~Intro: Using Creativity to Make Your Restaurant Irresistible to Families

The following is an article that ran in the May 2010 issue of Restaurant Hospitality magazine:

by A.J. Mesalic
Family Hospitality Group

You’ve probably had an experience like this:

You decide to eat out with your kids. You go to a “family” restaurant, order your meal, then wait for the food to be prepared and served. As you wait, the kids get bored and restless. Soon, they each turn into a wild child, disturbing the other patrons and turning your dining experience into a nightmare. In response, you try to force your kids to behave, ruining their experience as well.

At the end of the evening, you turn to your spouse and say, “That’s the last time we’re going to eat there.” And just as likely, the kids will never want to return either.

Sound familiar? It happens every day in nearly every restaurant in the U.S. And the cost in lost business to your restaurant is huge. Consider the statistics. Kids choose where to dine 34% of the time, and adults consult their children 91% of the time. When you ask if dining out with young children is ”a pleasure”, only 18% of parents say yes.

When you consider that there are 36 million kids age 3 to 11 and that their buying power is over $21 billion per year, it’s easy to see why making your family restaurant a truly kid-friendly establishment is vital for your success.

There are three core elements that affect the dining experience at family restaurants.

  • Value
  • Service
  • Activities

You have likely put considerable effort into the quality and value of your food. And while there may be room for improvement, you probably already deliver reasonably good service. The third element, activities, is generally the missing link. That’s because young children have a different set of needs than parents. They don’t want to just sit and eat. They want to have “fun.”

I’m not suggesting that you copy McDonalds and spend big money on a new and different “happy meal” or build an elaborate playground. However, I am suggesting that you think like a kid and use a little creativity to provide fun activities to make the dining experience pleasurable for both children and their parents.

First, you can help parents engage and interact with their kids. You can do this with activities or games that are on the market or with ideas you create on your own. For example, you could print simple crossword puzzles available online to give families a game to play while they wait for their meal.

Second, you can engage children directly so they can entertain themselves while parents relax. Items such as fun-filled placemats, crayons, kiddie cups, and other inexpensive items have proven successful for thousands of restaurants.

How successful are these methods? Our studies show that 72% of parents will return to a restaurant more often when activities are provided. The formula is simple: Kids have fun. Adults can relax. The dining experience is more pleasant. Both kids and parents are likely to do business with you again.

Of course, not everyone will welcome these activities, namely your operations people. Some are likely to push back on these ideas simply because they change the routine or appear to create extra work. However, once these activities are put into place, everyone will see the extra work is minimal and that the restaurant environment becomes more pleasant for everyone, including your employees.

How can you be sure the activities you choose provide a real benefit? Like anything else in business, you must measure and analyze. Competitive surveys are relatively simple. You might also choose to use a more structured approach, such as B vs. C (better vs. current) testing or Six Sigma techniques to help quantify the benefit of any change to ensure there is a bottom-line benefit and that you are not wasting scarce resources.

Most family restaurants cater only to the needs of adults. By using a little creativity, and a minimal budget, you can gain a big advantage over your competitors by catering to every member of the family, including young kids.

A.J. Mesalic is the Group GM for The Family Hospitality Group, a company that helps make restaurants irresistible to the “family with kids” demographic.

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