It was May, 2007. I had taken the leap from corporate-working-mom and become a stay-at-home-mom the previous August. After months of venturing out on my own to eat at restaurants with my kids, I quickly realized that restaurants didn’t want my business. They didn’t want me to come into their restaurant with a group of 12. Mostly, they didn’t want kids, irregardless of how they behaved, and they made no apologies for it. My search for kid-friendly restaurants in Orlando and beyond had begun.
After that day in May, I got online. For the millions of Americans who get online everyday, you know the wealth of information available. But after that day in May, at that restaurant that didn’t want my business, I searched and searched for restaurants that did. I used every key word combination I could find and never found a list I felt was legit. But mostly I never found a defnition of a kid-friendly restaurant. Rather than pull one out of the air, I started the task of identifying what is important to parents when they take their kids out to eat both with interviews and with a survey. That’s how we discovered what a kid-friendly restaurant is.
We learned a lot including the fact that parents will pass restaurants that aren’t kid-friendly and drive to the ones that are. We learned too that like myself, a lot of people don’t think there are really many kid-friendly restaurants. There are restaurants that possess things like kids’ menus and highchairs or offer a kids eat free night but what we learned most is that having those items does not deem a restaurant kid-friendly, just more kid-friendly than a restaurant that doesn’t.
So, you ask, what is a kid-friendly restaurant? At the top of the 30 attributes a kid-friendly restaurant provides activities for the kids. Not just a coloring book that typically can grab a child’s attention span for all of 12.3 seconds, but stuff that keeps them busy. It can be anything. Cracker Barrell puts those peg games on their tables. Chili’s has a pretty good activities book that has stuff for kids of all ages to do. American Pie Pizza Company has a screen and video games for the family to play at their tables. Houston’s gives kids an etch-a-sketch. Some restaurants give pizza dough or have Kids Make Their Own Pizza promotions. The beauty of “activities for my kids” is that restaurants can offer something unique to their brand that other restaurants aren’t doing and have it contribute to a positive dining experience and a reason for the family to come back again.
A big piece of the kid-friendly puzzle is SERVICE! SERVICE! SERVICE! You hear it all the time but why are restaurants not doing it? The family experience at a restaurant begins with the first interaction at the front door. If the hostess greets a family with a rolling of the eyes, the server doesn’t acknowledge the kids during the introduction, and the family was forced to fetch their own highchair, all within the first 5 minutes, how do you think the rest of the experience is going to go? Over and over again parents have told me, “they don’t even acknowledge my kids,” and “I feel unwelcome when they see me walk in with my kids.” Last month we conducted some interviews with families as they left restaurants that were supposed to be kid-friendly. We would ask how everything was and get the typical “it was ok” response. When we asked if the server spoke to their kids, 100% of them said no.
Another piece of the puzzle is also menus, not just the kids’ menus but the ‘adult’ or main restaurant menu. Kids’ menus as a whole have not changed for many years. Restaurants say that parents don’t order anything other than the traditional items like chicken fingers and grilled cheese. Parents say they want to see healthier menu selections for their kids. No, they may not order it every time but they want to see it as an option, and oh, by the way, it needs to taste good. In addition to that the adult menu needs to not only have a good variety, but value, and healthier selections as well. Drinks. Drinks on kids’ menus have been even slower to change than the food. WIth so many drink options out now I really struggle with understanding why restaurants don’t offer something other than juice and soda – they are both usually filled with sugar. Why not some flavored sparkling water? Even the big box grocery stores sell that. Kids’ menus are also about the activities, not just the food items. As mentioned previously, if a kids’ menu has a 12.3 attention span rating than what’s the point?
I could go on and on all day about what a kid-friendly restaurant is and what restaurants can and should be doing, and how simple it is, to turn families into loyal fans. Instead of doing that, let’s consider this first excerpt as Chapter I – the Introduction.
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Cheesecake Factory, PF Chang’s, and Daily Grill are the most recent chains to explore the world of the kid’s menu. According to Nation’s Restaurant News, they are the latest in the more upscale restaurant category to try and lure in family consumers. http://bit.ly/WUaw8
As experts in kid-friendly dining, including kid’s menus, I wonder what homework they have done to create these menus and how they will be executed. As one blogger noted, they went to one of the Cheesecake Factory locations in California testing the new kid’s menu and had to ask for it 3 times. I am looking forward to review the actual content of their kid’s menus and hearing the reviews of the diners who experience them. From what I have learned so far it sounds like BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse is on the right track.
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