Less than two weeks after the Center for Science in the Public Interest reported 91 percent of children’s meals at the biggest restaurant chains don’t meet the healthy standards set by the National Restaurant Association, the NPD Group reports restaurant visits by groups with children remained flat. Coincidence? Probably not.
Adult-only visits and total traffic actually increased by one percent last year, according to NPD, but for the second straight year, visits with children didn’t grow after three previous years of recession-related declines. The good news, says Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst, is this presents a great opportunity during a time when NPD is forecasting sluggish restaurant demand for the next decade.
“Getting families with their children back into restaurants is certainly one of the ways in which they can grow revenue and increase share,” she says, adding that cost is often cited by families with kids as the biggest obstacle. “Restaurant operators must understand their financial situation and reflect it in pricing of kids’ menu items and kids’ meals.”
Cost aside, providing healthy and appealing options also needs to be a priority, at least according to the NRA’s What’s Hot in 2013 survey. It cited healthful kids’ meals (third), children’s nutrition (fifth) and whole grain items in kids’ meals (10th) as three of the top 20 trends for the year.
According to CSPI, the vast majority of chain restaurants aren’t meeting the standards set by the NRA’s Kids LiveWell program. The consumer advocacy group says 97 percent of kids’ meals failed to meet even-stricter standards developed by its panel of health experts, which lists its basic criteria as meals not exceeding 430 calories.
“Restaurants nationwide are providing innovative, healthful children’s options to their young guests,” said Joy Dubost, the NRA’s director of nutrition and healthy living, in response to the CSPI report. The voluntary initiative Kids LiveWell has more than 120 restaurant brands on board, which Dubost called “significant momentum” for a program that launched 18 months ago.
Healthy choices aren’t the only way to win over kids, which usually means winning over their check-paying parents, too. Balloons can do the trick, like at Red Robin, while crayons and a paper tablecloth work wonders at Romano’s Macaroni Grill and Italian Restaurant.
SushiSamba has found a way to combine healthy eating with fun. It offers a comprehensive and nutritional kids’ menu—with items like a Baby Bento (grilled organic chicken, steak or salmon and purple potato mash, veggie roll and season fruit)—and includes take-home training chopsticks and a coloring page.
Previous data from NPD and Kraft Foods Group shows having family-friendly food and drink options matter even for microbrewery restaurants and brewpubs. Groups with kids now account for one-third of the patron base for that segment, and when those establishments offer kid-friendly options, per-party checks increase up to 22 percent, according to NPD’s data.
It’s part of the larger opportunity for all restaurants. Parties with kids contributed $84 billion and 15 billion visits to the industry last year, reports NPD. With overall restaurant demand projected to be stagnant, getting those families with kids back into restaurants will be key to future success. You don’t have to be Chuck E. Cheese to attract kids, but healthy, affordable and fun dining options better be on your menu.