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How can we make the next generation of diners healthy and food-savvy? Help yourself to fresh insights and strategies direct from the 2004 RH Kids Marketing Conference.

Everywhere you turn, the news about kids and food is grim. American kids are fat and getting fatter. Equally frightening is the growing trend toward eating disorders and an obsession with weight among kids as young as eight. Ironically, the statistics for both childhood hunger and weight-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease also are on the rise. It's impossible not to be concerned.

With all that on the table, the 6th Annual Restaurant Hospitality Kids Marketing Conference took a fresh approach toward improving childhood nutrition. We celebrated the opportunity for families to enjoy healthy, enjoyable dining together and to improve the way kids relate to food.

From tag-team cooking with the father-daughter duo of Rick and Lanie Bayless to advice on building relationships with child diners; from making school cafeteria fare healthful and cool (no mean feat) to viewing eating and exercise through kids' eyes, foodservice professionals got the full skinny on how they can help kids and their parents to make smart choices and to savor the joy in dining. In the end, they went home with creative ideas, practical information, newly forged contacts, and renewed enthusiasm for shaping the next generation of diners into discriminating, enthusiastic, healthy ones.

If you didn't have a chance to join us in April at the Turnberry Resort in Florida, turn the page for a quick overview of the conference. Then be on the lookout in the coming months for the date and location of next year's conference and plan to join us. If you attended the conference, here's a handy recap you can use for reference—until we see you again next year.

What Makes KidsTick?!

Helping kids make healthier choices depends on understanding kids and making the right choices more tempting.

SHOWING OFF, KID STYLE: Celebrity chef Rick Bayless and his daughter, Lanie (top), showed how easy it is to feed kids. On the bottom, Kool-Aid Man made a personal appearance at the Kraft-sponsored opening night party. Allen Susser (middle) showed how tropical fruits can be a hit with kids.
MANGO KING: Even in an upscale setting, says celebrity chef Allen Susser, food should be fun and a celebration of life. If it is, kids will love the experience.

COVERING THE BASES: The Kids Conference tackled subjects such as obesity (above), featured celebrities including Kraft's Cheesosaurus, and got some no-nonsense advice from RH publisher Jess Grossberg.

STEAM TEAM: Chef demos were aplenty at the conference.

HOW IT'S DONE: If you wanted marketing strategies and practical advice on how to feed kid customers, you got it from (t. to b.) Kathy Alexander, Barry Busch, Dwayne Chambers and Monica Patanella.

This year's RH Kids' Marketing Conference made two things clear. First, no food is inherently bad. The keys to a healthy diet are moderation, portion size, and balance. Second, the way kids perceive food has to change before their eating habits can change, and every segment of the food industry must be part of that evolution. The trick is understanding what drives kids' choices (It's often not what you think!) and shaping the healthy dining experience according to kids' observations, preferences and expectations. Con-

ference attendees discovered that it's easier than they'd realized — and that ignoring the power of kids in the dining experience is a very, very bad idea.

Eating Out, Eating Well
Beard-award-winning chef, proprietor of landmark Chicago Mexican restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, and Day One keynote speaker Rick Bayless said many full service operators are rising to the task. “Independent restaurants are doing a good job; others are taking the easy way out.”

Bayless certainly doesn't take the easy way out at Frontera. He makes a point of offering a kids' menu that features quesadillas, enchiladas, taquitos and other authentic Mexican fare. “We try to keep things simple and give kids a sense of choice.” This philosophy is linked to his extensive travels in Mexico, where “kids eat the same things as adults, only in simpler versions. The U.S. is the only country where standalone kids' menus are typically found in restaurants.”

“Remember that many kids don't want to order from kids' menus,” warned Bayless, who shared conference cooking demo duties with his bubbly 12-year-old daughter Lanie. “Kids are more sophisticated about food now. They don't want to be talked down to.”

They definitely don't talk down to kids at Red Robin. The 222-unit gourmet hamburger chain has no choice but to be sensitive to the food and experience needs of kids. “We do 40 percent more business with guests under age 18 than anyone in our segment,” said Dwayne Chambers , the company's VP of marketing. He shared key results of proprietary research Greenwood, Colo.-based Red Robin recently conducted on the kids market.

