Catering to the kids is smart strategy for family dining brands
Another Broke Egg Cafe aims for menu appeal with kids and adults alike.
Dining with children can be quite an adventure. Is the little one going to quietly draw or play with a device or will they throw a tantrum and hurl food across the floor? It’s a guessing game most parents know all too well.
But restaurants looking to cater to children can do a lot of things to make that adventure a little less adventuresome.
Parenting expert, counselor and author Alyson Schafer has some advice for parents—and restaurant operators—looking to make the most out of dinner with the kids. And beyond her counseling and best-selling books, she just happens to have more than two decades of experience in the restaurant industry—so she’s seen it all from just about every angle.
Schafer said there are really four areas that can make the family casual dining experience not just tolerable, but something that both kids and parents enjoy.
Serve the kids, not the adults
Schafer’s most important piece of advice is to serve children authentically. They might not be picking up the check, but ignoring them or talking over them is still frustrating.
“We think about how to accommodate people in wheelchairs or who are blind, but we don’t always get training on how to serve children. So parents really like when servers treat kids with respect, like they are good restaurant patrons and talk to them and look them in the eye,” said Schafer. “You can train your wait staff to create that connection, anything that says, ‘You’re welcome and important.’ That relationship piece is super important to parents.”
That’s one thing Denny’s instructs its servers to pay attention to, especially as parenting gets further from the traditional “seen but not heard” motto.
“It’s important for servers to treat the entire family with respect, especially the kids,” said John Dillon, chief brand officer and SVP of marketing at Denny’s. “Today’s parents more and more consider their kids partners; a server who engages with the kids shows that even the youngest guests are valued, which makes mom or dad happy as well.”
Denny’s recently tweaked its kid’s menu to give kids more choices beyond the scrambled eggs and chicken fingers. The updated menu gives kids a lot of the same customization options seen in the traditional menu, but in a smaller size at a lower price.
“Not only does this approach to a menu help kids feel more empowered, it helps bring the brand to life in a uniquely kid way,” said Dillon.
Entertaining the little ones is key, too, but it’s not all about devices and iPads. Schafer said the novelty of entertainment grabs attention best.
“They appreciate it if there is something that you can bring to the table that the kid doesn’t have at home, whether that’s a deck of cards or those little placemats with crayons,” said Schafer. “It’s the novelty that makes it exciting.”
That’s why Another Broken Egg Café has a helium tank in every store. When a child walks in, they get their own balloon.
At Black Bear Diner, the cabin-themed diner decked with hundreds of carved wooden bears, the environment itself is entertaining, but founder and CEO Bruce Dean said he likes to keep it analog.
“We don’t do anything with the technological stuff like the iPad on the table. I think we’re promoting family dining, and what that means is families talking to each other. We do the standard with the crayons,” said Dean. “We try to reach back in time to a place where parents can have a meal while the kids are coloring.”
After tweaking its kid’s menu, Denny’s has more choices, smaller sizes and lower prices.
But don’t forget mom and dad
Giving kids respect and options is great for everyone, but when the little one orders a beer and the prime rib special, maybe check with the parents. “If they order an extra large Sprite, I’d say to the mom, ‘Is Sprite OK?’,” said Schafer.
And making room for parents’ desires is essential because while going to a kid-focused restaurant is great for birthdays or special occasions, not many parents are eager to eat chicken fingers and fries.
“There are more and more young professional parents that don’t want to go to Chuck E. Cheese’s and want to go to the oyster bar or a nice restaurant,” said Schafer.
At Another Broken Egg Cafe, the 69-location café brand based in Florida, that means having lots of options for everyone.
“There’s so many options. Most kids, they don’t have this upscale palate where they don’t want all these big trendy items, they want pancakes and scrambled eggs,” said Lisa Erickson, director of marketing at Another Broken Egg Café. “But we also have something fun for adults, too, and mimosas and Bloody Marys, everyone can be happy.”
She said the brand wants to cater to kids without being “one of those places that parents hate but kids love.”
Dean said catering to parents also means giving them a little time to relax. Across Black Bear Diner’s more than 130 locations they turn the music up a little so ornery kids aren’t all that embarrassingly loud and if they make a mess, it’s no problem.
“I try to create an environment where the folks can relax a little bit if the kids get fussy,” said Dean. “I don’t necessarily care if the kids drop food, we’re used to sweeping and vacuuming.”
Another tip from Schafer: Be mindful of speed. She advises servers to ask parents if they want all the meals to arrive together or if the kid’s meal should come first.
Keep the classics
The kid’s menu looks a lot more adult today, but plenty of kids only want chicken fingers and mac and cheese.
“I’d say parents do want to have a kid option on the menu. But sure there are those kids that won’t ever eat anything but chicken fingers or a grilled cheese, and every restaurant should have some variation of that,” said Schafer. “But don’t limit it to that. There are so many things that I would order if it came in a kid size.”
There has to be real value, too.
“It’s got to be priced well. Kids don’t eat much, so parents will get pissed off if they spend $26 on a kid’s meal,” said Schafer.
The value piece has a lot of casual franchises offering free dining for kids. Huddle House, for one, offers free dining on Mondays and Tuesdays; Denny’s has free nights, too. Another Broken Egg Café offers kids free meals, but with some smart marketing to boot.
“We do advertising in schools. So we will literally give 800 certificates to schools and they can give them out as they like either as a reading reward or something for the whole class,” said Erickson. “We see those come in all the time.”
She pointed out it’s a great value for parents, a great reward for the kids and a proud child asking to get a free breakfast is priceless marketing. And it just so happens, most parents get a meal, too, pushing adult traffic and higher sales by giving away a $6.95 kid’s meal.
Keep it clean
Above all, Schafer said parents want to know their child is safe and healthy. That means taking as much care cleaning up for the kids as wiping down the tables.
“I think parents are very concerned with hygiene, they now take their wet wipes and their hand sanitizers, and wipe down the grocery carts or the monkey bars, so they will look on disdain if you bring out a dirty booster seat,” said Schafer. “When you put that high chair at my table, I’d like to think you could sit there and eat off that tray.”