Restaurants – the family way

05 April 2012 by
Restaurants – the family way

Striking a balance between running a family restaurant and an adult restaurant is no mean feat, and requires tact, patience and imagination. Tom Vaughan reports

Some restaurants will go to extraordinary lengths to stop children misbehaving. Restaurateur Sam Harrison recalls: "I had an American customer recently who asked me if we had a portable TV for the table. My first reaction was to laugh but the way he was looking at me, I could tell he wasn't joking. He'd obviously had this somewhere before."

While it might be a brash way of dealing with it, whichever restaurateur introduced portable TVs did so in a bid to tackle that tricky conundrum: how to attract families to your restaurant and not deter other customers. Striking a balance between a family restaurant and an adult restaurant is no easy feat.

Harrison, who owns two all-day London restaurants - Sam's Brasserie in Chiswick and Harrison's in Balham - puts a high value on his family customers, but can occasionally pay a price for this.

"I'd be lost without families; I wouldn't have a business without them," he says. "In an ideal world everyone would get along happily, but we don't live in an ideal world. Last night we had an incident where there was a table of two gentlemen next to a family and one of the kids was running around the restaurant. They complained, we had to ask the child to sit down and when that didn't work, we had to have a difficult conversation with his parents."

In fact, some diners have taken such umbrage against the restaurants' family atmosphere that they have told Harrison they won't be returning.

Despite the potential problems, the value of becoming known as family friendly can't be underestimated. Matthew Mason, chef-patron of the Jack in the Green pub near Exeter, has built a formidable reputation as a child-friendly gastropub since opening 16 years ago. "It is not something we set about to be," he explains. "We just tried to make everyone welcome. For us it would be foolish to alienate that bracket of income. It's not just the kids but the aunties, uncles and grandparents that come with them. It wouldn't make business sense to ignore them."

Beware, however, the dangers of going out of your way to attract children, says James Horler, founder of Ego Restaurants. "It's a hard balance. Over the years we've seen the likes of Happy Eater destroy their adult business by becoming too family friendly. Everyone went to Little Chef instead and Happy Eater became a kids' play area."

The key is not to appeal straight to the children, but to their parents, says Horler. "You want to accommodate kids without being too gimmicky. I don't want my restaurants to be the ones where kids say ‘I want to eat there', but rather where parents want to eat, and be able to bring their kids along."

When Juliette Joffe, founder and director of child-friendly restaurant chain Giraffe, launched her first few sites, she had teething problems appealing to both the daytime family crowd and the more adult evening crowd.

"When we first opened, we used to give balloons to kids whenever they came in, but soon learnt to stop at 6pm. Likewise, the kids' meal deal stops in the evening, and we dim the lights and light candles to give it a more adult atmosphere. Subtle things like that make the difference in attracting an evening crowd."

A flexible children's menu is essential, with Joffe making Giraffe's largely reflective of the adults' offering.

Harrison also makes a few concessions to keep children busy, such as running a drawing competition on kids' menus, and even on occasion hiring a face-painter - something Horler has also done sporadically - but by and large, both have shied away from directly entertaining kids. "I don't think we should have to perform as a crèche," says Harrison.

Mason, meanwhile, believes that having balloons or crayons lying around could alienate adult customers, and prefers to rely on his waiting staff - most of whom have families themselves - to fall back on their own parenting skills to manage unruly children.

Staffing is certainly a major consideration when it comes to keeping kids in check.

"When we launched Frankie and Benny's back in 1995, we weren't that into kids," says Horler. "The managers, we found out, were key to changing that. None of them at the time had kids and weren't that child-friendly. So we had a training programme to teach staff how to talk to kids and keep them entertained."

Perceptive front-of-house staff are a major asset. "Sometimes it comes down to having a bit of savvy," says Mason. "If two businessmen arrive and the only table free is next to a family with a noisy kid, explain the situation and keep them at the bar with a complimentary drink while another table frees up."

Both Harrison's sites and Mason's pub are blessed with plenty of space, so it is possible to assign areas for families and non-families. At busier times, when this might not be possible, Harrison uses a private dining area to screen children's movies.

However hard you try, there will always be a bit of conflict and someone who wants to complain. The first lesson is not to panic; to remember that it is impossible to please everyone. "You do get people who tell you that they're not coming back because it's too noisy and too many kids," says Horler. "But then you get it with everything; people complaining about music being too loud or service being too quick or too slow."

So if there is the odd complaint regarding noisy children, the key is to manage the situation as best you can.

"In the first instance, we'd move the complaining table if we could," says Joffe. "If that's not possible, we'll very nicely say to the parents that we appreciate kids make noise, but can he or she keep it down a little. From then, we'll make sure the child is entertained, whether it's with crayons or by making sure their food comes out a little quicker."