One finding: Don't treat kids like kids. “They feel patronized when you do,” he said, “We found out that a kid's definition of a kid is ‘someone younger than me.' They don't want to be grouped with other kids.”

By design, Red Robin's kid-directed marketing is more intuitive than formal. “Don't always try to figure kids out, because you can't,” Chambers said. “They want to be individuals, yet they also want to fit in. Kids say, ‘If there has to be a rule, count me out.'”

Chambers offered conference attendees a checklist. “Do be sincere, do care, do be natural, do be respectful, do be fun, do have energy, do give them information and do empower kids,” he advised. Conversely, “don't try to be their age, don't try to be cool (they know you're not), don't use language you don't understand, don't embarrass yourself, don't talk down to them, and don't tell them what to do.”

“At Red Robin, we've learned that we can't be something were not,” Chambers added. “It has to come naturally. Otherwise, kids will figure you out.”

Fat's the Way I Like It
This year's RH Kids Marketing Conference coincided with the peak of media frenzy about childhood obesity. Presenters Kathy Alexander and Monica Patanella of C & R Research in Chicago put the problem in perspective.

“While the media is calling for radical change, our presentation is about how to strike a healthy balance,” Alexander began. She based her recommendation on findings from KidzEyes, C & R's exclusive online research panel.

Among the findings: “As kids age, they are less likely to eat healthfully,” Alexander said. The key influences? Parents are the biggest influence on kids' eating patterns, and 60 percent of KidzEyes respondents say their parents have rules about eating. “It's not that that kids don't know what's bad to eat,” Alexander said. “They just like to eat what's bad for them.” Patanella cited figures showing that kids know about nutritional labels, but don't really use them. Patanella said kids' reactions to public service ad campaigns underline the depth of the problem.

For example, 77 percent of KidzEyes survey participants are aware of the DARE anti-drug program, and 75 percent say it keeps them off drugs. The “Got Milk” campaign has an 81 percent awareness among kids, and 35 percent of kids say the ads have led them to drink more milk.

However, kid awareness of the nutrition-specific 5-A-Day program is much lower. Only one-quarter of kids are familiar with it.

Said Patanella: “Marketers should hit kids' emotional triggers and use simple messages to reach them” — something the DARE and Got Milk people figured out long ago.”

Teach Your Children
Eating habits of young Americans are becoming a national concern, and the experts taking part in the Child Obesity Panel at this year's RH Kids Marketing Conference are among those on the front lines of working on this growing problem. Panelists included Jennifer Beck , director of health and wellness at Kraft Foods; Gail C. Rampersaud , M.S., R.D., LD/N, assistant in nutrition research and education in the Food Science and Nutrition Department at the University of Florida; consultant Meg Chesley , an IFMA Silver Plate Winner (Foodservice Operator of the Year); and Catharine Powers , director of curriculum for The Culinary Vegetable Institute and Veggie U. in Milan, Ohio.

As Chesley noted, obesity isn't like the flu. It's taught, rather than caught. “We have parents who have not been taught about healthy eating trying to teach their children healthy eating,” she said.

Panelists made numerous suggestions regarding children's meals, including those eaten at home, at school and in restaurants. These include:

  • Advocate that all foods fit into a healthy diet
  • Stress balance and moderation
  • Offer healthful choices that will appeal to kids
  • Educate, so that parents know what choices they are making.
  • Form partnerships to educate kids and accomplish goals.
  • Market what you're doing well and show how it fits into a healthy diet.

Fantastic Food: Fun, Funky and Finished
Parents and foodservice operators can learn a thing or two about introducing healthy options that kids will crave from Day Two keynoter Allen Susser . Susser, who owns Chef Allen's restaurant in Aventura, Fla., extolled the flavor of the region's cross-cultural tropical cuisine. “Miami is hot in food and in culture,” he explained.

Susser's discussion and cooking demonstration focused on tropical fruits, not surprising, given that he's the author of The Great Mango Book and The Great Citrus Book. “Tropical fruits are part of the indigenous food supply. There are great diverse natural resources to go along with it.”

“As the community grows and develops, kids see what's in each other's lunch boxes,” he told the crowd. “Most kids don't want to be trendsetters, but if they see other kids eating something, they'll eat it, too.”

Susser elaborated on the spice box of flavors found in Palm Tree Cuisine and the tropical fruits that appeal to kids and adults alike: mangos, plantains, bananas and citrus.

