Designing pizzeria promotions and events for children

Experts outline the five key elements of a successful kids marketing program for pizzerias.

Think back to your childhood—where did you enjoy eating most? Chances are, you begged your parents to take you to a restaurant that offered a little something extra just for kids, from crayons and a dedicated fun-foods menu to engaging games and server interaction. When trying to draw families to your pizzeria, low-cost, easy solutions will attract parents, but kids are all about fun, says Joe Johnston, a Nashville-based creative consultant who supervised the invention of the McDonald’s Happy Meal. “Pizza has built-in kid appeal—they love the food, sharing and social circle that naturally goes with pizza,” he says. “But they also want fun served with their finger food.”
PMQ tracked down pizzeria owners using stellar kids marketing tactics, as well as industry experts, to discuss five crucial elements of a successful kids marketing program: menus, events, sports sponsorships, play areas and a kid-approved staff.

1. Make Every Meal a Happy Meal

When building a menu geared toward tykes, keep it simple and allow for flexibility. Clori Rose-Geiger, co-owner of Mia’s Pizza and Eats ( in Cumming, Georgia, focuses on quality ingredients and less-processed and unprocessed foods. Her other requirement: items that don’t require extensive prep. “We make sure the kids menu items can be easily fixed in our kitchen, and, for the most part, parents order cheese pizza slices or spaghetti with sauce or butter for their kids,” says Rose-Geiger. “We also offer a kids cut on pizza slices, which is an added benefit for parents because they don’t have to cut up their toddlers’ slices with a knife and fork, making the kids menu parent-friendly as well.”

Don’t be afraid to take special requests to please both picky kids and their more health-conscious parents. For example, the Mia’s team happily steams broccoli and cuts up chicken or turkey slices for parents who request a cheeseless dish. Kids with food allergies or intolerances may also have special dietary needs. “With an increase of celiac disease and other common allergies, pizzerias should have gluten- and dairy-free options,” says Ali Alami, general manager of Seattle-based KidScore, a Web and mobile service that rates restaurants on kid-friendliness. You might also offer healthy fare, she adds. “Veggie topping options with healthy sides, such as apple slices or carrots, are great, as well as having at least one healthy kids dessert option.”

At the 21-store Davanni’s Pizza & Hot Hoagies (, based in Plymouth, Minnesota, a section on the menu board for kids meals is also a hit with adults, thanks to smaller portions, bundling and simplicity. Fuss-free options include a Solo Pizza or Penne Pasta, plus dessert and a drink. “Simple, uncomplicated items, like cheese pizzas and plain or red-sauce pasta, are best for kids, who want something of their own 
instead of sharing with Mom and Dad,” says Tim Huberty, marketing director for Davanni’s.

Some ideas have proven better than others, of course.
Davanni’s less successful trials have included a ham-and-cheese hoagie; healthy options (“We got burned twice by trying to offer fruit cups,” Huberty admits); and toys, which, surprisingly, generated no real interest.

When designing and presenting kids offerings, Linda Duke, CEO of Duke Marketing in San Rafael, California, recommends having dedicated children’s menus, coloring menus and menu place mats to encourage family dining and young diners. (With any luck, coloring or drawing materials bearing your company’s logo could end up on the customer’s fridge for weeks or months!) “Kids menus should be designed to engage, entertain and educate, which gets families to stay longer and encourages them to return more often,” Duke says. “Create a place mat menu that’s two-sided—one side featuring word searches, mazes, puzzles and counting games, and the other side could be a coloring sheet personalized with your menu and/or logo.”

Huberty, meanwhile, incorporates social media into his place mats. He advertises a promotion in which customers who send pictures of themselves with a Davanni’s pizza get a free pie; the company then posts the images on Facebook.

2. Practice the Party Arts

Anyone who’s ever had a kid (or been a kid) knows that children like getting crafty—and how proud parents are of their little ones’ creations. Encouraging kids’ creativity can be a huge hit for your pizzeria. Mia’s incorporates kids arts and crafts into events such as major food drives at the store, handing out baggies filled with pizzeria-themed art projects or having staff pull two tables together for an art table where kids make pizza collages (using paper plates with paper pieces, pompoms and gift-bag filler shreds purchased at the dollar store), pasta necklaces and pizza-themed coloring pages.

Mia’s also promotes an annual pizza box art contest with two age categories. The middle-/high-school winner earns one free pizza each month for a year, while an elementary-school winner receives a pizza party (four pizzas and two two-liter sodas). Even holidays play into kids’ creative sides: On Halloween, the Trick or Pizza event at Mia’s offers a free slice of cheese pizza to kids dressed in costumes.

Meanwhile, Davanni’s has found great success with its Kiddy Kup Contest. Promoted online through social media and in-store on LCD screens, the contest solicits children (ages 10 and under) to design the next kids cup for the pizzeria. The contest regularly receives a couple thousand entries and runs for six weeks. In-store, children pick up entry forms and crayons to create their designs, and each kid receives a cookie for an entry. The entries are plastered on the walls in the pizzerias, and the top finalists are selected in-house; then online voters have a week to choose an overall winner. The winning child receives a party for himself and 20 people (thus bringing family and friends into the pizzeria). “We get 40,000 to 50,000 hits for voting during this period,” says Huberty. “We’ve done this contest almost 10 times, and it creates a lot of buzz—even getting us coverage in the local paper.”

