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Jukeboxes, Cheeseburgers, and Tips: Students Learn the Business of Food

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Baltimore--It's not your ordinary classroom. Tunes from the 1950's blare from a jukebox, cheeseburgers cook on a back grill, and students go about their classwork.

This is "The Kids' Diner," a Baltimore City Public Schools training center for vocational-education students--and a popular downtown eatery.

Housed in the stainless-steel restaurant made famous by the 1982 motion picture "Diner," the center, which opened last September, provides high-school seniors with training and a close-up look at the food-service business.

The program is "a real-life laboratory" and "a successful venture," says Earl Jones, Baltimore's assistant superintendent for vocational education, despite the fact that it has yet to turn a profit.

Jack Halpern, a 20-year veteran of the restaurant business who was hired last year to manage the diner and teach the students, agrees. "In September, these kids had trouble making hamburgers," he says. "Now, they're making ham and spinach souffle and puff pastry."

The students, he points out, "are getting something you can't buy--experience."

Unique Undertaking

The Kids' Diner was purchased last year by Baltimore radio station WBAL for $34,000 and donated to the city as part of Mayor William D. Schaefer's "wish-list campaign." The 67-seat facility opened last September with great fanfare and ex-pectation on the part of both school officials and the 28 students who work at the diner.

It appears to be the only diner in the country operated by a public-school system, according to the American Vocational Education Association and the National Restaurant Association. The only similar endeavors are a vocational-technical school in Lexington, Mass., that operates an on-campus McDonald's restaurant and a bakery and a restaurant in town, and a culinary-arts school for youths in Seward, Alaska.

But the Baltimore diner may not be the only one of its kind for long. A number of school systems have asked Baltimore officials for advice in starting similar programs. And a group of educators from New York City even made a visit to get a close-up look at the diner's operation.

Overcoming Fears

Operating a student-run restaurant is not always easy, Mr. Halpern admits. The diner's first few weeks were, in fact, quite trying, according to the manager, whose professional staff includes an assistant manager and a cook.

"One of the biggest problems was getting kids to come out of the kitchen with the food. They were afraid to come out," he said.

Birch A. Kailer and John H. Prussing, two of the restaurant's daily customers and employees of the city's waste-water engineering department, agree that the students have made great strides. "It's excellent food here," said Mr. Kailer while finishing a bowl of minestrone soup and a chocolate milkshake recently.

"We've seen a tremendous change in the cooperation of the kids helping each other. Some didn't know how to set a table at first."

Students' Progress

The students can also track their progress. Tracy Ward, 17, says she spent her first week at the diner scrubbing the pink and gray tiles and the vinyl booths. "I'm much more experienced now," she says. "I always wanted to be a chef, but I didn't think I would go on with it until I came here." Tracy says she hopes to get a scholarship after graduation in June to attend L'Ecole Foods, Baltimore's International Culinary Arts Institute.

Victoria Houston, an 18-year-old who is called a "superstar" in the kitchen by Mr. Halpern, says her goal is to own her own restaurant. The program, she says, "will help me a lot when I really go out there." Victoria plans to attend the Community College of Baltimore in the fall to study bookkeeping and management.

A number of the students who work at the diner have already lined up jobs after graduation. And Mr. Halpern says he receives "regular inquiries" from area restaurants interested in hiring diner "graduates.''

Shift Work

The students spend every other week at the restaurant working one of two shifts--from 6 A.M. to 11 A.M. or 11 A.M. to 4 P.M. They spend the balance of the day in a vocational class, where they learn the "textbook approach" to the food-service business.

The students take turns waiting on tables, tending the cash register, and working in the back cooking and washing dishes. They also clean windows and floors. One student manages the books. A typical homework assignment might be to find a new way to prepare chicken or to use eggs in a recipe.

In the two weeks the vocational students are not working at the diner, they attend regular academic classes to meet high-school-graduation requirements.

Grades and Tips

Working at the diner earns pupils three class credits and $3.35 an hour plus tips. Grades are determined by evaluations from Mr. Halpern, Trish Bohnenstiel, the assistant manager, and the students' vocational-education classroom teacher. The evaluations are based on assessments of their skills in working at the diner, their knowledge and attitude at work, and their work in the classroom.

Because of the high-pressure nature of the job and the skills it requires, Mr. Halpern and Ms. Bohnenstiel acknowledge that not all4students who started working at the diner last semester have lasted. Two were fired for not showing up for work and three others were put on probation.

Lower Prices, Ethnic Eating

There have been some changes in the diner's appearance and offerings in the months since it opened. Mayor Schaefer, one of the diner's biggest boosters, complained that prices were too high, so they were reduced to make them more competitive with other downtown restaurants.

Some dishes were dropped from the menu because "we couldn't break even and keep up the quality," Mr. Halpern says.

Most recently, the diner introduced a 23-week promotional event featuring daily ethnic specialties from Ireland, Italy, France, Poland, and Greece. During the week of July 4, American regional foods will be highlighted. "The Kids' Diner Internationale," says Mr. Halpern, is another way to broaden students' culinary skills and attract more than the usual 175 to 200 customers a day.

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