Speaker Catharine H. Powers , M.S., R.D., shared tips for promoting fruits and vegetables that kids will eat. She provided a wealth of fun ideas to increase young customers' exposure to new fruits and vegetables and offered suggestions on bringing more fruits and vegetables into kids' menus.

“Research has shown that you have to introduce an item nine times before it is accepted by a child,” Powers told the audience. Kids like bite-sized foods, she said, as well as foods they can hold in their hands and foods that aren't messy. Of course, fruits and vegetables have to taste good, too.

Powers suggested offering kid-appropriate appetizers, including veggie kabobs, chips with fun salsas, and vegetable or fruit quesadillas. Dipping also appeals to kids: veggie fondues, savory dips for vegetables, and sweet dips for fruit will keep kids busy at the table. Menus might include vegetable tacos or wraps, fruit salsas or chutneys served as accompaniments.

In a lively presentation, complete with celebrity impressions, Rich Wayne of Strottman provided nuggets of information about the way kids think about nutrition and what restaurants can do about it. Strottman is a marketing and promotion agency that specializes in the youth and family markets.

Rich Wayne

Wayne noted that kids get one-third of their calories from restaurant dining and eat nearly twice as many calories at a restaurant as they would at home.

When it comes to kids' menus, choices are important but, Wayne pointed out, “Taste matters more than anything to kids.” In Strottman's research, kids' prevailing perception was “bad foods taste good; good foods taste bad.”

Wayne noted that many restaurants have made a limited effort to enhance the nutrition component of their kids' meal selections or to offer kids more menu choices. Often it's done on a substitution basis, offering milk instead of soda or fruit instead of french fries, explains Wayne.

He cited the menu strategies at Red Lobster: “CPSI (Center for Science in the Public Interest) applauded Red Lobster's new kids menu because it offers free fresh carrots and cucumbers as appetizers and features entrÈes such as grilled mahi mahi with steamed veggies on the side.”

In fact, Red Lobster's revamped kids' menu was a winner in this year's Best Kids Menu Contest and John Altomare , senior v.p of the 670-unit chain, shared some kid-friendly menuing strategies in his presentation. Red Lobster surveyed 3,000 kids and parents, and the result is a menu that targets kids 10 and under and that features more variety and more healthful selections than previously.

“We try to give kids an adult dining experience tailored to their needs, so we give kids an appetizer such as applesauce or veggies and dip. It keeps them involved in the meal, not just waiting for the entrÈe to come out,” Altomare explained.

The corporate chef from another Best Kids Menu winner, Denny's, gave attendees an inside look at how his chain developed its kids' menu. Charles Ray, Jr. said the idea is to mix more healthful options in with familiar favorites.

“For side dishes, we went for simpler basic items to encourage more healthful eating,” he said. Offerings now include grapes (“good when kids are also having fried food”), cucumbers paired with “Rowdy Ranch” dressing, and applesauce adorned with Teddy Graham “swimmers.”

How's it working? Ray said that 50,000 kids already have eaten from this menu and that changes to their ordering patterns have been significant.

“French fries used to be our number-one item,” Ray said. “With our D-Zone menu, french fry incidence is down 50 percent. Grapes are the second-most-popular side item on the test menu, with mashed potatoes also a big favorite.”

What Are They Thinking?
“Kids play an influential role in deciding where families dine out,” Technomic Information Services' executive vice president Mark McKeown told the crowd. “Generally, many parents put their children first and their own needs second. It can be more convenient to bring kids to a restaurant they choose, rather than forcing them to eat where adults are more comfortable.” That's why restaurants that don't cater to kids need to be aware of the current and future impacts kids can have on their business.

“The key,” he said, “is to make sure the menu is engaging to children of all ages and maturity levels.”

A kids' marketing plan is all you have to really think about if you're in the quick-service business, but the full-service operators attending the RH conference are really marketing to families, said Barry Busch, chairman of Topeka, Ks.-based Kid Stuff.

“The central focus of family marketing must remain on the child, while providing value to, and buy-in from, the adult(s) in the family mix,” Busch said. “You can't be all things to all people so you've got to establish clear objectives,” he continued, adding that kids' meal programs are brand-builders, not short-term promotional vehicles.

