Monday, November 21, 2005

War on Brats -

War on Brats - 11/20/05: Cafe's move to boot bad kids kicks up skirmish between the childless and the child-centered.

'I can't change the situation in Iraq; I can't change the situation in New Orleans. But I can change this little corner of the world,' says Dan McCauley, owner of A Taste of Heaven.

CHICAGO -- Bridget Dehl shushed her 21-month-old son Gavin, then clapped a hand over his mouth to squelch his tiny screams amid the Sunday brunch bustle. When Gavin kept yelping 'yeah, yeah, yeah,' Dehl quickly whisked him from his highchair and out the door.

Right past the sign warning the cafe's customers that 'Children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices when coming to A Taste of Heaven,' and right into a nasty spat roiling the stroller set in Chicago's changing Andersonville neighborhood.

The owner of A Taste of Heaven, Dan McCauley, said he posted the sign -- at child level, with playful handprints -- in the hope of quieting his tin-ceilinged cafe, where toddlers have been known to sprawl between tables and hurl themselves at display cases for sport.

But many neighborhood mothers took umbrage at the implied criticism of how they handle their children. Soon, whispers of a boycott passed among the playgroups in this North Side hamlet, once an outpost of edgy artists and hip gay couples but now a hot real estate market for young professional families shunning the suburbs.


Here in Chicago, parents have denounced Toast, a popular Lincoln Park breakfast spot, as unwelcoming since a note about using inside voices appeared on the menu six months ago.

The owner of John's Place established a separate "family-friendly" room a year ago, only to face parental threats of lawsuits.

When a retail clerk in Andersonville asked a woman to stop breast-feeding last spring, "the neighborhood set him straight real fast," said Mary Ann Smith, the area's alderwoman.

Things got ugly

After a dozen years at one site, McCauley moved A Taste of Heaven six blocks away in May 2004, to a busy corner on Clark Street. The clientele is whiter, wealthier and louder, he said. Teachers and writers seeking afternoon refuge were drowned out not just by children running amok but also by oblivious cell phone chatterers.

Children were climbing the cafe's poles. A couple were blithely reading the newspaper while their daughter lay on the floor blocking the line for coffee. When the family whose children were running across the room to flail themselves against the display cases left after his admonishment, McCauley recalled, the restaurant erupted in applause.

So he put up the sign. Then things really got ugly.

"The looks I would get when I went in there made me so nervous that I would try to buy the food as fast as I could and get out," said Laura Brauer, 40, who has stopped visiting Taste with her two kids.

"I think that the mothers who allow their kids to run around and scream, that's wrong, but kids scream and there is nothing you can do about it. What are we supposed to do, not enjoy ourselves at a cafe?"

Miller said that one day when her son, then 4 months old, was fussing, a staff member rolled her eyes and announced for all to hear, "We've got a screamer!"

Kim Cavitt recalled having coffee and a cookie one afternoon with her boisterous 2-year-old when "someone came over and said you just need to keep her quiet or you need to leave."

"We left, and we haven't been back since," Cavitt said. "You go to a coffee shop or a bakery for a rest, to relax, and that you would have to worry the whole time about your child doing something that children do -- really what they're saying is they don't welcome children, they want the child to behave like an adult."

"It's his business; he has the right to put whatever sign he wants on the door," Miller said. "And people have the right to respond to that sign however they want."

Owner won't back down

McCauley said he had received kudos from several restaurant owners in the area, though none had followed his lead. He has certainly lost customers because of the sign, but some parents say the offense is outweighed by their addiction to the scones, and others embrace the effort at etiquette.

McCauley said he would rather go out of business than back down. He likens this one small step toward good manners to his personal effort to decrease pollution by only hiring employees who live close enough to walk to work.

"I can't change the situation in Iraq; I can't change the situation in New Orleans," he said. "But I can change this little corner of the world." "

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