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Grow Up!

As you’ll read from our wrap-up of RH’s Kids Marketing Conference and Best Kids Menu in America Contest, there’s never been a better time to serve the family market than now.


Eight years ago we created the Best Kids Menu in America Contest because we believed at the time that kids menus, in general, were not what they could be. The contest, we hoped, would help encourage restaurants to improve their kids offerings. At the very least, we knew it would help us find better kids menus that we could share with you.

Our search for the best kids menus in America eventually led to the creation of RH’s Kids Marketing Conference. It’s not enough to have a good kids menu, we figured, unless you’ve developed a good marketing plan that would draw kids and their families to your restaurant and its various menus. We can positively say that since the creation of the Kids Marketing Conference, kids menus and the marketing plans that support them have improved.

If we have any regrets, it surrounds our use of the word "kids." Too many folks we meet are overly focused on the word and on kids themselves. They fail to consider that kids don’t show up at a restaurant alone. They come with mom and dad. Go ahead and market to kids, but if your message excludes the overall family, it’s not as effective as it could be.

What follows is a wrap-up of our fifth annual Kids Marketing Conference, which took place in April in Orlando. It’s followed by the results of our eighth annual Best Kids Menu in America Contest. If you’ve got a great kids menu and marketing program, look for entry forms for next year’s contest in upcoming issues. And if you’re not leveraging the family market as well as you should, we’ll see you at the Kids Marketing Conference early next year.

Grow Up!

When kids crave the food and the experience,
there’s a big payoff in repeat family business.

A t many industry gatherings, program topics are so well-visited that speakers wind up preaching to the converted. But at this year’s RH Kids Marketing Conference, the converted were the ones doing the preaching. Chefs and chain executives alike expressed the unshakable belief that attracting kids and families is a pivotal factor in the success of full service operations.

Time and again, that was the message sent from the podium as the Fifth Annual Restaurant Hospitality Kids Marketing Conference had its three-day run at the Peabody Hotel in Orlando, Fla. The jam-packed program offered presenters from every part of the kids marketing spectrum who told attendees not just why, but how to market more effectively to families and kids.

The event’s keynote speakers were two chefs who saw the light on kids marketing a long time ago.

Universal Worldwide executive chef Steve Jayson spelled out the economic impact families have on restaurants right at the top of his presentation.

"Families with kids eat out more often than those without kids," he said. "Plus they eat early, helping out the traffic flow in your restaurant. It’s the kids who decide where the family eats."

He should know. Jayson oversees the feeding of 10 million Universal guests each year, riding herd over 63 restaurants and 200 food carts inside the 13-year-old theme park. His overall check average: $8.

Making kids and their families your customers—and keeping them as repeat customers—is the challenge, and Jayson spelled out what it takes to do so.

"You need these things to get and keep their business," Jayson said. "Great, relevant product; breakthrough communications; unbending commitment; insightful strategies; terrific packaging; and smart support programs."

Jayson and his team of chefs from Universal then whipped up a batch of kid-friendly menu items to show how just a little bit of imagination can make a good kids’ item great.

The conference crowd was wowed by his colored waffle cones for ice cream, especially when members saw how easy they were to make. "In the parks, it’s a fight to sell dessert, but the take-out aspect gets you that one extra sale that brings up your average check," he said.

Another item that had attendees buzzing was Jayson’s version of green eggs and ham. Dr. Seuss has already done the marketing for you on this one, but Jayson’s idea was to make mini-sandwiches using pureed herbs ("chives, tarragon or parsley—no food color") to color the scrambled eggs green. Add ham and some buns, put a bunch of these kid-sized sandwiches in a cleverly designed box and you’re good to go.

Kids menu staple chicken fingers also got the Jayson treatment. "Do something different," he advised, noting that he puts Fruit Loops in the batter for his version. Other cool kids items from the Universal kitchens included Rice Crispy Sushi and a pressed Macaroni and Cheese sandwich that’s served in hollowed-out French bread.

These items look cool to Universal’s accountants, too.

"We can get a little more because of our ‘captive audience,’ but our guests can easily leave the park and go to chain restaurants or other places if they think our prices are too expensive," Jayson said. "So we don’t gouge our guests. Our costs of goods on food is 27-28 percent. It’s 20-21 percent if you include the beverage part of the business."

No matter how clever your finished kids’ item, he counseled, "try and hit a 30 percent food cost and just recapture the cost of any specialty packaging."

