Gone are the days when children were not welcome in restaurants and other diners avoided establishments that accommodated families. More and more families are regularly dining out, making catering for children a profitable priority for operators
In spite of the financial climate in which we find ourselves, families are still choosing to spend quality time together by going out and enjoying a meal. With this in mind, how can you attract families to your establishment and, once there, what can you do to ensure their visit is such a success that they will return?
Tracey Kitchener-Kemp, MD of Tootsies – the successful chain of family-friendly restaurants – believes the first port of call is to offer an incentive.
“At Tootsies, we have actually seen a significant increase of footfall recently, largely due to promoting the business with offers and loyalty schemes to appeal to value-conscious consumers,” comments Tracey. “The uptake of our offers, including 2-4-1 vouchers, has risen significantly over the last few months. People still wish to eat out and maintain their lifestyle during the current climate, but they are looking for increased value for money and for their pound to go further.”
If you have a website, ensure it is up to date and includes any offers you may be running. In addition, spread the word further through the local media, leafleting or strategically placed A-boards.
Nutrition remains a hot topic within the out-of-home sector, especially where children’s offerings are concerned. Annabel Karmel, one of the UK’s leading experts on children’s food and nutrition, comments: “We have witnessed a growing public interest in healthy, nutritious and responsibly sourced produce in recent years that has extended to meals consumed out of home, by adults and children alike. However, many restaurants simply serve half portions of adult meals. This is not an approach I’d advocate when catering for the needs of children, as these dishes often contain high levels of salt and saturated fat and don’t comply with nutritional guidelines set out by the Government.”
When devising children’s menus the key to success is to ensure that the options are not only healthy but appealing too – old favourites such as burgers and cottage pie can still be included so long as they are made using good quality, nutritionally balanced ingredients.
Hiding fruit and vegetables is a great trick. A selection of fresh vegetables can be pureed and added to tasty tomato-based pasta sauces or curries and blending a combination of fruit makes refreshing, vitamin-packed juices and smoothies, all of which contribute to a child’s daily recommended intake of five portions of fruit and veg. Or try serving bite-sized food that children can eat with their fingers, such as crudités and dips or a salad consisting of baby cherry tomatoes with miniature mozzarella balls.
One of the most important things to consider when catering for families is that parents need to be able to enjoy the experience of eating out, as do the other customers who may not be accompanied by children. It is therefore essential that establishments keep children occupied during their visits, helping to remove the stress that many parents traditionally associate with dining out with young children.
“At Tootsies, each of our junior customers is treated to a colourful TD and Miss-Chief activity pack upon arrival – our fun characters that also appear on our Junior Menu and website,” says Kitchener-Kemp. “The packs contain stickers, colouring sheets, crayons and special edition items such as collectable pop-up characters, money boxes and crazy straws – all designed to keep our younger diners happy and entertained while Mum and Dad relax.”
If activity packs are not a viable option for your operation, why not look at keeping a stock of table games in the restaurant that children can dive into? Alternatively, setting up a quiet corner with bean bags and cushions where children can read books or draw on large pieces of paper secured to tables is another simple, cost-effective solution.
The Bolingbroke Pub & Restaurant in Battersea manages to keep its younger customers occupied by not only providing toys, games and a dedicated menu including real, homemade fish fingers with steamed seasonal vegetables, but also fairy cakes that children can decorate themselves at the table. Going one step further is the InterContinental London Park Lane, which, on certain Sundays, whisks children away from the table for a fun cookery lesson while parents enjoy an extended brunch.
Earlier this year Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal’s Little Chef project in Popham, Hampshire was filmed for a Channel 4 documentary, ‘Big Chef takes on Little Chef’. Blumenthal’s budget for the revamp would doubtless have been larger than that available for independents, however – whether you care for the final design or not – it is worth taking note of what was deemed important: a fun environment with bright colours and funky lighting, a menu full of quality family favourites, a dedicated children’s menu, board games and a packet of jelly beans when customers leave.
Those restaurants fortunate enough to have a garden for public use should also consider investing in outdoor play equipment, which, come the warmer months, will pay for itself by establishing your outlet as a great destination for a family day out.
In addition to the physical surroundings, a restaurant’s atmosphere is equally important – especially when striving to make parents and children feel at ease. Staff awareness is crucial: smiling, friendly faces; warm welcomes; flexibility with orders and consideration to the timing of table service may seem like obvious advice but many restaurants get this spectacularly wrong.
A Great Idea:
Provide your younger visitors with some plain fairy cakes that they can decorate themselves
Remember, a happy child equals a happy parent; and happy, relaxed parents turn into loyal, repeat customers who spread the word among their peers and drive new business through your door.
Children's Top 5 Dishes*
- Spaghetti Bolognese
- Burger and Chips
- Cottage/Shepherds Pie
- Sausages and Mash
*500 children aged between 8 and 13 years old surveyed across Tootsies’ 22 nationwide restaurants, October 2008