February 21, 2012
The Valentine Café:
Enterprising students raise funds with a romantic evening of dining


Who on earth would ever dream of dining out with your sweetheart for Valentine’s Day in a school cafeteria?

As it turned out, at least 240 Hatteras Islanders did, not only the supportive parents and teachers one would expect, but also many of us with no direct contact with the school. 

The sophomore class at Cape Hatteras Secondary School opened their annual Valentine Café on Saturday, Feb. 11, for the second time and drew an appreciative crowd that doubled last year’s numbers.

The brainchild of 2014 class president Chris Johnson, the Valentine Cafe is the sole fund-raising project of the class, and it is tremendous.

Johnson was advised during freshman year by the class sponsor, Erin Del Monte, that the class might want to start raising funds so they would be ready for the huge expenses of senior year. 

In addition to hefty graduation expenses, there’s a prom to organize and, they hope, “a crazy, fantastic senior trip,” according to Johnson.

He reasoned that it would be better to do one major event rather than a seemingly unending series of smaller events that would be necessary to raise the needed funds.  He estimated the class would have to generate at least $1,000 per year.

The class galvanized around the idea of a formal dinner, and using their enthusiasm and energy, secured parental support and began to plan.

First they looked at “major” dates -- those around holidays.  They astutely settled on Valentine’s Day, figuring that “most people like to eat out and most of the island’s restaurants are closed then.”

Help came from many quarters, and the first dinner drew 125 people and made $2,000 for the class.

Confident now that they could successfully undertake a big project, they elected to make it their signature annual fund raiser.

Their plan was well executed. 

Diners made reservations for a specific seating time and selected their entree beforehand.  The choices were prime rib or pasta Alfredo with either shrimp or chicken.

Upon arrival, guests with young children in tow dropped them off in the gym for free babysitting by students and then were greeted in the lobby by student hosts and hostesses overseen by Johnson, the major domo for the event. 

Patrons were invited to enjoy the bountiful hors d’oeuvres while waiting for their tables. There was a dazzling array of bite-sized appetizers, beautifully displayed on pretty tablecloths and unique pottery serving pieces.

The selections were sophisticated and every taste was as luscious as the one before.  It took a jolt of self-discipline and a stern reminder of what was to follow to walk away from the table.

Among the choices were fried calamari, bite-sized shrimp and grits, Asian meatballs, Asian flavored fish cakes and, of course, steamed shrimp.  A variety of sauces accompanied the seafood, including hot mustard, cocktail sauce and a Thai sauce.

There was also a smoked salmon bruschetta and a smoked salmon dip with crudités, Oriental pork dumplings, and a lovely gazpacho served in wine glasses.

It appeared that care had been taken with the food to provide not only flavor and variety but also colors that looked alluring on the pink tablecloth.

Diners mingled in the lobby until their tables were ready and then were escorted by one of the four hosts or hostesses on duty into the dining room (aka school cafeteria).

The room was hardly recognizable. Twinkly fairy lighting and decor transformed the room and a flattering muted pinkish glow from overhead emitted an aura of romance in the air.

Gone were the long rows of tables, banished to elsewhere in the school.  In their place were a variety of tables collected from all over the school: small tables for two and various sizes for larger groups, including one of the first arrivals -- a party of 11.

Red, pink, purple, and white tablecloths with candles and fresh flowers decorated each table.  Table numbers were inscribed on cut-out paper hearts.

Student wait staff, trained by Kathy Tawes, busily moved around the room offering water or tea, bringing in the salad with almost every local’s favorite creamy balsamic dressing by Tracy Oden, and confirming the entree selections. 

Meanwhile, the kitchen, under the control of Beth Gray, was abuzz with parents cooking appetizers and entrees with the assistance of students who were responsible for the salads and homemade breads.

Still more students helped with prepping food, busing tables and washing up the tableware that had been lent by local restaurants for the evening.

We had opted for a late seating that followed the main rush, yet all the tables were full.   Everyone was talking quietly, so the atmosphere, all in all, was romantic. 

Following the entree, servers offered a dessert tray with a variety of sweets -- strawberry or coconut cake, double chocolate refrigerator cake, and cheesecake were extravagant and very enticing.  Even I succumbed to the temptation in the spirit of the evening!

The evening was successful on many levels.

Diners enjoyed a night out and a delicious dinner for only $25 per couple.

Parents and some grandparents, along with staff, had an important role to play by working with and guiding the students in a business venture.  They worked very hard, but Chris’ mother, Jenn Johnson, reassured me, everybody really enjoyed it.

And, best of all, approximately 30 high school sophomores had a valuable experience.

They created, budgeted for, ordered for, set up, and ran a successful restaurant from scratch by working cooperatively toward a shared goal.

Their class bank account, held by the school, is richer by approximately $1,800.  Although there were twice as many diners as last year, food costs had risen so much that it cut into their profit.

Don’t worry. They are already thinking of creative ways to get over that next year. 

“We started planning in December,” said Chris Johnson, “and my satisfaction comes from knowing all the work and planning were worth it.  Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves.”

The Valentine Cafe will open again next February and the next.  When the class of 2014 moves on, their younger brothers and sisters -- and parents -- plan to keep the tradition going.  Then perhaps another group will carry on. 

We are assured of at least another six lovely evenings at the Valentine Cafe.  Don’t miss them!

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