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Restaurant Business
March 15, 2003

EVENTS: Having Kids
Children are controlling an increasingly big part of the dining-out dollar. So what do they want? We found out.

By Patricia Cobe
Restaurant Business - restaurantbiz.com

MARCH 15, 2003 -- Kids eat the darndest things. This was the message sent again and again by operators, experts, and parents throughout the Menus program. Kids' palates have become every bit as adventurous (and fickle) as those of their parents. And since kids not only influence the decision of where to dine -- they often make the decision, flat-out -- developing kids' menus with flair and foresight has even more importance now than ever before.

Such was some of the wisdom that emerged from an eight-parent, on-stage focus group co-moderated by dietician and former CNN producer Carolyn O'Neil. O'Neil cited the statistic that 80% of families eat out more than once a month -- and nearly a third do so at least once a week. With traffic like that, you'd better not just offer the kids burgers and mini pizzas, the parents informed attendees.

Marketing guru Sid Good joined the chorus hailing more diverse options with his custom workshop on tailoring the menu to the tykes. Anyone left in the crowd who still thought junior diners' tastes still ran exclusively to the hot-dog end of things was in for a surprise: Today's kids rank Chinese as their No. 1 favorite food, followed by Mexican, and then Japanese.

"The things that appeal to kids are the same things that appeal to the 'inner kid' in grown-ups," Good said, referring to upscale restaurants offering such desserts as Warm Milk & Cookies and Cotton Candy. "These trends all cross-pollinate."

Yet Good and others preached about the fine line that often separates catering to kids and condescending to them. He cited the growing popularity of ethnic foods among children, as well as their desire to act like grownups, as evidence that operators can -- and should -- mix and match items from their kid and adult menus. O'Neil echoed this observation, asserting that one way to accommodate families is to offer more variety of portion sizes (and prices).

It's a strategy some chains are already employing. "The Cheesecake Factory has no kids' menu," said RB food editor Pat Cobe during her presentation. "And Panda Express adjusted the portions of adult dishes, rather than develop a separate menu."

The parents on the focus group agreed that alternate portion sizes are a good plan, as long as that perennial kid-favorite, chicken strips, stays on. As Good said, "Anything with sticks, dips, or chips, kids love."

Kids also love to be entertained—constantly. So operators looking to attract kids, or more to the point, their parents, were encouraged to incorporate some kind of interactivity into the children's dining experience. Good evoked the power of art -- meaning, the old standby of letting kids color at the tables. But he suggested that savvy restaurateurs could also display the created works on their walls, giving families added incentive to return.

Menus presenters built on the theme of catering to kids being about more than what's on the menu. "Think of this as creating unique memories," Good urged. Kids don't actually pay for anything, he observed, and so operators ought to think of kids' meals as "a lot of free trials for products they will eventually buy themselves. You're creating long-term memories to sustain continuity from one generation to the next."


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