When families of kindergarten students from Lafayette Academy gather around the Christmas table, they might want to be especially careful to use the proper forks and to know which bread-and-butter plate belongs to whom: Trained eyes will be watching.
Santa didn't send these tiny manners police. Brennan's Restaurant did. Or rather, Brennan's taught the kindergartners what to look for.
"They'll go home and share with their parents," teacher Cheryl Winslow said of her charges at the restaurant's recent etiquette program. "They'll tell them, 'Oh no! No elbows on the table.'"
"They get it," Charlee Williamson, vice president of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, said of the youngsters, "My own still talk about (the class). They called me out this weekend over having my tablet at the table." Williamson's 6-year-old twin girls were part of the test group for the project last year.
The 5- and 6-year-olds began their recent morning at the iconic French Quarter restaurant with a visit to the turtles in a courtyard pool, where they were greeted by General Manager Christian Pendleton. Then, all 44 of them streamed upstairs to a dining room to learn about the elements of a formal table setting.
The best part, though, came last: Putting what they learned into action dining on a Brennan's brunch of pancakes, fresh fruit and orange juice.
For the restaurant, the ongoing project is about acting on one of its core company values: social responsibility. And Williamson hopes more schools will take Brennan's up on its offer of the free brunch and etiquette lessons, geared for kindergarten through second-grade students. Lafayette Academy also received a travel stipend from Brennan's for its students to attend.
"It makes sense ... to give kids the experience. Most kids this age don't eat in white tablecloth restaurants," Williamson said. "But, it's beyond manners. Throughout life, things happen around tables, and you have to have confidence: with job interviews, dates, to please your parents. The point of manners is to be nice, and the world could use a lot of nice."
Lafayette Academy teacher Leslie Hughes agreed. "It's very important to learn social skills so you can meet people and grow," she said.
Tables were set for the young diners upstairs the same way as those downstairs, where Friday customers lingered over coffee or, with stomachs full, enjoyed conversation in the courtyard.
The children learned about the nine pieces that comprised the table setting: a napkin, forks in two sizes, a knife and spoon, a dinner plate, a bread plate (on the left of the dinner plate) and a butter knife, and a glass (placed above the knife.)
Small hands helped set large tables.
"Little fork, big fork, napkin, knife and spoon," the kids chanted, the memory tool mapping the order of objects from left to right.
Those who created the program did some learning, too. On the previous day, "We served them family style," Pendleton said of another group from Lafayette Academy. "But the platters were too heavy for the kids."
So on this day, with lesson learned, waiters served individual plates to the children.
Also learned the previous day: "Some had not used knives before, so we helped them learn," Williamson said.
"I forgot to tell them to wash their hands," Pendleton added, moving off to re-enter the group.
"What's something we do before eating?" Pendleton asked as the kids were seated to dine.
"Say grace," came the most audible reply.
"Yes," said Pendleton, not missing a beat before adding. "Do we have to wash our hands?"
"Yes," they answered in unison.
Warm, damp, folded cloths were passed out by waiters. Uncertain hands were then schooled in this elegant take on hygiene.
Catherine Brennan was up next, offering a lesson in manners that the kids could follow in booklets printed for the program.
• Keep the napkin on your lap.
• No hats at the table. "Is everybody looking at Page 6?" "Yessss!"
• Turn off the TV, phones and iPads and have conversation.
• Use proper utensils
• Elbows off the table. "Does anybody have their elbows on the table?" "Nooooo!"
• Wait until all are served before eating.
• Do not reach. "Say, 'please pass the ..."'
• Keep your mouth closed. "You don't want anyone to see the food you're eating. That would be gross."
• Say "please" and "thank you."
• Ask to be excused before you get up.
And finally, food arrived. The inclusion of familiar, and delicious, pancakes on the plates kept the intimidation factor at bay.
Asked if she'd cut hers all on her own, Brooklyn Banks proudly replied, "I did!"
"Would you tell him to pass the butter?" another girl asked. The boy in question started to pick up the yellow ball with his hands — after all, no one had asked for the plate.
All in all, the kids were eager to apply their new knowledge.
Kindergarten-style conversation was had. Good-natured reminders to "keep your elbows off the table" circled the room, and "please" and "thank yous" were plentiful.
The Brennan's team kept the pace brisk, and the kids were well-behaved and cooperative. The session could have been declared a success even if it had ended here.
But the icing on the cake was completely unplanned, one of those only-in-New Orleans moments.
As the kids crowded out onto the balcony overlooking Royal Street so a photographer below could snap a group photo, an informal brass band ambled over to serenade them with 'When the Saints Go Marching In."
That's another New Orleans way of adding a little more nice in the world.