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Restaurant Business
March 15, 2003


Happier Meals
Want to wow kids with your menu? Improve the quality, variety, and fun -- but don't drop the chicken fingers.

By Patricia Cobe
Restaurant Business - restaurantbiz.com

MARCH 15, 2003 -- Used to be that a burger, fries, and a toy would put a smile on kids' faces and turn them and their families into repeat customers. But savvy post-millennial children are more adventurous and demanding when it comes to dining out. They've accompanied their parents to interesting restaurants and been exposed to more exciting food -- both on TV and on their plates.

"Kids are getting older younger," agrees Sid Good, president of Good Marketing, whose tagline is "the kid experts." By the age of eight, well over half are ordering off the adult menu." But that doesn't mean kids' menus are no longer desirable or valuable -- they just have to meet higher expectations. "It's about treating children as influential decision makers, not just accommodating them," says Good.

To help them make those decisions, he suggests crafting an easy-to-follow menu with kid-friendly descriptions. Even with pre-schoolers, mom and dad can read the menu out loud and get their offspring pumped about the food.

So how can you make your bill of fare different enough for the adventurous young diner, but safe enough for the picky eater? The family-friendly, 125-seat Yankee Pier in San Jose, CA, is owned by Bradley Ogden, well-regarded for his higher-end Lark Creek Inn and Campton Place in San Francisco. Yet here, Chicken Tenders -- albeit ones brushed with mustard and breaded with Japanese panko crumbs -- are on the menu ($4.95), as are Noodles with Butter & Cheese ($3), and a Hot Dog & Fries ($5.95). "It's important to give kids non-intimidating items they can recognize, says Michael Dunn, Yankee Pier's chef. "It makes them feel more independent."

Dunn uses the same top-quality ingredients to prepare the kids' dishes as he does for his regular menu. For example, snapper for the Fish 'n Chips ($5.95) is caught fresh everyday by fishermen at nearby Half Moon Bay. And if a young guest wants to try something more grownup, he offers half-portions of any item from the main menu. "One 10-year-old came in and ordered a dozen raw oysters," he reports with a bit of awe. "But I'll always keep a separate kids' menu for two reasons -- to make children feel like special guests and to entertain them." Yankee Pier supplies crayons and a coloring page to keep little ones happy, and Ogden -- the father of two -- is installing a sandbox out back.

At New York City's Guastavino's, a stylish restaurant with soaring, vaulted ceilings and contemporary, upscale cuisine, executive chef Daniel Orr will also downsize any regular menu item for his youngest customers. "I'll do anything to make a friend," he says with a laugh. But Orr also offers a multi-course kids' menu that is grounded in familiarity. The Whale Platter, for example, features lightly seasoned and battered fish accompanied by homemade french fries and a crisp tortilla cut in the shape of a whale -- his rendition of fish and chips.

"Most of the items are takeoffs on the adult menu, but the flavors are toned down and the presentation is more whimsical," says Orr. Adapting from the main menu allows for optimum cross-utilization of ingredients, too. What's more, every time the chef makes a seasonal menu change, he gives equal consideration to the kids' selections.

To make little ones feel grown up, Guastavino's also offers an appealing kids' first course and drink section. There's Alphabet Soup ($5), made with the same long-simmered stock as the restaurant's top-selling Matzo Ball soup, a Baby Green Salad with cherry tomatoes ($5), and even a Kid's Shrimp Cocktail ($9). And the cool kiddie juice cocktails ($4 each) include the Harry Potter, Pokeman, and Blue's Clues.

Appetizers are not often given much space on children's menus, but, says marketer Good, "kids are less patient, and having something immediately available while parents are looking over the menu makes everyone happier. Besides, children love sampling, and appetizers provide that opportunity." As far as Guastavino's pint-sized drinks go, they're a big profit-maker for the restaurant -- not only are they more expensive than regular soft drinks, kids tend to order rounds (just like their parents!).

From the day chef-owner Steve Uliss opened Firefly's, a Southern barbecue-style restaurant in Marlborough, MA, his goal was to attract lots of families. So he created a varied and imaginative kids' menu, calling on his personal market research team -- two daughters, ages five and seven -- for ideas. Since his older daughter eats salads three times a week, there's a house salad topped with grilled chicken or BBQ meat, along with four peanut butter sandwich variations -- banana, marshmallow, jelly, and bacon. Mac and cheese, ribs, burgers, hot dogs, chicken tenders, grilled cheese, and even a waffle with syrup round out the roster. Everything is priced at $3.99.

