Casual dining restaurants, in an attempt to get more families to dine out, are scrambling to counter a tendency by budget-pinched parents to leave their children at home when they go out to eat.
Case in point: The Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro have added kids’ menus. And while P.F. Chang had previously offered some kids' items that servers would suggest to parents, the chain felt that not having an actual children's menu made parents think that their kids weren't welcome.
Don’t get me wrong. I am in no way suggesting that restaurants that cater to families shouldn’t continue to make kids and their parents feel more welcome, especially at a time when the casual dining sector is losing more and more market share to fast-casual chains like Panera. Nor am I suggesting that there aren’t plenty of family restaurants that already do a great job of that.
My question is this: How much does a restaurant risk losing its core audience of adults who seek an adult-first dining experience if the restaurant undercuts its brand experience by pandering to families with kids?
Personally, I do not want to drink and dine next to tables filled with screaming kids.
When my wife and I and our friends are looking for a relaxing and upscale dining experience at restaurants like P. F. Chang's, Cheesecake, Season’s 52 or any of a number of adult restaurants serving liquor and wine, I don’t expect to see kids running around tables, or hear babies crying.
I recognize that restaurants with declining customer counts are concerned. But perhaps they should look at other ways to increase their share of wallet and profitability other than eroding the brand experience for their core adult customers.
Imagine Starbucks offering a kid’s menu and installing a video game arcade in their coffee shops to increase parent/kid visits and incremental sales. That’s not part of their core brand.
A study by market research firm Mintel International Group found that parents are seeking healthier alternatives to the standard kids' fare of chicken fingers, grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni and cheese. I applaud that. But the answer is not to turn adult-oriented restaurants into kid-friendly restaurants because they already offer healthier meals, but rather, to encourage parents to challenge family restaurants to offer healthier menu items for kids.
If the average size of a group dining out with kids pushes the bill up by an average of $8, is it worth $8 to lose adult customers who don’t want to dine with babies and kids and who customarily spend $12 on a glass of wine? Short-sighted thinking? You bet.
When profits drive a brand to change who and what they are and the brand experience changes with it, that’s when the CMO or the CEO needs to say “wait a minute...this is not who we are."
According to Mintel, “restaurants don't want the reason for people not coming to be because they don't offer kid-friendly food.” What about adults not coming because you’ve changed your focus to a kid-friendly dining experience?
While I can understand Denny's former Chief Executive Nelson Marchioli’s saying “people with kids are uncertain of the economy, so they don't need any discouragement from the industry from dining out,” I also think adults without kids don’t need any discouragement, either.
Correction: Sept. 22, 2016 An earlier version of this article misidentified Nelson Marchioli. He was formerly CEO at Denny’s.
Stuart Dornfield is an award-winning freelance creative director/copywriter with more than 40 years' experience in marketing, strategy, advertising and production.