Alright, let’s do this! It’s a new year, a new decade!
Appropriately, we have decided to enter the infancy of this decade by discussing the children, more specifically kids menus, which have been getting fancier lately. Sure, the restaurant review may be undergoing a midlife crisis but we still feel (and look!) young and, like the people they serve, kids’ menus are growing up. As restaurants look to create millennial-focused, family-driven experiences, they have started to class up the kids menu while simultaneously reimagining restaurant space to cater to families looking to have a couple of drinks while their kids play games, run around, and eat relatively healthier entrees.
With former family dining mainstays like Applebees and Friday's falling out of millennial favor, there is opportunity for restaurants to rebuild the family dining experience around millennial tastes. So, how can restaurants cater to millennial families, an exponentially expanding demographic, while not alienating their adult-oriented customer base? What do millennials want in a family dining experience, what can restaurants give them, and have we finally moved on from the flimsy pizza and microbe-infested ball pits of our Chuck E. Cheese youth?
Well, pull up the high chair and remember to tip your server extra if your kid misbehaves, we’re putting in the food industry market research to understand the elevation of children's menus, the recrafting of family dining, and the promises and limitations of building a restaurant around them.
When Millennials Mate
Let’s start with a quick story: For the first time in her life, my Texas-based niece (who is a preciously perfect three years old) dined with her California elders, and the contrast was stark. As my mother and aunt toyed with their teriyaki chicken and Diet Cokes, here was this child piling sushi roll upon sushi roll into her relatively tiny mouth, chasing it down with a lychee mocktail, and specifically requesting green tea ice cream.
Yeah, up is down and cats and dogs are friends, right? These evolving tastes didn’t come out of nowhere, however; in fact, those smart artisanal cookies at Bon Appetit have seen this trend coming for a while, predicting the elevation of children’s menus since way back in 2015 (and they’ve had some other interesting ideas since.)
This makes sense because, after all, millennials gave birth to the better-for-you food trend, looking to substitute overly processed foods with healthier, fresher, and more natural choices. All those millennials forcing the restaurant industry to reform itself to meet their experiential and adventurous expectations are coming into their baby making years (the best years of our lives?). And now this elevated trend has trickled down to their children--what’s good for mother goose is good for the goslings--and restaurants have taken note, looking to serve better food and create better spaces for family time.
Millennials still want to go out with their friends and kick back a few brews (or a rosé or hard seltzer) and maybe play some darts or dice while they are at it. This was easier to do mid-week when there were younger and there were no wee ones to worry about. But as millennials go from me-me-me to us-us-us, they are starting to seek out dining experiences that can scratch their social itch while also keeping the kids happily entertained. Restaurants are starting to cater to this, both in terms of environment and cuisine.
But as some have already discovered, striking the right balance is tricky because you will never be able to build an entire restaurant around a combination of libations and legos, pilsners and Pokemon. Adults without children (ah, my favorite acronym in the entire world: DINC) are not trying to go out with their friends to some combination of a pub and a kids club--kids are great up until the moment they are crying and fussing in a public drinking spaces while forcing patrons to ensure they don’t let an accidental F-bomb slip out. And parents those lucky enough to find a babysitter aren’t going to somewhere kid-friendly either--Mama needs a night out!
So, yes, it is appealing to appeal to families, but it can also be alienating for those not seeking out a pack and play experience.
The Kids Menus are (Better than) Alright
Consider Kirkland Tap & Trotter, a Massachusetts-based restaurant that recently closed down after six years in business. Their opening drew a good amount of local and even national attention as they promised to do things a bit differently, particularly when it came to the kids menu. Owner Tony Maws set out to create the type of place that discerning parents could bring their kids and rest assured that the kids menu was enjoyable and nutritious. This was not the type of place where the kids subsisted on frozen chicken nuggets or a questionably-colored hot dog.
“The idea is that parents can come out, have an adult beverage, and enjoy themselves while they're eating with their kids."
For Maws, this started with the menu, where his guiding principle was that the food on the kids menu should be the same as on the regular one. This doesn’t mean he’s tried to get the kids to eat chicken marsala or anything, just that the chicken in the kids fresh-never-frozen chicken nuggets was the same exact chicken that appeared on the adult menu. The same handmade pasta that was in the adults' primavera was in the kids' spaghetti. You get the picture.