"We knew we had to have certain core items, but we also knew we could make them better," says Uliss. All the selections are prepared from scratch, and many are served in baskets, on wooden boards, or in fun containers for "an interactive dining experience. Our illustrated kids' menu not only helps children feel special, it teaches them about food and dining out in a restaurant setting," Uliss explains. "That's really important." One young customer was so thrilled with the total experience, that he invited Uliss to come to his class to discuss the restaurant business!

One of the challenges in creating a kids' menu is appealing to different age groups. Most 2-8-year-olds are more limited in their preferences and eat smaller amounts than 8-12-year-olds. The Old Spaghetti Factory, a 38-unit chain based in Portland, OR, used to offer two options -- one tagged "Tiny Tots" for $3.35; the other, "Junior Meals" at $4.35. But this "over-engineering of the menu" was confusing to the restaurant's guests and servers, according to director of marketing, Steve Sweeney. "We struggled with the notion of hitting two different targets, but the value of our menu and the type of food we serve made it easier to streamline the selections into one 'Just for Kids' menu," he claims.

All children under 12 now have a choice of entrees, including pasta with a variety of sauces, spaghetti with meatballs, and macaroni and cheese -- most are scaled-down portions of Old Spaghetti Factory classics. All are served in a colorful pasta bowl and come with a beverage and dessert for $3.65. The newspaper-style menu is called the "Pasta Mountain Press;" it also includes activities and kid-oriented articles.

"Families with children have always been our niche," Sweeney says, "and we put a lot of money and effort into our kids' program and server training to keep it that way. We've also been able to keep prices down by sticking to basic items that families like."

With its gold-mining theme and generously portioned food, the Irvine, CA-based Claim Jumper also attracts families. But here, a two-tiered kids' menu has been successfully in place for about one year. The "Little Jumpers" section, geared to children under 10, offers choices such as mac 'n cheese, mini corn dogs, red ale spareribs, and yes -- the ubiquitous chicken tenderloins -- for $4.95. Under the Jr. Jumpers heading, designed for ages 10-16, are five items, including a top sirloin steak with fries ($10.95) and a half rack of baby back ribs for $8.95.

"We felt a need for another level between our traditional children's menu and our regular menu," says executive chef Brian Okada. "My own 12-year-old was part of the inspiration. He won't eat off the little kids' menu -- he wants more variety and bigger portions." Since Claim Jumper doesn't have a separate seniors menu, the Jr. Jumpers selections were also made available to diners 55 and older, and the response has been terrific. Sales of the top sirloin steak, in particular, have increased by leaps and bounds. Now Okada and marketing director, Jennifer Weerheim, are looking at expanding the Jr. Jumpers menu, especially in the appetizer category.

At the Hungry Heron, a 112-seat independent restaurant in the vacationland of Sanibel Island, FL, 40 of the menu's more than 255 items are targeted to kids. Tracking this extensive list of offerings into specific segments makes sense; price is the determining factor.

Under "Wow, All for under $2.99," are items like a ham and cheese melt and a burger basket. "Something a Little Special for $3.99" includes pizza, fried clams, and nachos, and "A Heartier Fare for Kids for $4.99" offers up Pop Corn Shrimp, Polka Dot Macaroni 'n Cheese, and an open-face turkey sandwich. Finally, there's "Top Shelf for Prince & Princess" at $5.99 a meal -- a heading no indulgent parent can resist. The selections are more ample and grownup -- like Fettuccine Alfredo, Steamed Shrimp 'n Fresh Fruit, and Broiled Fish 'n Char Grilled Vegetables.

"The menu appeals to parents who are price- and value-conscious," says Hungry Heron owner Andy Welsh. "They can see right away what's available and how much it costs. But we've also gotten great feedback from kids. They love seeing so much choice."

Pleasing both age groups seems to be a winning formula. Perhaps that's why rumor has it that McDonald's is considering upgrading its "Happy Meals" and introducing a "Mom's Meal." The latter would include a special gift, like a tube of lip gloss, instead of a toy.


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