Getting families in the door

When it comes to landing business from the 38.1 million families in the United States, kids may be a restaurant's best allies, according to an education session presented at the Restaurant Leadership Conference. Co-moderators Ian Davidson of C3 Brand Marketing and Kevin Higar of Technomic used the breakout session to provide practical advice on capturing some of the $1.12 trillion kid-influenced spending that goes on in the U.S.

And guess what? It isn’t all about the food.

According to C3/Technomic data, graphically illustrated as the S.A.F.E. Wheel, Service (the S in S.A.F.E.) came in on top at 32%, followed by a restaurant’s Atmosphere (A) at 30%. “These are the operational and cultural elements that minimize stress when dining out,” Davidson explained. “A family wants to be treated with respect and feel comfortable making a little noise and a little mess.” Food (F) got a 25% piece of the pie, while Entertainment (E) earned 13%. To find the right “family fit” for your restaurant, choose one of these components and become famous for it, Davidson suggested.

Higar then presented a dozen concepts that were winning with families, each embracing at least one of the S.A.F.E. elements.

Jason’s Deli features a self-serve ice cream machine, with a friendly staff that provides assistance. Kids eat fast, so they can get up and create their own ice cream desserts while their parents relax and finish up their meal. “The autonomy makes kids feel empowered,” Higar said. And the chain’s healthy menu makes parents feel good.

Fritz’s Railroad Restaurant in Kansas City exemplifies great service. A hostess greets each family and engages them with their server. All the food is delivered by an electric train that chugs around the restaurant, and the server gets involved in the “game” of anticipating every table’s order and watching it be delivered. The staff is continually connecting and reconnecting with guests.

Babe’s in the Dallas, Texas area is housed in a barn, so it’s more than okay to be messy and noisy. Food is served family-style so there’s less stress over what to order. It’s a very inclusive atmosphere and customers of all ages feel part of the excitement.

Texas Roadhouse is super-attentive to guests. The host/hostess escorts families to their table and if it’s a first visit, the manager comes over to welcome them. “There’s a genuine culture of getting to know you and making a family feel comfortable,” noted Higar. It doesn’t hurt that kids can join in the fun of tossing peanut shells on the floor.

Naked Pizza’s atmosphere reinforces the value it puts on health and social responsibility. A large, colorful interactive digital board lets kids explore and learn about the healthy ingredients they can choose for their pizzas. The design encourages awareness and everyone gets involved in the pizza decision-making.

Red Robin engages young diners on several levels. The specialty soft drinks are a real draw and free refills make both kids and budget-conscious parents happy. Presentations like an onion ring tower impress diners of all ages. And the engagement continues at home; children can submit their recipes for burgers, beverages and other items to Red Robin’s online kids cookbook.

Chick-fil-A offers a nutritional tool as an app or on their website so parents can create a better-for-you meal online before they leave home. The idea is to vet the healthier choices and steer the kids toward them once inside the restaurant.

Puccini & Pinetti, an indy in San Francisco, gets the kids busy building their own pizzas while their parents are perusing the menu. They start with the raw dough, choose the toppings and watch the pizzas bake. “The activity builds value,” Higar pointed out. “The kids are engaged in something other than eating, giving parents more time to enjoy their meal.”

Legal Sea Foods offers one of the most extensive and varied children’s menus. Depending on their mood and age (and a parent’s pocketbook!), kids can order everything from a $4.99 hot dog to a $17.50 lobster. All that choice not only cancels out the veto vote, it helps educate young palates.

Eat ’n Park’s kids’ menu is very visually appealing and easy to navigate. The choices are color-coded according to healthfulness so parents can readily see the more nutritious items but the kids think it’s all fun. Innovation for all, stated Higar.

i cream capitalizes on entertainment value.The concept puts on a show, making ice cream in an instant before customers’ eyes using liquid nitrogen. A huge “wow” factor.

Burger King, like other QSRs, gives kids an activity kit to occupy them. The difference here is that theirs comes with an environmental message. Young customers can take the kit home, go on the BK website and help name a penguin—in addition to learning about wildlife preservation.

An effective family dining program allows kids to age up and adults to age down—whether it’s through the menu, embracing a social cause, activities in the restaurant or online or service and ambiance, Davidson concluded.

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