It’s not every day you see a James Beard Award-winning chef cooking corn dogs live on stage. But that was the finale for keynote speaker Jasper White.

"My market is families," said White, who walked away from his Boston fine-dining landmark Jasper’s in the mid-1990s and now operates three Summer Shacks. The concept is an over-the-top New England clam shack, with a seafood-based menu and 300 seats.

How did a guy like White get into the clam shack business? "I was in Seattle at a world-respected hotel and got the worst treatment with my kids," he recalled. "I made it a goal to do a place where kids and parents can both eat well."

White’s operations certainly do well, collectively raking in $20 million a year. And if you eat at a Jasper White’s Summer Shack restaurant, you’d better be ready to pass your food around the table.

That’s because when guests sit down, "we start them with stacks of 8-inch plates for sharing. The best way to feed children is to share," he declared.

White’s customers might as well pass their food around, because they’re all ordering off the same menu anyway. Summer Shack doesn’t offer separate ones for adults and kids.

"On my menu, kids items are interspersed with regular items," said White. "I think that restaurants should offer kids menus that reflect what the restaurant does best."

That’s definitely the program at Summer Shack, which features a straight-ahead New England menu that runs the gamut from lobster to corn dogs—fresh ones made with gourmet-level hot dogs. But doesn’t White worry that adults will order less-expensive items that are nominally aimed at kids?

"For every adult who orders a kid’s meal, a kid orders an adult meal," he says. "Half of the corn dogs are eaten by adults; 12-15 percent of the lobsters are eaten by kids," White said.

His check average is $28 because he serves so many lobsters. "It’s $20 without the lobsters."

As someone who brings the sensitivities of a fine dining chef to the casual dining scene, White has plenty of opinions on serving families and kids.

"Kids have, mostly, the same priorities as adults," he said. "Service, atmosphere, music, food, and kid stuff are all important to them."

And don’t automatically assume that kids will only respond to the handful of items that dominate most kids menus today. "Do dogs like dog food?" White asked. "If you put down dog food and a T-bone steak, the dog will take the steak. It’s the same with children. Because they will eat something, we think they like it. Don’t be afraid to be adventurous on your kids menu."

Ambiance matters, too. "We made Summer Shack so it looks like you could hose it down at the end of the night. Guests eat at picnic tables. It’s important because it means no dirty looks from parents when their kids make noise or run around."

The biggest bonus about drawing a lot of families with kids? "Families leave by about 8 p.m. The best thing about kids and families is that you do 30 percent of your business and the night has just barely begun."

SBC Advertising v.p. Ken Brown said another challenge for operators is how to attract kids without blowing your marketing budget, alienating adults or sacrificing your brand. That’s what his Columbus, Ohio-based agency faced when it crafted a kids marketing plan for Bob Evans Restaurants.

Your choices are to "either overtly market to kids, or else market to your core customers and then manage the kids behavior when they come along," Brown said.

He counseled operators to, first, analyze every touchpoint where kids and parents interact with a restaurant and its staff. Then refine them to reflect your kids marketing message.

Food matters, too. "If kids aren’t ‘wowed,’ design a plate that will make a child’s eyes get big when you set his or her plate in front of them," he pointed out. "And don’t overlook desserts. They are the easiest ‘smart nag’ moment to create.

"Remember, you don’t have to be a kid brand to be kid friendly," Brown concluded.

Maybe the best way to begin upping the kid-friendliness quotient at your operation is to take a hard look at the kids menu and marketing program you already have in place. That’s what 220-unit Country Kitchen family restaurants did, said Jim Pedersen, the company’s v.p. of marketing.

"We had a character named CK Bear," Pedersen said, "but CK was in constant hibernation. There was nothing really special about him and he was unevenly presented and promoted." Country Kitchen opted for a revamp with a livelier message. The company created a kids menu which aimed to do four key things:

• Generate excitement all the way down the line.

• Link to something bigger, something kids could identify with.

• Hit all day parts

• Have an educational element.

Working from these guidelines, Pedersen came up with the "Endangerbles," characters representing animals on the endangered species list. Then it wove them into action-filled stories that take children on adventurous journeys designed to illustrate the value of saving the planet.

The Endangerbles now appear everywhere on Country Kitchen’s kids marketing collateral. To date, sales in the kids category have gone up 40 percent in all day parts. "We had to take a lot of risks to get this return," Pedersen said.

