Mom, Dad and the kids aren’t dining out as often as they used to. But that doesn’t mean you should give up on earning their business. According to a December report from global information company The NPD Group, families with kids—a group that represents 32% of U.S. households and $83.7 billion of total restaurant sales—made 1 billion fewer visits to restaurants over the past six years. But 84% of parents surveyed for the report said they are much more or somewhat more likely to visit a restaurant if it offers a family-friendly environment.
“Restaurants are leaving money on the table by not capturing more visits from families with kids,” notes Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst for NPD. “The good news is that there are solid tactics that operators can use to attract families back to the dining table: emphasizing the value components of menus; creating a kid-friendly environment; offering fast and attentive service; and addressing food preferences kids have at different ages.”
Chalkboard walls at Brixx Wood Fired Pizza invite little ones to get creative. Photo provided by Brixx Wood Fired Pizza.
A night out with the kids can feel like a big splurge to parents on a budget. After all, in this post-recession economy, many families have less discretionary income to spend in restaurants. But cost isn’t the only barrier, NPD reports. Families are also concerned with value, environment, convenience and menu offerings. The children’s age makes a difference, too: Families with older kids place more importance on value, since their kids’ appetites are changing—they’re eating more, broadening their horizons and ordering outside the kids menu, making it more expensive to dine out. Families with younger kids, meanwhile, care more about the restaurant environment and menu offerings, because younger diners need to be entertained, and today’s parents pay more attention to what their kids eat.
Pizzerias that successfully attract families keep all of these areas of concern in mind. Brixx Wood Fired Pizza (brixxpizza.com), a Charlotte, North Carolina-based group of 25 restaurants in five states, has been voted “Best Family-Friendly Pizzeria” many times in various markets because kids can find plenty there to keep them entertained. “From the moment a family is seated at the table, kids are given dough to play with, plus a kids menu with games and plenty of space to draw. This keeps them occupied so the parents can breathe,” says Tim Miner, “marketing dude” at Brixx. “We even encourage kids to post photos of their dough sculptures online using the hashtag #BrixxPixx, and we reward them for it.”
All Brixx locations also have a viewing area where children can watch pizza chefs in action. “Our overall environment is very active, so if the kids get a little loud, it goes without notice, and parents can relax,” Miner adds.
Dallas-based Boston’s Restaurant & Sports Bar (bostons.com), with 29 locations nationwide, recently launched a new kids program to enhance its dining environment and even reach young guests at home. “Research has shown that children have the majority vote in where a family dines, so last summer we redesigned our kids offering to become what we consider a best-in-class program,” says Brad Bevill, vice president of marketing for Boston’s. “We’ve created Kids Power Packs, which are collectible and feature the kids menu, various games, activities, coloring pages, temporary tattoos, and a free mobile app with a sports-themed, 3-D Augmented Reality game.”
The Spot the Slice program at Davanni’s incorporates social media, email marketing and customer giveaways. Photo provided by Davanni's.
At Davanni’s (davannis.com), based in Plymouth, Minnesota, with its 22nd location opening this spring, everything on the menu is made to order, which helps placate picky kids. Kids meals include favorites such as pizza and pasta, but if a kid wants to customize—or order plain pasta with butter—the staff is willing to accommodate requests. “When families come in, our employees are trained to give them a kids placemat, which encourages parents to take a photo of their kids eating at Davanni’s and share on social media,” says marketing assistant Jacqui Dubois. “The placemats also say, ‘Thank Mom and Dad for coming to Davanni’s!’”
Boston’s kid-friendly approach helps increase visits among families, but there’s a take-home aspect to its efforts as well. “Collectibles continue to be a driver,” Bevill notes. “We make different versions of our Power Packs that focus on different sports and different characters, and new games, new tattoos, and expanded features on our mobile app also keep them coming back. Also, our mobile app games require the kids to have the Power Packs physically present with them in order to play in the Augmented Reality mode—which drives a huge take-home percentage and puts our brand front and center inside our guests’ homes. When you combine that with the improved table experience, you drive frequency.” Ultimately, while Bevill believes entertainment—such as offering coloring supplies at the table—is still an important part of enhancing kids’ experiences, it has shifted (and will continue to shift) to digital and mobile entertainment options.
