Children can hold a great deal of power when it comes to deciding where to take the family to eat. Rosalind Mullen reports on how the market is evolving
It's not rocket science. If a casual dining restaurant, café or pub doesn't take the family market seriously nowadays, it is missing out on a serious revenue driver. And while attempts to appease "little Johnny" may have started a decade ago with a token kid's menu, that is changing fast, driven by the government's nutritional guidelines, consumer awareness and the realisation that families mean good business.
"Catering for families has become vital for many of the mid-market restaurant brands over the past 10 years and makes up a significant part of their business. And crucially, restaurants such as Pizza Express, Café Rouge and Pizza Hut have successfully managed to combine their appeal to customers with or without children," explains Peter Backman, managing director of analyst firm Horizons.
"Parents are far more likely to eat out somewhere they know the kids will be well taken care of that offers good value for money. Operators now realise this and many offer children a three-course meal with drink for around £5.
"Throughout this recession, we have seen some restaurants and pub operators running discounted deals on child dining such as ‘kids eat free at lunchtime', or ‘kids eat free with an adult meal'. This has proved a useful way of driving footfall, without being too costly to run. And let's not forget, children are the customers of the future, so it makes good business sense to encourage them through the door."
VALUE FOR MONEY
The fact that such outlets provide value for money is attractive to other diners, too. Certainly in the USA, food service research company Technomic found that during the recession, value-conscious consumers are showing a preference for family friendly restaurants.
But such businesses shouldn't get complacent. Here in the UK, recent research by Digby Trout Restaurants, a division of contract caterer Elior UK, revealed the company was missing out on a major profit-driver. A survey at its Tiltyard Café at Hampton Court Palace found that eight- to 12-year-olds were not being catered for at the buffet-style operation. The problem with this age group is that they are too old for the children's boxed meals, but not yet ready for the adult menu. As 50% of visitors are families, this represented a big untapped revenue opportunity.
In response, the team has made the menu more flexible, allowing children to opt for smaller portions of hot adult dishes, priced at £3.95. In addition, new dishes have been created for this age group. For instance, the café worked with Elior's sausage supplier and a historian at Hampton Court to create the Tudor sausage based on a 500-year-old recipe. As in most restaurants, pubs and attraction cafés, the Tiltyard also offers a meal deal - in this case a hot meal, homemade lemonade or milk and a fairy cake, all for £3.95.
"Children can hold a great deal of power when it comes to deciding where to take the family to eat. Parents want to go to a place where they know the children will be welcome and catered for. If the children are content, then mums and dads will be able to enjoy themselves, too, and this will encourage them to maximise their visit, return to the restaurant and recommend it - all of which will boost business," says Jody Lucatello, group manager, historic palaces, Elior UK.
Pub-restaurants similarly regard children as serious business. At Whitbread's Beefeater, Brewers Fayre and Table Table brands, menus are GM-free and offer a healthy choice where children can swap chips for mashed potato, vegetables, corn on the cob or salad. There are also organic options, developed with Pure Organics.
"The parents who come to our restaurants like to get great value, and healthy options are increasingly important for their children," says head of marketing Sarah Simpson.
However, although restaurateurs value child customers, they can't always quantify what they are worth. For instance, at the 25-strong Giraffe chain, co-owner Juliette Joffe says that during August the percentage of children to adults was not very high at 16.5%, but she adds: "Children are an important part of the business, but it's impossible to put a finger on how much business they generate. What I do know is that if we make a child happy, the parents will come back - either with the child or by themselves."
When the Joffes opened their first Giraffe in London's Hampstead back in 1998, the children's menu was launched with no-brainer child-friendly food such as burgers. Over the years, however, they've added items such as focaccia pizza fingers with fries and apple slices, and a full English breakfast brunch with a vegetarian option.
Prices are low at £2.95-£3.95 per dish or £5.75 for a main course, dessert and drink, so the children's menu doesn't make money - but as Joffe says, it doesn't lose money either. The chain also offers smaller portions of the adult menu on request. Here, the items are for more adventurous palates, such as wok-fired vegetable and udon noodle stir-fry.
Predictably, the 100% British beef burger and fries is Giraffe's best-selling item, followed by pizza, chocolate fudge brownies, ice-cream and then pasta with tomato sauce. The drinks line-up is more surprising, with apple juice in first place, followed by lemonade, Coca-Cola and, finally, fresh fruit smoothies.
"It surprises me that parents don't push the healthier choice," says Joffe. In fact, despite the media hype about nutrition, Joffe says parents rarely question the provenance of food on the children's menu.
Yet there's clearly an awareness of nutrition, as demonstrated by the fact that an increasing number of operators have chosen to reassure parents by serving branded children's food, such as Annabel Karmel's microwaveable children's dishes.
Tootsies was one of the first chains to use Karmel's dishes and had begun trialling a new, shorter menu with freshly prepared dishes before it went into administration last month.
Nevertheless, business is booming for Karmel. Since launching her business three years ago, she now supplies prepared food to cafés at sites such as Legoland and Butlins. Additionally, she has won eight new contracts this autumn, including Hilton Hotels, Orchid and McMullen pubs, Debenhams, Selfridges and Cannons and Nuffield health clubs.
The advantage of pre-prepared food for many of these outlets lies in its consistency. So, for instance, the pasta is always al dente even after it is microwaved. It's also a foolproof way to manage portion control or to maintain standards in nurseries, for instance, where cooking skills can be variable.
Arguably, keeping children - and their parents - happy through the menu is the easy part. The hard part is that if children become bored, they can distract parents away from, say, having pudding or another drink. The Tiltyard is addressing this by running activities to keep children occupied and allow parents to indulge a little longer. These include cookie decoration sessions in the run-up to Christmas, "guess the number of sweets in a jar" competitions at Easter and a two-hour food and art class during August.
At Whitbread's newest concept, Taybarns, food is part of the entertainment. Children are encouraged to go up to the salad, grill, wok, rotisserie, carvery, pizza, pasta and dessert stations and talk to chefs as well as watch the food being prepared.
The one thing all successful child-friendly restaurants have in common, however, is patient staff and a supply of high chairs and plastic cups and plates. At Giraffe, staff offer children a dip while they wait and bring the children's food to the table first. It's also served tepid rather than hot. To stave off boredom, the staff also provide the usual activities such as colouring-in books and, finally, they send the children on their way with a branded balloon, which acts as an incentive to eat their food as well as a marketing tool.