Farrelli’s Wood-Fired Pizza (, a chain with six stores in Washington, dedicates certain nights to kids of various age groups. Farrelli’s hosts “kids eat free” night on Mondays, with a free kids meal for every $10 spent by an adult. High school students get 10% off on Wednesdays, while Thursdays feature roving balloon artists. For everyday fun, children receive a ball of dough, plus a coloring sheet, to play with at the table, and each kid leaves with a balloon. Takeout orders can even be packaged with stickers and kids tattoos. Whatever events you choose, Alami recommends that they reflect community interests, are creative, consider all ages (i.e, toddlers vs. tweens) and offer variety.

Finally, don’t forget the importance of kids parties. Davanni’s offers pizza making parties, bringing out crusts in boxes and ingredients in bowls; between assembly and serving, kids play games or open presents. Most Davanni’s locations have party rooms so children can make noise and run around, and kids who book parties receive small aprons that say “Future Pizza Maker at Davanni’s” (these aprons aren’t for sale; kids must host a party to get them).

Duke says a kid-friendly pizza making promotion will set your pizzeria apart from competitors. “Not only does it create an emotional connection to the pizza brand, but kids spread the word and will choose their favorite pizza making place instead of the competition,” she notes. She suggests creating a party guide flier for parents that details cost per child; what your pizzeria will supply for different group sizes; reservation information; and contact details for guests.

Johnston agrees that becoming the go-to place for parties can be a surefire kid-magnet tactic. “Assign a host to handle parties, someone with a personality for it—a full-time staff member, spouse or intern from the local high school or college,” he advises. “Parents like to be able to simply show up and know the party is taken care of.”

Johnston agrees that becoming the go-to place for parties can be a surefire kid-magnet tactic. “Assign a host to handle parties, someone with a personality for it—a full-time staff member, spouse or intern from the local high school or college,” he advises. “Parents like to be able to simply show up and know the party is taken care of.”

3. Get Into the Game

Showing support for local sports teams helps attract hordes of youngsters (and their families) through the door. “Sponsoring teams and hosting team events and fundraisers are the very best ways to get the next generation introduced to and excited about your pizza brand,” Duke says. “Contact area youth sports groups and invite them to use your pizzeria as their ‘team headquarters’—a place for kids to sign up, receive their team uniforms and throw postgame parties.”

To get started, Huberty recommends meeting with the team coordinator to discuss potential opportunities and, whenever possible, working with the entire league rather than just one team. But don’t simply write a check and walk away, he adds—get involved and stay involved.

Davanni’s, for example, is very aggressive when it comes to sports—the company sponsored 60 youth teams last year. It requires each team to wear the Davanni’s logo on jerseys (when possible), posts team pictures on in-store LCD screens and hosts team parties. Davanni’s also provides logoed water bottles to team members. Additionally, the pizzeria donates to leagues by having participants save their Davanni’s receipts and turn them in at the end of the season to receive a 10% rebate gift card for the team, thus helping the team earn its end-of-season party.

Hosting team fundraisers also helps increase your pizzeria’s visibility. Mia’s makes fundraising nights available (including one for a high school soccer team that featured a pizza eating contest) and supports a local high school’s drum line, which played in the parking lot of the store.

When working with sports teams or fundraisers, Johnston recommends the following:

  • Make sponsoring work for you by attending a few games when your schedule allows, meeting the parents, and giving out coupons and gift certificates.
  • Donate gift certificates for charity events, sports teams and school events.
  • Expand your network by working with local leagues, schools, PTA and mothers groups, churches, etc. One personal contact can extend your reach to many people.
  • Ask all groups to email their members with your message or special offer.
  • Collect email addresses and use social media as part of your ongoing outreach plan.

4. Create a Place to Play

According to Alami, a small play area can be set up in less than 25 square feet with traditional elements such as rubber mats, toys (avoid choking hazards and keep the toys clean), bins and a gated area—ideally placed in the back or corner, away from the door and where parents can keep an eye on kids. If you have limited space, get creative: Rose-Geiger is considering adding a bin of pizza-themed books, plus chalkboard paint, on the wall directly behind its three video games in the rear of the restaurant. “A kids space should have fun games that keep their attention and should definitely be a place where kids can be seen by their parents, yet are kept out of the staff’s way,” she says.

Duke adds the following tips for play areas:

  • To minimize noise, place the kids area far enough away that other patrons won’t be bothered.
  • Post a cleanup policy that instructs kids to put all toys, books and other items back in their proper place.
  • Assign staff members to monitor the area for potential trouble and ensure cleanliness.

5. Hire Kid Magnets

Alami notes that an owner should train staff and enforce standard procedures for dealing with kids. Employees should have a solid understanding of basic safety rules in handling hot food and beverages around children. They should engage children of all ages by looking them in the eye, talking to them and smiling, and know how to anticipate kids’ needs, such as extra napkins and plastic water cups with covers and straws for toddlers.

If your pizzeria serves a lot of kids and families, consider adding background checks and informal personality evaluations to your hiring process. At Mia’s, waitstaff is prescreened via a citywide policy that requires a server’s license to serve alcohol (any misdemeanor or felony eliminates the ability to get a license). “We also hire waitstaff based on how they’ll interact with people, and we certainly group children in with that,” Rose-Geiger says. “Families are the people who make our business a success, so we want our waitstaff to work well with them.”

Duke offers a unique idea for securing a kid-friendly staff: Bring in a group of kids during a slow time and have job candidates engage the children with games and pizza making activities. This auditioning process will allow you to hire kid-tested and kid-approved crew members who can help create or implement your next kid-friendly marketing program or promotion!