The mom factor

The last thirty years of my life story could be told in a list of pizzerias: Mama's and Sally's in New Haven, Conan's and Milto's in Austin, Two Guys and Raffalo's in Hollywood and Avanti's in Pasadena (to name only a few). My family and I are passionate about pizza. I'm also a Mom, and therefore your target market, because – like it or not – I am normally the parent in charge of feeding the family. If you are interested in having me as a customer, you need to understand what's important to me.

In the aftermath of 9/11, family togetherness seems even more important than it did before. Many moms want to cocoon more often with their husbands and kids, even when they go out to eat. So they want to head for a family-friendly environment. Good (and, we hope, healthy) food is primary, but how does a mother know that a place is family-friendly? For one thing, mothers talk to other mothers and almost half of them are likely to recommend a restaurant to friend. Mothers have their own built-in rating system, and we might give a so-so place a second chance, but rarely a third. If families are part of a restaurant's core business, then their importance needs to shine in all aspects of the dining experience, so the word will get out.

Families ought to be pretty hard for most restaurants to ignore. Well over half of all money spent on food away from home comes from households with children. There are over 32 million such family households that have a Mom in charge and over two thirds of those mothers work. Even if we don't assume that working mothers are somewhat more likely to eat out than their stay-at-home sisters, that's an extraordinarily large pool of potential customers for family restaurants. And it doesn't even count all those grandmoms out there, who also take the kids out to eat. This is not brain surgery. Restaurants that want to raise their revenues can do so by putting up a sign: "Family-Friendly" or "Children Welcome." And then, of course, they have to show they mean it. Identifying a place as kid-friendly is extremely important. In my own survey, moms listed two main reasons for going to a certain restaurant for a sit-down dinner: good food and kid-friendliness.

You might think your pizza restaurant automatically qualifies as kid-friendly, but don't take it for granted. Look at it from Mom's point of view. A mother I know won't take her children into a new restaurant if it doesn't offer a children's menu. To her, the children's menu is the signal that the restaurant really wants her family business. If the menu or the placemat offers the kids something to color or puzzles to do, so much the better. It is true that children, especially the smaller ones, are not good at sitting and waiting, but most love to doodle and draw. Another way to occupy them is to put butcher paper on the table along with a bucket of crayons. The many restaurants that do this have found that adults often enjoy doodling as much as the children.

Several other indications tell moms that a restaurant really wants children. If families are truly welcome, then the table and wall decorations should be appropriate. There should be no top-heavy vases full of pretty flowers that little hands can't resist. No expensive sculpture on the back of the booth that just invites greasy fingers. Nothing that prompts you or your staff to say or think, "Please don't touch."

Seating is important, too. Booths make it easier to assist little ones and there's a lot more freedom of movement. If only tables are available, high chairs or clip-on chairs for the toddlers are a must. High chairs at self-serve restaurants need to have wheels on the back so that a mom, with a baby in her arms, can get the thing to the table. That kind of thought about the reality of eating out with children goes a long way. There ought to be comfortable chairs of the proper height for the older children, as well. You should try eating a meal at a table that's chest-high!

A good seating arrangement extends beyond the types of chairs available. It's only sensible and obvious to seat families with young children away from the bar area, if you have one. Adults in bars rarely want to be serenaded by crying babies or laughing children. On the other hand, here's an idea whose time has come and the pizzeria might be the perfect spot for it – the family sports "bar." ESPN Zone may be the ultimate sports dining experience, but you have to be 21 to enter the Screening Room, where the big game of the day is shown, after 5 PM. Why couldn't there be a family version of this room, where Mom, Dad and the kids could eat and watch the Yankees battle the Red Sox or the Pistons sink the Lakers?

More and more moms (and dads) are aware of the dangers of secondhand smoke, so it is vital that the restaurants that still have smoking sections make sure that they also have proper ventilation. I won't take my son to a restaurant if we have to sit anywhere near the smoking section, unless the fans work really well.

Mothers universally look for cleanliness in a restaurant, be it sit-down or fast-food. The topic came up over and over again in my survey. If the place isn't clean, the chances of a return visit are almost nonexistent. Mothers notice things because they are forever taking babies' hands out of stuff. They are quick to spot grimy countertops, dirty floors, bathrooms that have been mopped in a circle (you know the type: all the corners are black with gunk) and trash spilling out of the containers. It's a real turn-off. One of the mothers in my survey labeled her local national fast-food stop, "Horrible service. Dirty. Disgusting food." You really don't want moms to label your restaurant like that. And moms do talk!

Last, but certainly not least, are the wait staff. It's true that under certain circumstances, customers (and that includes you) are willing to sacrifice attentive service for other considerations such as speed, convenience – and did I mention speed? Fast-food places with limited (extremely limited lately, I might say) service do have their place. But poor customer service in a sit-down restaurant makes even less sense than at Penney's. The waitperson is simply pulling money out of his or her own pocket by treating customers poorly. Proper training and high management expectations are essential. Some of the best customer service advice I've read recently is by Pizza Quarterly's own Big Dave Ostrander: Preach and practice TLC – "thinking like a customer" (maybe I should say practice TLM – "thinking like a mom.") and XOG – Hugs and Kisses, Grandma. Don't say anything to a customer that you wouldn't say to your grandmother. (See Big Marketing Moments of Magic and Misery, PMQ Winter 2002.) Just as in any business, if the personnel respond positively to me and to my family, then I am much more likely to turn into a loyal customer.

In restaurants, as in retail, management sets the tone. Take the time and trouble to hire friendly people. Set the example yourself by being the best customer service representative ever. The dining experience begins in the parking lot or with a phone call. Make sure your restaurant is putting its best foot forward with those initial contacts. It doesn't matter whether the restaurant is individually-owned and operated or part of a huge national chain, success depends on common courtesy and good sense.

I'm not alone in this demand for service. In my pilot survey, 88 percent of the people who responded to the question concerning improvement in sit-down restaurants or fast-food restaurants said that there was a need for better service. One mother said, "I would like to be treated more like a valued customer than a number. I want to be appreciated." They wanted their orders filled correctly, and if mistakes were made, they wanted them corrected without hassle or attitude or finger-pointing. Treat me as though I matter to you and I will come back and spend my money.

Finally, let mom know through your attitude and advertising that you value her time and money. Make the two-for-one pizza night Mom's Night Off. Pizza is one way to get veggies into kids. Play off that. Work with Moms to fight children's obesity by offering pizza options that are better for kids. Make it Mother's Day once a month and give Mom a free soda or glass of wine. Think about what your own mother would enjoy about an eating out experience. Be inspired!

Eating out has become a necessity in most families because of the time constraints in modern living. Now, more than ever, there is a need for places where a family can sit down to dinner together and enjoy the time and the food. I know that as a mother, it's really very simple – I will pay for that opportunity. Would I lie to you? I'm a mother!