TAMPA — With a bit of chalk on a blackboard, Scooter Gabel unleashed a fury. Smudgy and handwritten, the sign that went up nearly two months ago says this: "For the comfort and safety of everybody, if you allow your child to run, scream or misbehave, you will be asked to leave." The owner of Cappy's pizzeria in Seminole Heights had had enough.
Although no one has yet been ejected since the sign went up, it has caused an uproar among Seminole Heights parents and diners, with as many people castigating the restaurant owner as applauding his courage. By Thursday, more than 105 commenters weighed in on a UC Tampa Magazine (Urban Corridor) Facebook account, the discussion getting heated and downright nasty as people balanced the tendency of "kids to be kids" with diners' rights to peace and quiet.
Nine months ago Gabel took a similar step, banning children from the outdoor patio. He says indoor diners were allowing their young children to frolic out back unsupervised, resulting in a dangerous situation and damage to his property.
"We have several fountains out there made by local artists, and kids were pulling out the grass and clogging up the pumps of the fountains. That's $100 for each new pump. Also, the fountains are very sharp, made out of crushed shell, and some of the pieces got broken. We can't replace those parts."
Gabel is not alone in re-evaluating his restaurant's relationship with the youngest diners.
The signs outside Beak's Old Florida Tavern and Steakhouse in St. Petersburg say "21 to enter."
Owner Jamie Farquharson said it's been that way since he built the place 5½ years ago on Central Avenue.
"It's our niche," he said. "It's a place for grownups. I love kids. I've got grandkids. But they don't belong in a bar situation."
Mike Vuick, owner of McDain's in Monroeville, Pa., made national news last year by announcing the restaurant would no longer admit children under 6. At issue? Crying and other toddler noise that disturbed fellow diners. Grant Central Pizza in Atlanta made news for posting on the menu that all crying small people should be taken outside.
In addition to restaurants, airlines, cinemas and resorts have established kid-free zones or instituted kid bans. A Whole Foods in Missouri has even offered child-free shopping hours.
Is this zero-tolerance a function of a growing number of empty-nesters and DINKs (dual income, no kids)? Gabel (40, no kids) doesn't think so.
"When I was growing up and we went out to eat, I had to sit down at the table and behave myself. If I had done the things I see, my mother would have spanked me publicly."
He feels that just because his restaurant is a casual pizzeria, parents' expectations of their progeny shouldn't be relaxed.
"I read one comment on Facebook that said they would never allow their children to misbehave at the Refinery. People determine what is acceptable behavior by the price of the restaurant. But if something is disruptive at the Refinery, it's also disruptive at Cappy's."
Marisa Langford, 33, a mother of three with another baby on the way, is a longtime resident of Seminole Heights. She says signs like the ones at Cappy's make her and other parents feel unwelcome.
"As a parent I'm already a target because I have three kids under seven. I see the eye rolls. At Cappy's, there could have been a "keep Cappy's safe" campaign or something posted that showed a little more respect for parents. The signs have slowed down my patronage of Cappy's."
She also cites vintage toys used as decor at Cappy's that prove powerful temptations for kids. Still, having paid her way through college as a server, she understands the challenges of serving young ones.
"You end up having to clean up more. And yes, there are parents out there who ruin it for other parents."
For Gabel's part, he's had numerous customers applaud his signs. On the other hand, he says, "If people have something good to say they'll say it to your face. If they have something bad to say, they say it on Facebook."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293.