life could be so hard," moaned Pablo Maldonado.

The weary 8-year-old was the cafe's lead chef and had to quickly manipulate slices of bread so they could be spread with mustard and mayonnaise.

"It's kind of fun, but I have to go so fast, man," said Pablo. "I don't like people screaming at me. I don't like being hurried."

Kenny Bowman enjoyed his role as cashier. He said the job's biggest frustration was when waitresses failed to total the items on their bills.

"It's just fun," said Kenny, 9. "We get to say nice things to people. And we get tips."

By the time the Hungry Wolf Cafe closed its doors around 1 p.m., it had served about 115 people.

"It's fun, and it's good for them," said parent William Figueroa. "I thought it was great. They're learning something. All the classes should do something like this once in a while."

"The service, the food, the kids--they're great," said another parent, Eva Arce.

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