That's sound advice. Creating an experience that nurtures family interaction, supports balanced nutrition, celebrates the pleasures of the table and does so in a creative, enjoyable manner is a challenge worthy of culinary professionals. Your next generation of diners has arrived. Are you ready to step up to the plate?

Kids Menu Contest Winners

The winners of Restaurant Hospitality's 9th annual Best Kids Menu in America Contest were announced at the Kids Marketing Conference by RH editor Mike Sanson, publisher Jess Grossberg and Kraft Foods' business director Anne Ryan, representing title conference sponsor Kraft Foodservice. Winners in six categories are listed below. Two merit award winners also were given in each category.

A full report of the competition will appear in the July issue of RH. The winners are:

Upscale Category

  • Winner: Skipjack's Restaurants
  • Merit Award: Maxwell's on the Bay
  • Merit Award: Chandler's Restaurant

Hotel Category

  • Winner: Hard Rock Hotel Orlando
  • Merit Award: Four Seasons Hotel Chicago
  • Merit Award: Brookfield Country Club

Fast Casual Category

  • Winner: Burgerville
  • Merit Award: Fazoli's
  • Merit Award: bd's Mongolian Barbeque

Family Category

  • Winner: Denny's
  • Merit Award: Bob Evans
  • Merit Award: Fudpucker's Beachside Bar & Grill

Casual Theme Category

  • Winner: Red Lobster
  • Merit Award: California Pizza Kitchen
  • Merit Award: Mimis Cafè

School Self Operated Category

  • Winner: Islip Public Schools
  • Merit Award: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
  • Merit Award: St. Paul Public Schools

School Contract Category

  • No awards were given in this category

School Food Gets Savvy


School administrators got plenty of advice on how to feed kids at the conference. Tom McIntyre, publisher of FOOD MANAGMENT, sister publication to RESTAURANT HOSPITALITY, introduced a variety of savvy school experts, including vegetable expert Catherine Powers . Another was school foodservice consultant and former award-winning school foodservice director Meg Chesley. She outlined the challenges school foodservice faces today by noting how kids' expectations have changed.

“Kindergarteners today have eaten out, on average, roughly 1,000 times before they start school,” Chesley said. They're used to fresh, nicely prepared food given to them with fast, friendly service in clean, comfortable surroundings, wrapped up with extra touches that make a big difference in their experience.

Similar results turned up in a study of teens from relatively affluent areas who, when asked to name their favorites restaurant, chose In-N-Out Burger and Baja Fresh. Ten years ago, the answers were Taco Bell and McDonald's. The key words for these restaurant picks were that these places were “fresh” and “clean.”

“These kids want to compare school foodservice to these experiences, and they expect value for their dollar.” The hang-up: “we only get $1.50 to $2.00 per meal” to meet this expectation, but it can be done, Chesley said, by making a school foodservice operation fresh, fast, fun and familiar.

Even when these criteria are met, it's not easy getting kids to eat right when they're away from home, said Mary Kate Harrison, general manager for Hillsborough County Student Nutrition Services Department in Tampa. In fact, only 14 percent of kids meet the target of two fruit servings per day, and only 17percent meet the three vegetables per day target. “Finally,” she said, “our eyes are opening; we've got to do something about what we serve kids.” She cites poor menu choices, bad timing for meals, and inadequate time for meals as parts of the problem with school foodservice programs, and, as she noted, “It costs more to serve healthier foods.”

Harrison provided solutions learned through experience. For example, packaging has power. Using black salad bowls with clear plastic lids made salad sales triple. V-8 Splash and milk are popular beverages, especially since the schools switched to square milk boxes featuring SpongeBob SquarePants. “Those plain cartons are not cool, and kids don't like to drink out of them,” she said.

Harrison also found it effective to feature a healthy meals express line. “Business as usual will not build a healthy nutrition program,” she advised. As for making diets more healthful, “Make it sneaky. Use vegetable bases in cooking, add butter flavoring, use calcium-fortified juices, low-fat dressings, and eliminate palm and coconut oil products.”

Harrison warned, “We're all going to be paying for this problem (obesity) if we don't take care of it soon.”


The Kids Marketing Conference would not have been possible without the help of these corporate sponsors, who are as deeply committed as we are to improving the health and happiness of kids everywhere.

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