But sometimes circumstances dictate that you have to take big risks. That’s the situation Kimpton Hotels found itself in after the terrorist attacks on New York City. The company operates 37 boutique hotels and 35 full service restaurants across the country. Its restaurant concepts span the full service spectrum from moderately priced bistros to temples of fine dining.

"Post-9/11, we had to get kid-friendly, fast," said Andrew Freeman, vice president of restaurant sales and marketing. He noted that occupancy at some business-travel-driven Kimpton hotels fell 50 percent in that period. He noted that where previously the hotel side of the business had carried the restaurants, the restaurants had to carry the hotels post-9/11.

Because each Kimpton property is unique, "we couldn’t roll out a cookie-cutter marketing program that worked for everyone," Freeman noted. That didn’t prevent the chain from unleashing a blizzard of kids marketing programs tailored to each of its 35 restaurants, up to and including a Little Iron Chef competition at Cafe Pescatore in San Francisco.

No matter what you do for kids at your restaurant, be careful who you put in charge of doing it. "You can’t force passion," Freeman said. "Find something to do that the people managing your restaurant are passionate about. Devote someone who will really enjoy building a kids program and start tomorrow."

Tomorrow should be good to those who can effectively market to kids and families, according to a pair of trend trackers who spoke at the RH Kids Conference.

Steve Kraus of consumer research firm Yankelovich Partners told RH Kids Marketing Conference attendees that consumers now have a "bifocal mindset. Up close, there’s personal optimism. Further away is a climate of uncertainty," he said.

Kraus pointed out several major consumer trends.

Family friendly. Kraus said that lousy economy or not, going out to dinner remains a popular—at 96 percent, nearly universal—activity. "Focus on marketing activities that will keep your restaurant at the top of families’ ‘consideration set,’" he said.

The affluent attitude. "Even the average person has come to have the expectations of the affluent," Kraus said. This means you have to cater to the customer’s need to feel special. "Use your creativity to serve up an affluent experience at a family friendly price."

Keeping it Fresh. "We’re not seeing an automatic retreat to the familiar," Kraus noted. However, "keeping it fresh" is not the same as constant change. "Authenticity matters," he declared.

EPM Communications headman Ira Mayer noted several social forces that are having a strong impact on the teen and tween market.

"Right now, anxiety colors everything," Mayer said. "It’s biggest in New York City, Washington, D. C., and Los Angeles. This means that edgy is out. But kids are very resilient."

He also identified a force he labeled "Aspirational marketing or age vs. lifestyle deficit." This causes older teens to dislike the term "teen" or "teenager," while tweens and 12-13-year-olds do like the term "teens." The upshot: "Products with ‘teen’ in the name should focus on tweens."

Mayer cited one key trend that will soon impact restaurants: "De-consolidation. Conglomerates are falling apart," Mayer said. "Restaurants need to have more personality. Dig deeply into your restaurant’s uniqueness and make sure you show that uniqueness in the name, menu, environment and marketing."

Mayer also cautioned attendees about the importance of what he dubbed "experiential marketing." "Unless it’s takeout, you’re not just selling the food."

They sell a lot more than food at Ruby’s Diner, said Lowell Petrie, v.p. of marketing for the 37-unit chain, where families are a huge focus. "Thirty-five percent of all parties at Ruby’s include kids and 34 percent of total sales come from parties with kids," he said.

"Thirty-four percent of the time, kids choose where they eat," Petrie said. "And ninety-one percent of the time they are consulted. I’d also note that 71 percent of mothers with kids under 10 are more influenced by their own children than by advertising.

"Because parents have less time to spend with their children, they are less willing to let family time be compromised by small disagreements. Thus children are getting to choose where the family eats."

To attract these families, Ruby’s emphasizes sparkling clean restaurants, clean-cut teen employees, user-friendly kids portions and entrees, and a service sequence that’s in tune to the time schedules of families. "We’re aware of how long it takes with kids before they start getting antsy."

As marketing vice president at New York City’s Mars 2112, Sylvia Gamble Winrich’s job is to fill up a 35,000 sq. ft. facility that has 500 seats. Even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, she’s been able to pull in $20 million a year for the Martian-themed operation, where the check average is $18.50. The key: Families and kids.

"We get a lot of tourists here, but our marketing challenge is to generate 35 percent repeat business," Winrich said. "Our strategy is to have consistent food plus a fun and interactive staff. At our restaurant, mom and dad can relax and eat while the kids play."

