As a Durham mother, I was curious about Stay & Play Snack Cafe, a coffee shop geared to young children and their parents—the latter of which need adult conversation and caffeine.
After two visits last week with my 3-year-old son and 4-month-old daughter, I'm not sure that's possible. However, that likely has more to do with my parenting style and the ages of my children than it does the cafe.
Our first journey was on a Tuesday afternoon, and by the time I wrangled my crew to East Chapel Hill Street, it was already nearly 4:30 p.m., and the cafe closes at 5. Be warned: You still must pay the "cover" fee for children to play there that late, though the $4.50 charge is halved after 4 p.m. Also know that if you are not wearing socks, as I was not, you will need to purchase a pair for $2 to enter. Now I'm fortunate to have an extra pair of socks in my diaper bag.
I was surprised by the sparseness of the place. I had envisioned a space cozier, warmer and inviting, but then I realized that to keep it from becoming a complete germ fest—spit up, snot, slobber and the coffee that was sure to be spilled when kids T-boned their parents as they were raising their cups had to be easily cleaned—the interiors would require sleek, even austere materials.
Very few people were there, and my decaf was tepid. But the barista, if she can be called that (she is also a story reader, toy picker upper and disinfector) happily brewed me a fresh pot and the coffee was better than what I could make at home.
On this initial visit, my daughter was content in her car seat, and my son picked out a snack ($1) on display in muffin tins. His choice was, of course, fruit snacks, which were Target's house brand. Other options included raisins from the local Angel Nest Bakery, cheese cubes, carrots, flavored popcorn from The Mad Popper, chickpeas and mini Nilla wafers. He felt excited to choose for himself, and he was able to stay seated along enough to scarf them down before checking out the toys.
The majority of the cafe is consumed by a large foam pad with a medium-size play structure that looks like a train when fully assembled and gymnastics apparatus when taken apart. There were oversized building blocks, books and bins with puzzles and other toys the children could pull out at whim.
Other areas of the cafe include kitchen and workshop stations as well as art supplies. Kids older than 5 might have been bored, but for a younger crew it hit the spot. For an extra fee, art and movement classes are offered throughout the week.
One of my main concerns is that the winter cold and flu season is in its glory. There was a commercial-sized bottle of hand sanitizing gel at the entrance, and myriad artful tins nailed to the walls stored containers of hand sanitizing wipes. When she had a moment, the barista also wiped down the toys with a sanitizer, which warmed my heart.
That first visit taught me that I would probably love to go again, but that I should go at 4 p.m. for the discount and ideally meet another family there. It was nice to have a solid cup of decaf and let my preschooler entertain himself without fear of other children complicating things, for I am biologically unable to relax when my kids are in a large group.
This was the case the second time we went. Late morning, it was a madhouse. Unlike our first visit, there was no soothing music playing, and I could barely get my stroller through the front door. The place seemed packed with mothers who had no qualms about letting their children run free, but for the most part the peace was kept, though a toddler did wander over and throw his hands into our snacks before he could be wrangled.
I could eventually sip my caramel skim latte (which was quite tasty) and chat with a friend, because the place cleared out around lunch. I nursed my daughter comfortably, not worried my son would instigate or be victim to 3-year-old shenanigans.
A few criticisms: There is little more than Ninth Street Bakery muffins ($2.65) for grownups to munch on. I would have had no problem purchasing a wrap or cheese plate, and offerings like scones and fruit salad would have been a nice addition. Some parents had brought food, but that is supposedly frowned upon. My son enjoyed his organic juice drink, which we don't have at home.
I was deeply appreciative of little touches, such as the supply of nursing pads in the bathroom, and the fact that women who were newly postpartum could walk around with their postpartum bodies and wardrobes in good company. I had to smile at the mom who had on two different colored socks.
I have friends who thought it a bit pricey to be a regular outing, and others who said they loved feeling so accepted there with their rowdy brood. I know I could not sip coffee and chat during peak hours, but late afternoon is an apt time for our next visit.
Elizabeth Shestak is a freelance food writer for INDY Week.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Romper room."