Restaurants work (and play) to attract customers with kids monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Thinkstock

Restaurants work (and play) to attract customers with kids

Operators offer grown-up meals in smaller portions, interactive desserts and even kid-friendly happy hour

It used to be that restaurants had to please moms to attract families. But today, it’s all about the kids.

With more than 1.1 billion visits from parties with kids lost since 2012, operators who want to recoup visits need to take a fresh approach to meeting the needs of the under-12 set, according to global market research firm The NPD Group.

“Kids today are not like kids 10 years ago,” said NPD analyst Bonnie Riggs. “Doing the usual, the same, may not be as compelling as it once was.”

According to the latest research from Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD, kids begin making their own decisions about what to order at restaurants across all segments starting as young as age five. Additionally, nearly 50 percent of children order their own meals.

Although they are small, Riggs said today’s kids are “so influential in where families eat.”

While price/value and menu offerings remain the most important features for consumers choosing a restaurant, NPD found that “kid-friendly entertainment” and “kid-friendly features not related to entertainment” are also key, especially for kids under 10 years old. For older children, the decision is mostly about what’s on the menu.

With the economy on the upswing, visits from parties with kids have finally stabilized after years of declines, presenting restaurants with a new opportunity to win back these consumers.  

“With consumers having more money in their pocket, now’s the time to try to get some of these visits back,” Riggs said. “If you want [kids] in your restaurant, go a step above what you’ve done in the past.” 

The kids stay in the picture

While some restaurants make news for threatening to oust crying kids, often to the detriment of their business, other operators are taking a completely opposite approach, and instead employ creative strategies to lure parties with children.

At Oyster Bah in Chicago, building a future generation of loyal customers starts early.

“Every parent’s dream is for their kids to be adventurous eaters,” said Bill Nevruz, managing partner at Oyster Bah and a father of four children under the age of 10. “Part of the training process happens at restaurants.”

That’s why the kids’ menu at Oyster Bah isn’t standard children’s fare, but the same high-quality, fresh food offered on the main menu, only in smaller portions. Among the kids’ dishes, priced at $5.95, are wild Alaskan cod fish and chips, a locally sourced prime beef burger on a brioche bun, and a house-breaded and cooked à la minute whole chicken breast “mitten,” each served with a choice of steamed broccoli or fries. Older kids can get grilled Alaskan cod with sautéed broccoli and jasmine rice, priced at $9.95.

Nevruz and his team are so committed to catering to kids that they even invite them to happy hour, that twilight time typically reserved for adult drinking and snacking.

During happy hour at Oyster Bah, adults can get half-price alcoholic beverages and snacks, like jalapeno poppers, fried calamari and shrimp cocktail, while young charges can order from the kids’ menu for free.

Other kid-friendly comforts available at all hours include stroller parking, high chairs, complimentary Goldfish crackers and the option to choose a post-meal treat from a novelty toy chest.

That said, Oyster Bah is by no means a families-only restaurant. Nevruz said it’s typical to see the dining room filled with adults-only tables happily engaging in good food, drink and conversation right alongside parties with kids doing the same.

“Happy hour to us … is a neighborhood getting together for drinks and food,” he said.

Blue Smoke — the two-unit, Southern-centric restaurant part of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group — has been catering to kids since it opened its first location in New York City 16 years ago.

“We love having kids join us in the restaurant,” said general manager Jason Gore. “We know that it’s important, especially for the parents, to keep the kids occupied and put food in front of them quickly. For us, it’s all about keeping the kids happy so that mom and dad can also enjoy themselves without all the chaos.”

Kids under 10 years old can choose from a menu featuring a choice of a main dish, such as dry-rubbed smoked chicken or chopped pork shoulder; a side, such as pork and beans or collard greens; a dessert and a drink for $15. 

Then, there are “pig cookies.”

At the start of the meal, little diners are offered raw sugar cookie dough in the shape of a pig that they can decorate with sprinkles. Blue Smoke then bakes the cookie and serves it to the child with dessert.

Additionally, Jazz Standard, the club located below Blue Smoke’s flagship location, has a Jazz for Kids program that offers young jazz musicians the chance to perform on its stages on Sunday afternoons during the school year. 

The restaurant also donates $1 from every kids’ meal sold to “Operation Barbecue Relief.” Perhaps a testament to the appeal of the kids’ offerings, in 2017, the restaurant donated more than $5,000 through kids’ meals sold at both Blue Smoke locations.

Correction: April 10, 2018  An earlier version of this story misstated the number of visits from parties with kids lost since 2012. It is more than 1.1 billion visits. 

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