It’s just more testimony to the value that properly executed kids marketing and family marketing can have to full service restaurant operators.

The Best Kids Menu
In America Contest

A keynote speaker at this year’s Kids Marketing Conference was Jasper White, the chef/owner of Jasper’s Summer Shack in the Boston area. Jasper is a world-class chef who, for years, operated a highly acclaimed white tablecloth restaurant. Now, at three units of his popular and casual Summer Shack, Jasper is serving classic American fare for families. The Summer Shack does not have a kids menu.

Wait a minute! No kids menu? You really don’t need a kids menu, Jasper explained to the full house at the conference. What you need, he says, is to treat your kid customers with respect, give them plenty of fun and good menu choices and create an atmosphere that will keep them entertained.

He’s right, of course; although it doesn’t hurt that Jasper serves an amazing corn dog and has a monster lobster tank that draws kids like a magnet. Nevertheless, a kids menu can be a very good thing. If constructed properly, it will quietly, and maybe even loudly, suggest to your kid customers that they are special. And that’s exactly what we honor each year with our Best Kids Menu in America Awards.

Take a look at this year’s winners and you’ll find that they accomplish what any good family restaurant must have—a place where kids are treated with respect and the menu choices are fun and served in an entertaining atmosphere.

Fazoli’s * Winner, Fast Casual
Fazoli’s blew away the competition in this category by proving that a fast-casual concept can successfully implement a fully integrated kids menu and marketing program that delivers a rewarding family dining experience. The 425-unit concept did this by understanding that a fast-casual dining decision is often parent-driven. Therefore, its kids program targets parents as much as it does kids 4 to 8 years old.

Its menu is one both kids and parents can be happy with: Pizza, several types of pasta and unlimited breadsticks. The same applies to its custom-made education-based toy that comes with every kids meal. What parent wouldn’t want their kid to have a toy related to a classic, School House Rock, or the National Wildlife Federation.

In addition to Fazoli’s partner promotions, it has also created its own character—Noodle—a rocket-powered, skateboarding dog. As promotions come and go, Noodle will remain an enduring connection to the brand.

In addition to its character-based promotions, Fazoli’s sets aside every Tuesday as "Kids Night," where a section of the restaurant is devoted to kids who participate in craft-based projects lead by a Fazoli’s employee. Parents can participate or relax and enjoy a meal knowing that their kids are being taken care of.

This is the sort of kid- and family-based marketing program that sets the bar for other fast-casual concepts to shoot for.

Country Kitchen * Winner, Family Category
The 220-unit Country Kitchen family chain had a kids marketing program, but it lacked "pizzazz," says Jim Pedersen, director of national marketing for the Madison-based concept. "We looked at your (RH’s) coverage of last year’s kids menu contest and realized we need to make a major commitment to completely revitalize our kids menu and marketing program."

Country Kitchen eventually settled on a new kids menu theme based on animal characters called the Endangerbles. The characters—created by the same guy behind Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—represent animals that are on the endangered species list.

Each kids menu features a group shot of the Endangerbles, and each character is assigned to one of the 10 kids menu offerings. Some old menu items were removed, and new ones were added with the thought that each had to be nutritious, fun and work at all day- parts. "It was when we saw the kids in our restaurants react to the menu that we knew that we had a winner," Pedersen said.

The old kids menu was "buried" in the adult menu, says Pederson. The new kids menu became a place mat that creates an instant "wow" response from kids. To augment its new kids menu, Country Kitchen created a collectable Endangerbles Kids Cup. Kid drinks have doubled since its introduction, says Pederson.

The 60-year-old family concept is expecting an even greater response to its Endangerbles Kids menu because the characters began appearing on the Discovery Kids’ Network, and are also sold as toys, games and videos.

"We believe that today’s kids don’t just want to walk into a restaurant; they want to walk into an event. It has to be something special," says Pederson. "We believe we have accomplished that."

Silver Diner * Winner, Casual Theme
Half the battle is won before kids ever get to the door of a Silver Diner unit. The neon and chrome of these 1950s/1960s diners is dazzling. And kids are dazzled again when they sit down and before them is a colorful cardboard Silver Diner "Classic Cruiser" car, which contains the kids menu, crayons and a package of crackers.

That alone would be enough to win over most kids, but the 12-unit Rockville, Maryland-based chain also holds a "Kids Appreciation Night" once a week with clowns, magicians, contests and games. Throughout the year, it stages coloring contests, Halloween costume contests and behind-the-scenes tours. The chain also has a mobile Silver Diner that is driven to events, such as regional soccer tournaments, where it promotes the restaurant to kids and hands out dessert coupons.