Finally, pizzerias that successfully serve families ensure that staff members are sensitive to their needs. All team members at Boston’s are trained to make each guest feel special, so servers ask kids questions (“When’s your birthday?” or “What’s your favorite sport?”), while kitchen staff might create a smiley face pepperoni pizza. At Davanni’s, many managers on staff have kids, so they’re encouraged to “think from the inside out,” says marketing director Tim Huberty. “We ask, ‘What would you like to see?’ and they implement it.” Some stores offer balloons up front for kids; a window allows youngsters to watch the making of their pizzas; promotional items, including Frisbees, pens and pencils, and bibs allow kids to take a piece of Davanni’s home with them. For kids parties, staff members even give the guest of honor an apron that says “Future Pizza Maker at Davanni’s.”
Boston’s Restaurant & Sports Bar offers a top-notch kids program that reaches beyond its operations’ walls. Photo provided by Boston's.
Mom and Pop
Clearly, kids are an important part of the equation, but at Brixx, appealing to parents has been equally crucial for attracting families. “From our 14 wines by the glass and 24 craft beers on tap to the incredible array of items we make fresh from scratch every day, we demonstrate to parents that we care about what they and their kids eat,” Miner says. “We want every member of the family to get a great, high-quality meal.” And since many parents have kids with allergies, Brixx also offers vegan and gluten-free items and makes it easy to obtain a list of allergens used in its menu items. That means parents can give their children a fun night out without fretting over food safety.
Even the layout of your restaurant can influence families’ decisions to dine. Boston’s makes families a priority by truly separating its sports bar areas from the restaurant. “Many families don’t want to mix their dining experience with the sports fans who are enjoying the big game and a cold beer,” says Bevill. “We’re able to leverage our layout to meet the needs of a family that wants a sit-down meal where they can engage in conversation, enjoy a wide variety of menu options, and catch a glimpse of the game if desired.”
Engaging with families is another key to success. Davanni’s offers a fun way for kids to get involved with the pizzeria while making parents proud: the Kiddy Kup design contest. For three weeks, kids 10 and younger are invited to draw designs on their placemats, which then get hung in-store. The head office collects the best one or two entries from all locations, selects four or five finalists, and puts it to an online vote. The winning design is printed on the Kiddy Kups for the next year, and the artist gets a party at the pizzeria. “Every relation of that kid will show up to the unveiling of the cup,” Huberty says. “We have kids as young as two years old who enter, and the entries make the stores look fun.”
Davanni’s also runs contests allowing real customers and their families the chance to be featured on its billboards. And its Spot the Slice program encourages customers to take photos with its mascot, which appears at sporting and community events, then email them to Davanni’s for a free personal-size pizza. Davanni’s posts the pics on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, all while building its email database. “Customers will go to Facebook, look for their pics and tag themselves—which encourages their friends to ‘like’ the pics as well,” Dubois says.
Ultimately, most pizzerias are naturally family-friendly, with sharable meal options, great value and a low-key environment, but appealing to every family member helps ensure success with this key group. “We’ve found the secret to creating a successful family-friendly environment is balance—you can’t overcommit to one member of the family,” Miner says. “Appealing to kids isn’t enough. Parents get tired of ‘kid-friendly’ places. That’s why ‘family-friendly’ is our focus.”
Bevill agrees that while kids are important in the marketing picture, it’s crucial to appeal to everyone—including moms and dads. “Most important is the experience for the whole family,” he says. “If the kids are entertained and get a good meal, and the parents are able to eat in peace and know that their kids are getting a nutritious meal, everyone wins.”