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I’ve long said the way to help change the way America eats is to teach kids to cook. This is a story from my colleague Emilia in which kids not only cook, but rather take it to a new level, using cooking to bring a community together.—M.R.

By Emilia Juocys

I met Tricia Keels at Eat Retreat in the summer of 2014. Both from the Midwest (she from Ohio and I Michigan) and sharing a passion for food, we immediately hit it off. She briefly mentioned her nonprofit Souper Heroes and this “kid-run restaurant” her family throws in their backyard once a year. But with everything going on at the retreat, the thought slipped away. Until I got a call from her last August with the words, “I think we need your help.”

The Keels Backyard Restaurant was born in 2012 when her then 7-year-old son, Adam, had the idea to truly open a restaurant in their backyard for just one day. Tricia and her husband, Chris, agreed to support his idea if he did a couple things: create the menu and draw the logo himself and agree that the proceeds would go to a charity in the hunger relief system. Adam agreed and got to work.

In true Keels fashion, when they saw Adam working hard, they helped him take it to a different level by booking a live band (The Roman Kings) and getting 40 neighbors to agree to come and bring their own table no less.


“Back in the kitchen, Adam and I were busy getting plates ready to serve,” Tricia told me. “Each time I shouted ‘Order up!’ every kid in attendance came running in to see if they could run the food. And that’s when it hit me: almost every kid wants to play restaurant. We just accidentally took it up a notch. And at the end of the night we knew we had to do it again.” That’s where I came in. After getting the phone call that last year’s event was going to bring over 150 diners to their backyard, which was more than the two previous years combined, I was ready to assist.

I immediately helped Tricia and the kids order the right quantity of ingredients for the kid-created menu (which included house-cured bacon thanks to Michael’s recipe!) and then drove down to help the team create a game plan for prep and service. Ultimately I assisted in the kitchen during the service, running the pulled pork taco station, and helping the 12-year-old expeditor keep his young staff in order. Tricia oversaw the kids flipping pancakes and working the panini press while Chris kept an eye on the front of the house. On top of kitchen know-how, we taught the kids restaurant lingo like, “In the weeds” and “We need four paninis all day!” They found that hilarious and immediately adopted it.


I don’t think I would have believed the community that is created through this event if I hadn’t seen it myself. When I walked out of the kitchen for my first break to see the actual dining room, the backyard, I was in shock. A band was playing, families were having dinner together at community tables, and the kids were actually running a restaurant. Plus every dollar being collecting would be donated to an organization that feeds the hungry.

It was one of the few times in my life I felt like I was a part of something bigger, and I just stood there with a silly grin.

Diners pay $3.50 for each meal, but they decide to pay a bit more because it is a donation to the charity. Adam set the price when he was 7 years old and it has never changed. They also leave tips for the young servers; quickly you learn and see that even those who are not formally trained as front of the house staff try to steal tables for more tips. It’s quite funny when you think about it—10-years-olds taking over other kids’ sections. Tricia and her husband purchase and donate all the food for this popup dinner. Last year they brought in $1000 and they hope to raise $5000 this year.

The 4th annual Keels Backyard Restaurant is fast approaching this Saturday, August 8, and I will gladly be there helping. The menu has some old favorites and some new adventures like teaching the kids to make sausages (photos to be posted).

You may not live in Columbus, Ohio, but you can still be a part of this event by contributing to their Souper Heroes Fundly account. This campaign will help them expand events like these and allow Tricia to assist others interested in bringing Souper Heroes events to their communities. You can learn more about Souper Heroes and its mission here. Don’t wait for a phone call that says, “I think we need your help.”







4th Annual Keels Backyard Restaurant

Saturday, August 8th

5:00pm – 9:00pm


  • Swedish meatball sliders, potato salad, chips, and salsa
  • House-made Italian sausage sandwich, homemade pickle relish, side of blueberry coleslaw, chips, and salsa
  • Jerk vegetable Cuban panini with pickled okra, blueberry coleslaw, chips, and salsa
  • Pancakes with blueberry compote, butter, and maple syrup
  • Chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwiches with marshmallow
  • Peach cobbler and whipped cream

$3.50 per meal, donations are gladly accepted.

For more information please visit the Facebook event page; to make a donation visit the Fundly page.


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© 2015 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2015 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.