Its growing popularity with kids resulted in a 19 percent increase in kid menu sales last year, and that’s the sort of profit the mobile Silver Diner can drive to the bank.

Claim Jumper * Winner, Upscale
Thirty-unit Claim Jumper restaurants offers two menues for kids: One for the 2-8 age group and another for the 8-12 age group. The beautiful thing here is that the designations are related more to portion size, meaning kids in both groups are mostly eating the same top-quality menu items their parents are, but in smaller portions. The "Little Jumpers" menu does consider the less-mature palates of children in the 2-8 age group, but the "Junior Jumper" menu is there and waiting when palates mature.

The level of drinks this Irving, California, chain serves to children is also more sophisticated than most. Consider, for example, CJ Punch, which is a combination of freshly squeezed orange, pineapple and cranberry juices, or the Barracuda, which is another blend of fruit juices.

Claim Jumper also takes into account that children can be impatient, so it has implemented a "Phone-Ahead For A Table" program, where parents can call ahead and have their name placed on a waiting list. For families who do come in and must wait, there’s a checkerboard table in a comfortable lobby. And, just off the lobby, pizza chefs entertain kids with their dough-tossing skills, and they often invite kids to make their own pizza with a small piece of dough.

The chain also invites kids to design their own version of a Claim Jumper restaurant, either the inside or out, on the back of each menu. A monthly winner is selected, and the drawing is published in Claim Jumper’s full-color newspaper. The winner also gets a $25 gift card.

Students and classes are also invited to submit projects relating to the California Gold Rush of 1849. The winners, along with teachers and parent chaperones, are treated to lunch at their local Claim Jumper.

Is it any wonder why the chain recently celebrated its 25th anniversary?

Four Seasons * Winner, Hotel Category
As you might expect from a Four Seasons Hotel, kid guests get first-class treatment from the minute they enter the door. Particularly impressive are Chicago Four Seasons’ healthful kid offerings, such as chilled fruit juices, chicken noodle soup and a "rainbow" of cantaloupe and honeydew melon.

Kids eat well at Four Seasons, but they also have fun. In a lounge, just off the restaurant and in sight of parents, kids can visit the Harry Potter Castle, a kid-size wooden castle where they can color, take pictures with an instant camera, play with stuffed animals and generally hang out while mom and dad relax at the table.

The Chicago Four Seasons takes care of its kid customers exceptionally well outside the restaurant. How about a visit from "The Ice Cream Man," who pushes an ice cream cart to guestrooms where kids can choose from a variety of ice cream flavors that can be decorated with toppings, such as rainbow sprinkles.

The hotel also offers a "Kids For All Seasons" package that includes a visit from the Ice Cream Man and a variety of deals and discounts with area businesses, such as American Girl Place and FAO Schwarz, and attractions, such as the Chicago Historical Society and the Hancock Observatory.

At Four Seasons, Chicago, kids are treated like V.I.P.s.

Clear Creek I. S. D. * Winner, School
Located in League City, Texas, Clear Creek Independent School District consists of 36 schools serving nearly 32,000 students. For years, the district’s foodservice program operated at a significant loss. In 1997, it partnered with ARAMARK School Support Services, and meal participation increased more than 27 percent, while top line revenues have increased 34 percent.

A focus on food has made all the difference, says the district’s marketing manager, Julie Spreckelmeyer. New, creative recipes and menu promotions created a ton of excitement that brought the program back on its feet.

The backbone of the program was the creation of 250 new kid-friendly recipes, which were approved by a Student Nutrition Advisory Council for taste and cultural diversity. The number of daily side dishes, entrée and a la carte selections increased dramatically, giving kids at least double the number of choices.

Clear Creek’s secondary dining areas resemble a food court where kids can choose from The Grill, The Deli, The Pizzeria, The Tacoria and The Express.

The school menu is significantly more healthful than it was, with heart-healthy and vegetarian items on the menu. Also available are a variety of low-fat snacks. Spike, a "nutrition mascot," encourages elementary school kids to eat a nutritious lunch through various promotions.

Overall, Clear Creek’s school lunch program is about as comprehensive as it gets, which explains why top line revenues have gone through the roof.

Congratulations to all the winners in this year’s Best Kids Menu in America Contest.