“Hi! Are you here to eat?” 12-year-old Hailey Roemeling asked cheerfully as she greeted guests entering Peg’s Countryside Cafe in Hamel.

Roemeling and 11 other children clad in baseball uniforms stepped in last week to manage the cafe in a fundraiser for Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery — and to learn about business management for themselves.

“We’re serving and making food,” 10-year-old Sammi Lee said, “and we’re going to be donating the money to a crisis nursery. I think it helps kids and babies.”

The young workers, fourth- to ninth-graders, hosted, prepped, helped cook and delivered food to a packed house of hungry diner-donors. As part of a weekslong process, they chose a sports theme for the cafe and menu and a cause to get the night’s proceeds.

“We’ve been working on it for about a month and a half now,” 13-year-old Nate Agbemadon said. “Every Thursday we came together and learned about different things like marketing and food sanitation. We also learned how to speak to customers and be more comfortable.”

The students raised about $1,700, including tips, while serving up hamburgers, salads and shakes to help families in crisis.

“We’re donating all the funds to the crisis nursery,” Nate said, “because we went there once and they said they need materials for the kids there to learn.”

When the students take over, Peg’s Countryside Cafe becomes Graft’s Grill, named after the late Suzanne Graft, a Wayzata teacher who started the program. The program is a partnership between the cafe’s owner, Wayzata Public Schools and Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners. Graft died in 2010. Her widower and their son, Tim, helped students run the kitchen during the fundraising event.

“Me and other people from my sixth-grade class were the first Graft’s Grill,” Tim Graft said. “Then, when I turned 14, I started working here.”

Graft, who is now executive chef at Crown College, said he chose to go into the food service industry because of his experience with the program.

“School is so ‘blah-blah’ for some people,” he said. “Not everyone learns that way. This gives people a chance to get out and learn real-life skills.”

The skills the students learn by participating in the event are largely what cafe owner Peggy Rasmussen enjoys about the partnership.

“I agreed to it originally because food service was not well thought of,” Rasmussen said. “I wanted to show people that it takes skill to have a job that people think is menial.”

Justin Thompson, who participated in the original 1997 event with Graft to help raise money for victims of the great Red River flood, dropped by to see the latest batch of students at work.

“It was awesome,” Thompson said.

 

Gabriel Sanchez is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.