A Backyard Restaurant

Melissa Kossler Dutton

When 7-year-old Adam Keels proposed turning the family's deck into a restaurant two summers ago, his mom, Tricia, thought it sounded like a fun game to play.

When he started writing a menu and setting prices, the Bexley mom decided to help him bring "Keels' Backyard Restaurant" to life. Keels, a foodie and host of the Internet radio show No Chefs Allowed, agreed to cook the items on the menu and invite some family members to dine at Adam's cafe.

She got so into the planning, she invited a friend's band to perform. When her husband, Chris, reminded her the restaurant was only catering to family and suggested she warn the band, she had another idea: "We get more people."

She began promoting the restaurant on Facebook and inviting friends and neighbors. She told Adam, now 9, and her other son, Atticus, now 11, they could keep half of the earnings and would need to donate the rest to the Mid-Ohio Foodbank.

Several weeks later, about 40 friends and neighbors attended the restaurant's grand opening. They dined on pancakes, sliders and milkshakes made with blueberries the family picked on a farm in Mansfield.

"I'm not a caterer. I just wing it," Keels said. "The boys have been cooking with me since a young age. It was easy for me to go, 'Sure, we can do that.'"

The boys, their friends and their 4-year-old sister, Margot, waited tables - a job all the kids coveted. They raised about $200.

"We didn't bring in as much as we paid for the food but it was priceless. It was a priceless evening," she said. "We're so appreciative of what we're provided every day, it's completely worth it."

The following summer, the boys added pulled pork sliders and homemade sweet potato chips to the menu. The family spent days preparing for the restaurant. They made bread and ground wheat flour for the pancakes.

"I try to add nice little touches to the dishes," she said. "We don't skimp."

The neighbor kids offered to make lemonade and handle the drinks.

The 2013 event attracted about 75 guests and raised almost $500. The Keels paid their boys $20 each and donated the rest to the Children's Hunger Alliance. According to a Columbus Public Health spokeswoman, the agency does not require any permits for one-day events such as this one, where organizers charge a suggested donation rather than a set price.

The best parts of the restaurant are "making the menus and waiting tables," said Adam, whose mother told him he could have any job he wanted. He doesn't mind donating most of the money because other people need it.

"They don't have food, and we do," he said. "We give them money, and they can buy food."

The event serves as a great way to talk with children about helping other families, said Kelli Trinoskey, a neighbor and director of community and public relations at The Salvation Army of Central Ohio. She and her husband, Mark, dined at the restaurant and donated money to the cause. Her daughters, Tess, 9, and Mollie, 9, worked as servers.

"We told them the money goes to feed families," she said. "They were very excited to hear how much money was raised by everyone coming together."

The girls also loved "working" in a restaurant, Trinoskey said. The Keels make the experience very realistic by creating menus, providing order pads and giving bills to the diners.

"It's a unique experience for them," she said. "It's so out of the box. They think it's the coolest thing ever."

The kids take it very seriously, said Trinoskey, who had multiple children offer to take her order within moments of being seated at her table. (Families brought their own tables earlier in the day and set them up in the Keels' corner lot.)

Putting on the one-day event takes a lot of work, added Atticus.

"We can't do it all by ourselves. We have to have our neighbors help," he said. "We start planning in early spring." (They're already working on this year's event, which will take place in August.)

Miles Smith pitched in last year as a waiter. The youngster found the job to be a lot of fun, even if keeping track of people's orders was a bit of a challenge.

"It was kind of a memory game trying to remember who ordered what," the 9-year-old said.

He was happy to serve the food because it tasted so good, Miles said.

"I just liked that it was homemade instead of using big machines to make it," he said.