Student waitstaff collect orders from the cooks to deliver to diners seated in the classroom for the American Coney Island restaurant event at Ferry Elementary School March 16.

Student waitstaff collect orders from the cooks to deliver to diners seated in the classroom for the American Coney Island restaurant event at Ferry Elementary School March 16.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Student-run restaurant at Ferry serves up more than popular dishes

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published March 22, 2023

 Ferry Elementary School third grader Ava Stepella takes an order in her role as server from Grosse Pointe Woods Mayor Arthur Bryant as Woods City Councilwoman Angela Coletti Brown looks on.

Ferry Elementary School third grader Ava Stepella takes an order in her role as server from Grosse Pointe Woods Mayor Arthur Bryant as Woods City Councilwoman Angela Coletti Brown looks on.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

GROSSE POINTE WOODS — The hot lunch spot in the Pointes March 16 wasn’t a sleek new restaurant in town — it was an elementary school classroom.

Ferry Elementary School teacher James Fisher’s third/fourth grade magnet class operated its own American Coney Island restaurant — called Fishissippi Coney Island — out of classroom 113 during the lunch hour March 16. Dozens of community members and officials — including City Council and school board members — were on hand as the students ran the entire pop-up restaurant themselves, from seating patrons to taking orders to preparing food to cashing out diners.

Parent volunteers, who were signing in guests at the front door of the school and directing them to the restaurant upstairs, said they were expecting at least 200 diners.

With help and training from Grace Keros, of Detroit’s well-known American Coney Island, students learned how to prepare signature dishes for customers. Students dressed the part, wearing Made in Detroit coney dog T-shirts and paper hats.

Students select a charity to receive funds generated from the restaurant day, which is a tradition at the school, and this year Fisher said they selected the Autism Alliance of Michigan — which, coincidentally, also happens to be a nonprofit that American Coney Island supports. Fisher said a spokesperson from the Autism Alliance shared information and gift bags with his students.

“It’s great when it can all come together for a great cause,” said Fisher, noting that Ferry Principal Jodie Randazzo is “very supportive” of the teachers and creative educational projects like this one.

Students, who — according to their parents — had been practicing running a restaurant for weeks, were able to showcase their newfound skills.

The students exhibited a professionalism well beyond their years, leading some adult customers to emerge from the “restaurant” saying they got better service in this setting than in some of the traditional restaurants where they’ve dined.

“They’ve been practicing a lot,” Fisher said. “(They’ve learned) it’s OK if you make a mistake. They’ve done a great job.”

Third grader Ava Stepella, a server, said she learned “to be patient and be kind” waiting on tables.

“Although things can be stressful, you just have to breathe and calm down,” Stepella said.

The students took their tasks seriously, with some even telling their parents who were there for lunch that they couldn’t talk because they were working.

“My son went to bed early last night,” said Lisa Jaeger, mother of Andrew Jaeger-Karalla, one of the table bussers. “He said, ‘Tomorrow’s restaurant day.’”

Parent Randie Kohler, one of the room moms, also acknowledged how hard the students had worked to make this event a success.

“It’s great to see how well they’re doing,” Kohler said. “And (they’re) very professional about it.”

As cashiers, third grader Delilah Nicholl and fourth grader Macklan Kohler impressed customers with their ability to make change without relying on a calculator. Both said they like math.

“It’s really fun,” said Nicholl, who was arranging desserts including cookies and brownies on the shelves behind her when she wasn’t ringing up customers. “It’s a little nerve-wracking.”

The students had separate lines for customers paying cash or using a credit or debit card.

“There’s been a lot of customers, and we’re trying to keep track of everything,” Kohler said. “And we’ve got to restock the desserts, too.”

Students bussing tables also kept busy.

“I’ve learned that it is kind of harder than when we were practicing with play food,” fourth grader Eli Licavoli said. “(The real food) is heavier, and it’s easier to spill.”

Nonetheless, spills were uncommon as the students carefully but quickly carried dishes.

“I’ve learned that it’s a lot of hard work, and you have to stay calm,” said third grader Blake Griesbaum, another busser. “You have to socialize with people. It’s also a lot of fun.”

Fellow third grader and busser Eliot Block agreed that this was a “very fun” experience.

“They all have their different jobs, but they are very well versed in their jobs,” said parent Megan Licavoli.

Third grader Andrew Jaeger-Karalla, another busser, noted the importance of socializing in this job, along with other responsibilities.

“You have to memorize a lot and do two things at once,” Jaeger-Karalla said.

A few school board members were sitting together at one of the tables.

“This is amazing, and these guys are doing a fantastic job,” Grosse Pointe Board of Education member Ginny L. Jeup observed.

Grosse Pointe Board of Education President Ahmed Ismail was equally impressed.

“I think this rocks,” Ismail said. “These kids are awesome. It brings back a lot of memories.”

He said his own children attended Ferry and were in the magnet program, which he said provides kids with great life experiences like this.

“It’s my new favorite restaurant,” Grosse Pointe Board of Education member Sean Cotton said. “This is very special.”

Grosse Pointe Woods Mayor Arthur Bryant was among the officials who stopped by for lunch.

“This is a wonderful event that’s been going on for a number of years,” Bryant said. “I’ve enjoyed coming to it, along with other City Council members, and I think the learning experience can’t be matched.”

Bryant said these trips to Ferry bring back memories of when his own children were young students at the school. He also visits Ferry and other Woods elementary schools to talk about local government, usually with third graders.

“I get a lot of pleasure out of introducing them to the world of city government,” Bryant said, adding that he hopes to inspire future civic engagement in the students.

Woods City Councilwoman Angela Coletti Brown, whose daughter goes to Monteith Elementary School, was attending this event for the first time, with her young son in tow.

“This was fabulous — absolutely fabulous,” Coletti Brown said after lunch.

“Great job, one and all,” diner Michael Chichester, of Grosse Pointe Woods, said as he stood in line waiting to pay for his meal.

Fisher has been doing the American Coney Island restaurant project with his students on and off for about the last 15 years, he said. Keros, a close friend, supplies the food, but the kids come up with the menu.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this was the first time in five years Ferry was able to host this event.

Parent volunteers were on hand, but it was the students doing all the work, from seating to serving patrons. Fisher said the students are running a business and learning about supply and demand, capital resources, and more.

“Even more important than the academics … they’re working together and helping the community,” Fisher said.

He said this project teaches teamwork and other life skills.

Fisher said this event typically raises about $1,500 for charity. The restaurant event alternates every other year with a student-run shopping event in which students make and sell items.

This year, the students ended up raising about $1,700 for the Michigan Autism Alliance. Thanks to a match from a community member, the total donation will be $3,400.