Play cafes are not a new concept, but the owners of the coming-soon ELF - Eat Learn Frolic - in Traverse City have a new twist on the old idea that they think will prove great food and entertaining your child can co-exist.
Parents, if you're looking to do something with the kids that doesn't involve guilt-producing Happy Meals, ball pits or bounce houses (is there enough sanitizer?), arcades with flimsy prizes, or, for the times you try to class it up, glares from customers wishing you and your noisy children were elsewhere, Melissa Whitman and Ellen Fred want to take you to a truly happy place.
As proprietors of the upcoming ELF - Eat Learn Frolic -
in Traverse City, the moms and attorneys turned business partners know well the experience of not feeling welcomed, of choking down kid-friendly fare and of ending an outing by asking, "Why did we do that again?" They also know the need for new parents to escape the isolation of constant childcare and the desire of all ages--parents and children--to socialize and learn.
Knowing and living the downsides of mommyhood set Whitman and Fred on the path of birthing a business that is wrapped in a respect and love of nature. ELF will have outdoor and indoor gardens, wide open lawns, floor-to-ceiling windows that connect the outdoors to in and a unique, eco-friendly, elf-themed wooden play structure now being built in Maine. Altogether, visitors are constantly within reach of things that bloom, grow and feed.
ELF, a membership club that will also welcome walk-ins, is scheduled to open in late June or early July on Randolph Street near Division in the Slabtown District of Traverse City, just a few blocks from the bay.
ELF will fill three lots and replace two houses and an old gun shop. Demolition started last week. The construction will take a green approach through energy-efficient design and sustainable features like living roofs and grey-water systems.
The concept of a play café isn't new and neither is the backstory of a business launch based on keeping both the kids and the 'rents happy. They want to be what McDonald's, Chuck E. Cheese and Bounce House are not. Coast to coast--and in Michigan--there are a variety of versions of the play cafe. One, Jungle Java, is a climbing gym connected to a coffee café.
However, ELF's owners are tweaking the concept by tying it to nature and health and by putting parents first, especially when it comes to the food. The lack of choices when it comes to kid-friendly places serving good food is ripe for business opportunities. In California, outstanding kid-friendly adult fare has its own blog in Taster Tots L.A.
ELF is a "modern, sophisticated alternative to play cafes," says Whitman.
"It's what we see as a third space. It's a comfortable place that's neither work nor home. It's a place where the needs of everyone, even the littlest of us, are met," she says.
"What sets us apart are the local, organic and eco-friendly aspects of the ELF. The play structure is natural, not plastic. Nature is in the interior design, in the greens and the wood tones. It's that aspect of nature that is so important for the kids and the parents."
And for the parents, food is the biggie. It’s why the E in ELF stands for eat.
ELF's owners believe great food and redeeming child entertainment can co-exist. And, it's clear, they say, locals have high expectations when it comes to both.
"This is becoming quite a foodie haven up here in Traverse," says Fred. "There are lovely farm-to-table restaurants here, but it's just hard to have a nice sit-down meal with the little ones. It can be very isolating."
ELF hired a chef recently, but is keeping the name a secret until closer to opening day. "This person is a perfect match with ELF's culinary vision and is passionate about making ELF a foodie destination."
The food will be Scandinavian-influenced: open-face sandwiches (smorrebrod), Swedish meatballs and lots of berries. Light breakfast items, sandwiches, salads, soups, fresh juice, smoothies and coffee, espresso, tea and cocoa--all fair trade, organic and locally-sourced--will be on the menu too
The "Learn" in the business name ties in enrichment and knowledge. Music, yoga, gardening, storytelling, homework help and many other classes will be offered.
Classes will target all ages. Perhaps videography for tweens and teens. A Lego area. A homework happy hour when roaming helpers are available.
Homework Happy Hour comes with a membership, as does priority class registration and discounts, childcare and participation in the ELF Community Supported Agriculture program, among other perks.
Whitman and Fred are having fun picking the teachers and performers who will join ELF.
Musicians Seth Bernard and May Erlewine Bernard and their Music for Sprouts
program are one act on ELF’s slate of classes. Musician Joshua Davis will teach ukulele, banjo and guitar. Jason Hill, founder of Leelanau Backyard Harvest
, a company devoted to helping others grow organic vegetables, will head up gardening efforts. Storyteller Jennifer Strauss will work her way with words, and early childhood development expert Trisha Buhr Short will lead parenting classes.
There’s overlap between the learning and the frolic at ELF. It speaks to the playful side and the community-gathering side of the business, whether it's meeting other parents, getting some work done while kids play or learning and playing side-by-side with the littles.
For ELF fun comes in the form of a tree swing, climbing poles, a labyrinth, a maze and the massive, custom playscape like no other.
Socially, there are party spaces and an ELF online community. And community support of new moms comes in at least two forms: a Soothing Silo, a soundproof space where parents can comfort crying babies or nurse, and a Mush Mat, a massive infant play mat. It'll be kept clean with natural cleaning products.
"We feel strongly that the business model should be as ecologically-friendly as possible," says Fred. "We want to make a place everyone will feel happy about coming to."
Kim North Shine is a freelance writer who resides in Michigan. There are probably days she would like to take advantage of a play cafe, especially if there was one for adults that offered up wine. She can be reached via email.
All photos, except rendering, by Beth Price.