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Finding opportunity in a baby-sitting room

For the first time in months, Mom and Dad are intent on taking the kids out for a family dinner.  But Junior starts screaming as they leave the house, and his little sister is wailing by the time they set foot on the driveway. Before piling into the SUV, Mom and Dad take in the scene, share a frustrated gaze, and mouth a familiar word between them: "Pizza."

Once again, the full-service restaurant loses business to the delivery guy.

Or not. Consider another scenario: Mom and Dad bring their fussy kids into the restaurant, drop them with the attendant in the babysitting room, then stroll off into the dining room where they can enjoy a meal by themselves. The kids get toys and food, the parents get time for a leisurely dinner, and the restaurant gets the business—and not just from the check. It's $7 a kid per 90 minutes sitting, $3 each additional hour.

Witness the opportunity identified by the owners of David's, an upscale eatery in Newburyport, MA. For David's, it's not exactly a new idea (they've been doing the babysitting several years now), but one that seems to be gaining currency today, when family time's at a premium and value-conscious customers might not pop for a fancy meal if there's a chance the kids might ruin it.

"It definitely helps business," says David's manager Shannah Hiatt, who estimates the service has boosted business by 10%—both by attracting new families to the restaurant and keeping their regulars returning frequently.

Dan Lowenstein figured the same thing recently when he started a babysitting service for restaurants in New York. During non-peak hours (typically Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday afternoons and early evenings), Lowenstein turns the spare room or nighttime lounge of the restaurants into a rumpus room, stocked with toys and games. After the kids down a quick meal with their parents, they're ushered off to the playroom by a professional caregiver, allowing the parents to kick back for a relaxing meal, an adult beverage, and some adult conversation. Lowenstein takes $10 a kid, and the restaurant, at least in theory, has guests it might've otherwise lost to the pizza guy. "It's a good way to manage the restaurant's kid business," he says, "along with its non-kid business."

"The reception thus far has been very good," says Judy Mahon, marketing director at Italian restaurant Trattoria Sambuca in Manhattan, which has hired Lowenstein three days a week. It's too early to pinpoint its effect on the bottom line, but Mahon says she's gotten positive feedback from guests, and numerous calls from people asking about the babysitting.

Back at David's, Hiatt has found that the service has helped business not just because parents choose her restaurant, but because their children do. "A lot of kids prefer it to the usual kid places," she says. "Here, they get special treatment."

Needless to say, for many operators, the restaurant business is hard enough without adding the babysitting business to the mix. Most significantly, running a competent babysitting service requires a dedicated space, and not every operator has it.

At David's, while management doesn't have to pay for extra insurance for its kid-sitting, it does have to pay the kid sitters. And other restaurants that have contracted the babysitting service complain that parents don't take any extra time to linger over a dessert or another glass of wine; they tend to finish their meals quickly so they can claim the kids.

Nonetheless, on-site sitting has meant new guests for some, and repeat traffic for others. "We don't have the service today," says Ryan, "but we've got a group in here now that just used it yesterday."

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