Meet the Parents

To win younger customers, avoid the kid’s tricks and focus on Mom and Dad

The days of crayons and chicken nuggets are numbered. Sophisticated, health-conscious young parents and their tablet-toting kids are forcing family-friendly restaurants to grow up. 

Merely keeping kids distracted long enough for Mom and Dad to wolf down a meal is no longer enough. The new restaurant toy box is filled with a creative mix of entertainment options that captivate children’s imaginations and allow parents to dine on their own terms. Savvy operators know that catering to parents can create loyal customers and increase business beyond the 20 percent of total restaurant sales made up by families.

“Parents today expect a more evolved dining experience,” says Ed Doyle, president of RealFood Consulting Inc. “They want to give their children a special experience they can’t get at home but they also want to enjoy themselves.“

Pampering the Parents

Take care of parents and the rewards can be fruitful. Forty-nine percent of parents visit family-style operations on a weekly basis, and parents are likely to return even when they’re not with their children, according to Technomic, a foodservice research company.

Many national chains are taking notice. Olive Garden made national headlines in February by offering free babysitting at various My Gym franchises. And select Chick-fil-A franchises offer a “Mom’s Valet” service that provides full-service dining, from setting up high chairs to organizing meals. 

Independent restaurants are also going the extra mile. At Crosby’s Kitchen in Chicago, owner Derek Rettell widened the entrance to accommodate double strollers and installed easy-pivot hinges that allow even the scrawniest of 5-year-olds to hold open the door for Mom. Inside, Rettell offers a complimentary stroller valet, a kids-eat-free policy from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and a build-your-own ice cream bar that has boosted dessert sales. 

“A restaurant like ours depends on repeat guest visits,” Rettell says, “so we took a long-term approach. We wanted to give families reasons to try us and then come back.” 

Play Time

Scott Wise, president and CEO of Indiana-based Scotty’s Brewhouse, spends more than $100,000 each month catering to children at his 11 restaurants. But he says the repeat business and alcohol purchases more than make up for it.

“These are good investments,” says Wise, whose restaurant perks include roaming magicians, balloon acts and face painters on Tuesdays and Sundays, his designated kids-eat-free days. “When parents are driving home from soccer practice and they ask their kids where they want to eat, they say, ‘Scotty’s!’ and it all comes back to us.” 

His littlest customers can dig around a toy chest for free small toys, but to keep older children and parents happy, he installed cable TV monitors in the booths, set up QR codes that link to music videos and is now devising a plan to allow diners to rent iPads. 

Still, not every restaurant needs to make the switch to high tech. Families that dine at the landmark Tavern on the Green in New York can order from a toy menu tied to the restaurant’s gift shop featuring unique wind-up toys, rainbow makers and kid-friendly books that double as take-home souvenirs. 

“In the past, it was less appropriate to bring children into this type of environment, but now it’s more common,” says Jim Caiola, the Tavern’s co-owner. “We are trying to acknowledge this need and make it a priority to accommodate diners of all ages.”

The Big Tip

Before making a restaurant more kid friendly by catering to parents, be sure not to alienate a core clientele group like singles or older diners who might not be thrilled to share space with the rugrat set. Shoot for slow nights or times when non-parents aren’t dining.

The New Playpens

At the Second Home Kitchen + Bar in Denver, General Manager Megan McGinness believes the families that play together, dine together. Every Sunday for the last three years, she’s converted her private dining space into a kid-friendly pajama brunch. Kids can hang out with beanbags, game tables, TVs and dig into a child’s buffet while adults dive into the DIY bloody mary bar, bottomless mimosas and brunch offerings. 

“The program has allowed us to attract more regular customers who then come back to dine with us for dinner,” McGinness says. “It’s created a great deal of crossover business.”  

Warren Solochek, vice president of client services and development for market research company the NPD Group, says a memorable impression is a branding tool like no other. “When parents go out with their kids and have a good time, they talk to other parents about it,” he says. 

But don’t stray too far from the restaurant’s core concept, Solochek says. If the operation has an open kitchen, find a way to boost children high enough to take in the action. If pizza is your strong suit, let children build their own pizzas at the table. 

Or turn part of an outdoor space into a giant sandbox like The Lot in Dallas. While parents play corn hole in the beer garden, kids play with pails, dump trucks and chalkboards. Managing partner John McBride originally built the kids’ space to avoid losing family business; now families are the focus of his business. 

“The more kids’ meals I sell, the more alcohol we sell,” McBride says. “It’s become an old-fashioned gathering space now. While the kids go off to play, parents chat. Everyone winds up happy.” 

Peter Gianopulos is a freelance writer and dining critic who’s always curious to see if  restaurants can keep up with his 5-year-old son.

Digital Exclusive 

Rise of the Mommy Blogs 

Keeping track of families’ evolving dining habits can be a difficult task. But this past May, PR technology firm Cision compiled a list of top 50 mom blogs, based in part on Twitter followers and inbound links. By monitoring recipe selections, commentaries and reader responses, operators can gain valuable insight into potential strategies. Here are three sites worth bookmarking:

1. Mom Blog Society: Collective wit and wisdom on what kids like and don’t like from a global network of mom bloggers. 

2. Cool Mom Picks: A pair of hip moms provide commentary on everything from fast food offerings and milkshake recipes to strategies to help your kids eat healthier. 

3. 100 Days of Real Food: Insights and recipes from a mom dedicated to the Real Food movement. 

The New Kids' Meal

Five tips for sprucing up the kids’ menu without losingstreet cred.

Rename It: At the Asian-inspired Mama Fu’s concept, kids are drawn to its Ninja Noodles (teriyaki chicken over noodles) and Dragon Tails (chicken nuggets) because of their names.  

Think Smaller: Tweak signature items for children’s palates. Burrito-focused chain Boloco offers kids mini PB+J wraps. SushiSamba serves baby bento boxes filled with purple mashed potatoes and sushi bites. 

End on a Good Note: At Barn & Company in Chicago, kid-friendly barbecue offerings are complemented by a rainbow of snow cones on the dessert menu.

Avoid Allergens: At Firewürst outlets in North Carolina, parents can order custom veggie dogs and sausages made without MSG, gluten and other common allergy-inducing ingredients. 

Play with Shapes: Take a cue from Disney World by fashioning breakfast staples and desserts into recognizable shapes, such as mouse-shaped pancakes or animal sugar cookies.