Not shirking quality on the kids menu means, of course, that there is a bit of a price hike--kids menu items cost about the same at Kirkland Tap & Trotter as an entree at a typical casual dining eatery: roughly $10-$13.
While the venture ultimately failed, there are some lessons to be learned from Tap & Trotter, which may have been a little too far ahead of the game for its own good.
First, as Maws has pointed out, the restaurant industry has long insisted on feeding children the food adults eat when they are hung over: frozen nuggets, pizza, hot dogs, etc. Sure, these items are cheaper for restaurants and parents alike, but as health and wellness trends continue to drive CPG and food service developments, the days of serving kids a pile of breaded, fried, processed crap may be over.
We’re not saying the kids will be surf and turfing or anything like that, just that ingredients and entrees are going to be increasingly dominated by buzz words such as healthy, local, organic, fresh, and sustainable.
Hudson Riehle, SVP of research at the NRA (National Restaurant Association, not the other NRA), believes this trend will continue: "We're predicting more availability of healthy items on children's menus that allow kids to explore new flavors," Riehle said. "We can expect to see kids' menus incorporating more global flavors — from Mediterranean cuisine to West African dishes."
A recent survey of domestic chefs found similar results, with over two-thirds believing that ethnic cuisine will continue to percolate into children’s menus, which will find relatively tamer ways to incorporate exotic flavors children can stomach and even crave. Similarly, more than half also believe that gourmet and healthy options will also become increasingly available.
It’s Not Just the Food, It’s also the Forum
But creating a family dining experience isn’t just about the dining, it’s about the experience. You need a kids menu that parents feel good about, sure, but you also need to build a space that can truly cross generational expectations.
In Seattle, for example, Mexican restaurant Super Bueno is looking to draw parents in for a night of tequila and tacos, which they serve grab-and-go style in their two-level rustic setting. And this rustic setting includes a kid’s room featuring art supplies, padded floors, games like Jenga, and other kid-centric entertainment. Ideally, they’d like families to roam freely through the space, for parents to post up at a table adjacent to the kids room where they can supervise their children, hang out with other millennial parents, and enjoy a few cadillac margaritas.
Creating a grab-and-go experience where diners can choose their own adventure seemingly strikes a perfect harmony. Parents and their children can flock to the game area, and those looking for a specifically adult experience can find their own space away from all the play.
Similarly, Minneapolis’s fig + farro offers a kids menu with some unexpected nutrition--gone are the chicken nuggets, replaced by cauliflower ones. Like Super Bueno, though, this isn't just about the food, and fig + farro prides itself on being the type of place that kids can run around and, well, be kids, offering a dedicated play area and cultivating an atmosphere where diners expect and appreciate kids being kids, not complain about it.
“We would always have trouble finding a place where our kids could go run around and we could enjoy dinner,” offered co-founder Michelle Courtright. “Very few places that cater to families are places that have healthy options.”
Restaurants like Super Bueno and fig + farro are designed to appeal to millennial families by obviating the need for a babysitter. Instead of paying the sitter, parents can simply bring their kids with them (and it’s cheaper--have you seen what child care costs these days?!).
Sure, parents need adult time and millennials are still going out on adults-only date nights, but those are once-in-a-while splurges (great to party with you on New Year’s, recent parents Neil and Teresa) whereas these restaurants are catering to the everyday, to a quick weeknight meal with the family that appeals to Mom and Dad’s hipster millennial taste, offers the kids something nutritious, and most importantly keeps them entertained and safe.
Food Industry Market Research: Keeping the Baby, Not the Bathwater or Ball Pit
But let’s not take it too far. We aren’t treating children like little fine food connoisseurs. As Courtright’s co-owner at fig + farro explained, “Obviously, we’re not going to take our kids to a multi-course tasting menu, but what about a place you can go for an hour and drink a beer and chill and know my kid is entertained?”
Thankfully, entertainment with the kids no longer means sub-par food served in a bacteria-infested, coin-operated arcade producing a constant insanity-inducing ruckus. We cannot go back to ball pits, we never will.
But finding the balance between the ball pit and the Bernese is tough and restaurants should be deploying food industry market research methodologies to ensure they are hitting the right family note. As millennials' kids and their food menus come of age, restaurants must grow with them. Otherwise, restaurants will be stuck in arrested development, which is what we used to say about millennials living in their parents’ basement.