Child's Play is Good Business

Child's Play is Good Business

Catering to kids is a smart business move. That all-important menu distinction may just lie in a standout kids' program.

Children possess tremendous influence with their parents when choosing where to dine out. If your restaurant offers a memorable, engaging experience for the kids, the whole family benefits: Parents get to actually enjoy their meals, and the children will leave happy, looking forward to their next visit. Voila! Loyalty is born.

But implementing a successful kids' program moves beyond a cup full of crayons and a slice of pepperoni pizza. Today's kids are more sophisticated, and although their palates might not be ready for complex dishes, they may be up for more than chicken nuggets and french fries. Certainly, both parents and chefs are ready to move children's restaurant experiences to the next level.

Case Study: Kevin's Place

Kevin Quigley - Kevin's Place

Fast Facts

Kevin's Place,
Deerfield, Ill.

Serves: Breakfast, lunch and private parties

Capacity: 65-seat

Volume: $3/4 million annual sales

Kevin's Place decorates its wall with kids' art, forging a connection with each child and the restaurant's brand.

At Kevin's Place in Deerfield, Ill., owner Kevin Quigley has taken "kid friendly" to a new level. "When parents ask where they want to eat, their kids will say, 'I need to go see Kevin,'" says Quigley. How does he create such devotion? "I make them feel like they're the most important creatures on the planet," he says. He takes their orders, customizing them to their hearts' desire. He delivers their food. He checks in on them, getting down to their level and asking them how they like the food.

And they like the food—from mini milkshakes to Mickey-Mouse pancakes made with crushed Oreo Cookies, and from chocolate milk with whipped cream and sprinkles to housemade applesauce. For birthdays, Quigley doesn't serve cake. Instead, he lights up the mirrored ball, dims the house lights, and brings out a fruit platter with a candle in it. "Kids know that I give them fruit for their birthdays, and they love coming here—knowing that's what they get," he says. "This is their favorite restaurant because they feel special here."

Top 5 Trends in Kids' Meal*

  1. Nutritionally balanced children's dishes
  2. Fruit/vegetable children's side items
  3. Kid cuisine/haute cuisine/gourmet children's dishes
  4. Children's entrée salads
  5. Ethnic-inspired children's dishes

Tastes Good...and is Good for Them

The number-one trend for kids' meals, according to the survey in the box above, is nutritionally balanced children's dishes. From a parent's perspective, a child-friendly restaurant with nutritious kids' meals is worth returning to...over and over again.

Kelley Biondolillo, a registered dietitian, weighs in with these simple tips to give your kids' menu a creative nutrition makeover:

  1. Make it fun! Try picking a theme and name all of the items around it. For example, a circus concept with a Big Top Turkey (lean turkey burger on a whole grain bun), Trapeze Taters (baked potato wedges) and Jiggling Juggler (Jell-O cup).
  2. Make it delicious. Children usually prefer more simple flavors, but that doesn't mean bland. Offer a variety of dipping sauces for picky kids. Think: grilled chicken strips with Kraft Light Ranch Dressing, Light Dijonaisse (Kraft Light Mayonnaise mixed with a dab of Grey Poupon), Bull's-Eye BBQ Sauce and a sweeter option, like Kraft Raspberry Vinaigrette Fat Free Dressing.
  3. Stick with the familiar. Children like recognizable foods, most of which can undergo small changes to improve nutrition:
    • Replace fried items with their healthier baked versions.
    • Pair well-loved nutritious items, such as Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, with a fruit or vegetable side.
    • Swap refined grain items with their whole-grain counterparts, such as whole-wheat bread, whole-grain buns and brown rice.
  4. Offer a child-size portion of a few of your popular healthier menu items.
  5. Don't forget about dessert. Try adding more fruit and lower-fat options to the kids' dessert menu. Frozen 100% fruit pops are a fun idea. Sugar free Jell-O parfaits with fruit and low-fat yogurt are also loved by kids and parent-approved.
  6. Promote your new menu. Local parent clubs and organizations love to recommend great family-friendly restaurants with healthful options. Reach out to your local paper and online parenting communities.

Marketing Strategy Round Up

  • At Atwood Café in Chicago, a child's meal is $10, including dessert and a flavored milk "flight."
  • At Café on the Square in Asheville, N.C., Tracy Adler custom-painted small bowls, and uses them for her 4-ounce Yum Yum Dishes, which contain downsized desserts, such as crème brûlée ($7) and appetizers, such as hot crab dip ($9). In both cases, the child gets to take the dish home.
  • Dallas-based Boston's The Gourmet Pizza spruced up its kids' beverage menu with its Sour Apple Soda and Strawberry Melonade—both made in-house from a vendor's syrups and fizzy water.
  • Trattoria on Pearl in Boulder, Colo., introduced "Create Your Own Pizza" ($6) to its kids' menu. For each order, a server brings a dough-lined, individual pizza pan and an array of ingredients to the table. Young guests can choose from three house-made sauces and a dozen toppings to design their own pizza. Once completed, the child can watch the masterpiece slide into the oven, and then go on a kitchen tour while it bakes.
  • At Vong's Thai Kitchen in Chicago, Chef Arnie Tellez created the VTKids menu to introduce children to fun, healthful foods that reflect the restaurant's Thai cuisine. Among the choices are Miso-Glazed Chicken Satays ($4.95), Shrimp & Chicken Potstickers ($4.95) and Chicken & Rice Noodles ($6.95).

6 Ways to Make Kids Love Your Restaurant

  1. Link promotions to children, especially during slower periods. This will not only help boost traffic, it can create a buzz about your restaurant. A "kids eat free" promotion on Monday or Tuesday nights will make you a hero with the local community, as well as boost traffic on a traditionally slow night.
  2. Keep portions manageable for small hands. A small hamburger (2-4 oz.) is preferable to a large (6-8 oz.) one. Don't overfill the beverages since kids have a tendency to spill them. Fill them only half to two thirds full and offer refills at no extra cost. Most often a refill is not necessary, but will be perceived as a generous offer on your part.
  3. Kids need instant gratification. If you can't get their orders out ASAP, consider bringing out a few raw veggies with a dipping sauce for them to start on.
  4. Make everyone comfortable. Most restaurant seating is not designed for small children. If you have booths, seat them there—kids love booths. Try to seat kids away from other diners who might be bothered by little ones.
  5. Train your staff to cater to kids. Provide them with an incentive to serve families, or identify servers who are particularly good with kids and have them lead the way in providing great service to the families.
  6. Keep a treasure chest of inexpensive toys at the front of the restaurant. A small toy or puzzle will go a long way in helping both children and parents remember your establishment.
Child's Play is Good Business