Mason uses another technique; if children are struggling to settle, his front-of-house staff, which includes his wife, might offer them the chance to see the kitchen. "We'd take them by the hand and get them to come through and choose their own ice-cream from the fridge," he says. "The kids love it in there. A kitchen is a very exciting place for an eight-year-old."

The please-can-you-keep-your-kids-quiet conversation is never easy, admits Harrison, but it is a small price to pay for the fantastic repeat business that families provide.

"If you can sell a restaurant without children you might make more money," he says. "Four adults will spend more money than two adults and two kids. But it is a very brave restaurateur who tries to do that."

Put simply, in Horler's words: "If, as a restaurant, you can look after both adults and kids, and keep them both entertained, you are in a fantastic place."

Six ways to keep both adults and children happy

1 Make everyone welcome Don't alienate any potential customers. It's not just the children but the aunties, uncles and grandparents that come with them.

2 Get the balance right Don't go out of your way to appeal to kids. Concentrate on parents instead and the tools that they will need to keep the children quiet - and therefore out of the way of other diners.

3 Know when to say no If you're attracting parents and children with incentives like children's menus and gifts, then it's wise to dim the lights and remove the bespoke offers by 6pm so that you don't put off the evening customers.

4 Train your team Make sure your staff are aware what can be offered to children. If they are parents already they may be able to fall back on their own parenting skills to deal with unruly children. If not, develop a training programme to teach staff how to talk to children and keep them entertained.

5 Know your audience If two businessmen arrive, don't sit them next to a noisy child. If no tables are available explain the situation and keep them at the bar until another table is available.

6 Don't fret At busy times there are always likely to be complaints, be they about the service, music or children. One unruly child doesn't mean you should stop appealing to families. The please-can-you-keep-your-children-quiet conversation is not easy but sometimes necessary.

You get back what you put in with the community

The Jack in the Green, Rockbeare, Devon
Opened 16 years ago, chef-patron Matt Mason admits his pub the Jack in the Green is unusual. Not only was it dishing up two-AA-rosette cuisine at a time when gastropubs were a novelty, it also quickly became known as a place for families to regularly eat out with the kids.

"We always tried to be true to our roots as a pub, and not open a family restaurant, but we also made sure we made everyone welcome," says Mason. The chef's own involvement with local schools certainly helps establish his reputation among families.

"You get back what you put in with your local community. Not only do the youngsters learn about cooking, but you get the goodwill from the parents, and the kids know me as ‘chef Matt' when they come in," Mason adds.

He shies away from the likes of balloons, crayons and children's entertainers, but deploys a front-of-house team that are often parents themselves, so can relate to children.

And while the children's menu sticks to the same ethos of local, sustainable food, the kitchen also states clearly that they are willing to make up small dishes of anything on the a la carte menu.

Pack away the children's deals at 6pm

Giraffe, nationwide
Juliette Joffe, founder and owner of restaurant chain Giraffe, admits that it can be hard to confound reputation. "We are always billed as a child-friendly restaurant but I want us to be known as a restaurant that is child friendly," she says. "There is a big difference."

Launched in 1998, the first few sites were - admits Joffe - too loud and bright to attract a standalone adult crowd. So they muted the colour schemes, packed away the balloons and kids' meal deals at 6pm, dimmed the lights in the evening and the adult crowd started to pay attention.

Now standing at 44 sites nationwide, much of the appeal lies in a menu that appeals to adults as well as kids, with well-priced international dishes ranging from burgers to babyback ribs and duck stir-fry for the adults, to breaded chicken fingers and a mini burger for the children.

The restaurants also make an important distinction between the ages of children, says Joffe, and now run a very successful young-adults menu, serving up the likes of a small-sized rump steak or chicken nachos, aimed at eight- or nine-year-olds who might not necessarily want to eat the same food as their younger siblings.

Ensure everyone can relax

Rojanos in the Square, Padstow, Cornwall
When chef Paul Ainsworth and business partner Derek Mapp took over Rojanos in the Square, in Padstow, in 2010, it had already been an established family restaurant for over 25 years, and the pair knew the importance of keeping this clientele.

"With so many restaurants in this town, it's important that we are a place to come where you can relax, have a good time and not have to worry about your kids being too noisy," says manager Paul Dodd.

Serving Italian food to 51 covers, much of the appeal to youngsters is the chance to act a little bit like adults, says Dodd. Sharing plates give families the chance to eat together, and for children to try new things, while the family feel of the restaurant - everyone from the delivery driver to the chef have their own kids - is evident throughout.

Just a few puzzles on the back of the menu are deployed to keep children entertained, otherwise the restaurant relies on treating them in the same way as adults.

"You occasionally get conflict from a noisy kid," says Dodd. "But on the whole, if you treat children with respect you get it back."

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