Even in the best of times, attracting families with children to dine in at restaurants can be a challenge. Add to that the eat-at-home trend spurred by the onset of COVID-19 and family friendly restaurants have their work cut out for them.
According to new report from marketing firm Acosta, “COVID Dining Journey: Eating at Home and Away from Home,” post-pandemic 92% of families plan to continue eating together at home at least as often as — or more often than — they do now.
To lure families out of the house and back into their establishments, restaurants like Atlanta-based Amici Italian Café have been working to find ways to adapt. Here’s how Amici is making it work:
Focus on cleanliness
“[Our restaurants offer] a comfortable atmosphere for families because we have room in our restaurants for children to walk, run around a little bit without fear they will be disciplined by their parents,” said Mike Torino, Amici’s chief executive officer.
While all 13 Amici locations, which are on the outskirts of Atlanta, have always had spacious dining rooms and outdoor patios featuring games — such as corn hole, bocci, and tabletop shuffleboard — that appeal to kids and grownups alike, during the pandemic these hands-on activities became less appealing.
“When the pandemic hit, no one wanted to use that stuff,” said Torino.
Going forward safety and sanitation will continue to be a key for consumers to be comfortable dining — and playing — in restaurants.
According to the Acosta report, even after the pandemic, 38% of diners say they will value safety precautions most when eating in restaurants.
“We’re still doing the safety things,” said Torino. “They see what we’re doing: cleaning. They feel comfortable in what we do and how we do it.”
Maintaining the menu
While the pandemic pushed many restaurants to drastically downsize their menus or shift to items that traveled better, Amici remained focused on its core offerings of pizza, wings, sandwiches, beer and cocktails.
“People really like comfort food, nice variety, good service,” said Torino.
When the chain did roll out a new menu in April, Torino says it was less about the pandemic and more about operational efficiency.
“Our goal was to reduce the number of items on the menu,” he said. “We were looking to see that [the items] we were doing were efficient, as effective as we can make them.”
Additionally, Torino said Amici customers continue to value “a good quality product at a reasonable price.”
Indeed, pricing will also continue to be an important factor in families’ decision to dine out, the Acosta report showed. When dining out in the future, more than half of consumers say they will be looking for lower-priced meal options.
This year started out slow for Amici, but they are gaining momentum and traction with diners, including seeing more bookings of children’s birthday parties, thanks in part to increased social media.
Among the many campaigns is one in which Amici is positioned as the “home for sports,” where guests can watch their favorite game on big screen TVs, and a Jumbo Wing campaign featuring larger-than-life wings in unlikely scenarios, such as in the Atlanta skyline, opposite a child on a seesaw, and atop a jet airplane in flight.
“We did an extraordinary amount of social media advertising to bring people back in,” said Torino. “And they have come in.”
Play areas reopen
A number of other indie operators are trying — and succeeding — at luring families back with places for kids to run and adults to imbibe within earshot. Here are a few:
Opened in April 2019, Craft Hall, FCM Hospitality’s dining, drinking and entertainment spot located inside a 35,000-square-foot warehouse in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties neighborhood, seemingly has all the pieces to solve the pandemic puzzle of attracting diners, especially families with young children. Think 500 indoor and outdoor seats, a menu of craft bread, barbecue and beer made on onsite (guests can actually observe the brewing, baking and smoking); and a host of activities designed for families, including a pirate-themed playground that is back open again.
At The Cove in San Antonio, Texas, owner Lisa Asvesta offers up menu of sustainable, organic and local Texas-themed fare — think tacos, burgers, nachos — and 60 Texas-brewed beers on tap for diners who like to “eat well, live well.”
Guests can dine inside or outdoors on the pooch-friendly patio, or at one of many tables conveniently located within view of the outdoor playscape for kids. The playscape had been closed during the pandemic months, but recently reopened.