A play date for moms, kids

Haven: A gourmet cafe and bakery in Ellicott City offers perfect blend of relaxation for mothers and fun for their children.

January 23, 2004|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

At Sarah and Desmond's Gourmet Cafe and Bakery, they climb the steep, pink, narrow stairs to a third-floor haven with worn-in beige leather couches and oversized paintings of flowers blooming in a riot of color.

Call it a treehouse for moms.

The coffee is strong, and the food is fresh at this cozy cafe on Ellicott City's Main Street. But the real appeal for the mothers who make their way to the top floor with a child in tow is the playroom and adjacent living-room-like space. It is here that mothers and children can part company for a couple of hours.

The third floor at Sarah and Desmond's has evolved into an informal hangout for mostly stay-at-home moms - a place to sit down, take a breath and sip a latte.

While the tots play with toys, the mothers enjoy coffee, pastries and conversation.

"The accommodations for mothers and children are absolutely phenomenal," Jennifer Pett said recently, sitting on a couch while her 2-year-old, Spencer, and a friend's 3 1/2 -year-old, Charlotte, romped in the playroom.

"I can yell down, `Can I have a pumpkin muffin?' and they'll bring it up," said Pett, who is seven months' pregnant. "It's like a play date in your living room, except someone will bring you a cup of tea and a muffin."

One look at the third-floor space and it is apparent that mothers and children have VIP status here.

In addition to the couches, the moms' room has a highchair, a rocking chair, a coffee table and a faded pink arm chair. A dollhouse, toy trucks and a child's desk are among the playroom attractions.

As the third floor filled with the scent of baking cookies, Pett got up from the couch to settle a dispute in the playroom.

"You need to share and be a gentle friend," she told Spencer.

For Pett's friend Sandy Parsons, the morning was a blur of activity. Her husband left for work at 6:30 a.m. Then she helped her 6-year-old daughter, Meghan, get ready for school. Then she woke up her twin daughters, Charlotte and Mackenzie, dressed them and made breakfast. Then she put Meghan on the school bus.

Later in the morning, Parsons took the twins for their first salon haircuts, then headed to Sarah and Desmond's. "I love it that there's a space for kids to play that's separate from the adults so we can chat and have adult time," Parsons said. "Sarah and Desmond have created an environment where we can feel comfortable just hanging out."

When Sarah Tennenbaum and Desmond Vogler opened the bakery and cafe in December 2001, they wanted to make mothers and young children feel welcome.

With two sons of their own - Jonah, 4, and Gabriel, 9 months - they know that taking young children to a public eating place can be a trying experience.

"We just wanted a place where moms could bring kids and relax while the kids play, and not worry about disturbing anybody else," Desmond Vogler said.

"People look at you funny, like `Can't you control your kids?' " Vogler said.

The couple decided to convert the third floor into a playroom, and Frank DiPietro, who owns the Mumbles and Squeaks toy store across the street from Sarah and Desmond's, donated toys.

Within the cafe's first six months, mothers started to trickle in, and soon they found their way to the third floor. It became so popular that some moms wanted to make reservations for play groups. But the owners rejected the idea, to maintain the informal feel of the place.

On some days, the small room is filled to capacity. On others, two or three moms have the place to themselves.

"Sarah was pretty adamant that nobody should be excluded," Vogler said. "We wanted people on the street with kids to feel free to walk in."

"Parents meet other parents, and kids meet other kids," he said.

Pett and Parsons, Ellicott City neighbors, said they visit the cafe about once a week, generally for an hour or two, sometimes longer.

"We really have had breakfast, a snack and lunch here before," Pett said.

Parsons said the regulars felt lost when the cafe closed for a few days during the holiday season.

As much as they love the muffins and the couches, the mothers who retreat to the third floor said they also appreciate the sense of community there.

It is a place to compare notes on parenting, on returning to work and on day care. And because the toys belong to no one, Pett said, the children seem to be on better behavior.

"I guess community is the best way to describe it," Pett said.

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