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R&IEditorial Archives2001June 15 — Special Report

No Kidding Around
Independents mimic major chains through no-nonsense marketing to children.

Jake McNally was seven when he held his first cooking class. The idea came from the time "me and my dad did this cooking show in front of a live audience," says Jake. "He taught me some stuff and I figured I could do stuff."

Jake--whose parents, Terry and Michael, are co-owners of the London Grill Bar & Restaurant in Philadelphia--could well be the next Emeril Lagasse, joining an ever-expanding constellation of star television chefs. In any event, he certainly has fashioned an interesting approach restaurants, especially independents, can use in marketing to children.

While not every restaurant has a Jake whose culinary talents it can tap, there is a growing interest among independents and small chains there is a growing interest to do what the large chains have been doing for years: enticing the youngster market.

"What was once considered the realm of fast food [has generated] a broader interest," notes Barry Busch, president and creative director of a Topeka, Kan.-based company that specializes in marketing to children. "Kids-marketing has basically gone mainstream."

"We've seen a real surge across the entire market segment--family dining, casual, even fine dining," adds Busch. He estimates his company alone has helped 30,000 to 40,000 operations develop children's marketing programs. "Much of it has been with small chains, but a big chunk of it has been mom-and-pops," says Busch.


Jake, now a mature 10-year-old, holds cooking classes for other kids at his parents' restaurant. The classes, usually limited to 10, have turned the kids on to celebrity chefs ("They all love Emeril") and cooking, says Terry McNally, the London Grill's chef. As for the parents, "They all want to be in the next class," she says.

Working in conjunction with his dad, Jake demonstrates favorites, such as macaroni and cheese, Caesar salad, fajitas, chips and salsa and his signature dish, chocolate pizza. Instruction includes cooking how-tos; safety tips, such as how to hold the thumb in while chopping vegetables; planning a family meal; and etiquette.

The classes have proven so popular that this summer the McNallys plan to step things up a bit. Beginning in July, they not only will offer a cooking class but also tie it to a promotion with a local hotel. Kids and their parents can make a weekend of it, complete with cooking class, a trip to a local market, dinner and an overnight stay. The price of the cooking class also will go up, from $35 to $200.

Jake, who spends quite a bit of time at London Grill, near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, often can be found working the front of the house, taking reservations and chatting with the younger guests, "giving them crayons and telling them they can draw on the paper tablecloths."

And so comes the obvious question: Does he want to be a chef when he grows up? "I don't want to be a chef," he says. "I just like cooking for a hobby."


"Children have increasing buying power, not only in terms of purchases but also in influencing family decisions," says Colleen Fahey, executive vice president of Frankel, a Chicago-based promotional marketing firm. And, given that with both parents working, families will only become more pressed for time, that trend will only continue to grow, she adds.

"Because parents have less time to spend with their children, they are not willing to let family time be compromised by small disagreements. Consequently, children are getting to choose what they eat, even in the home."

With this growing influence that children have over dining selections, Fahey says, "I see a huge move up what I call the food funtinuum," with ever more creative marketing to kids by various sectors of foodservice, including supermarkets. "And of course we're also seeing this in independent restaurants."

Marketing to kids can boost profits for the short term, says Busch, increasing the average transaction amount and the number of repeat visits. "More significant is the impact of the long-term relationship with the family and child, as he or she is growing up," says Busch. "You are creating brand familiarity during the formative years, when children are beginning to make purchases with their own money."


Jennifer Perrotti will readily attest to this. "We let kids go back and make their own pizzas," says an owner of the two Perrotti's Pizza and Pizza locations in Fort Worth, Texas.

"It's a little promotional thing," she adds. "We don't really make anything off it. The kids always use a little more topping than we normally would." But for the last 16 years, she adds, it has kept kids--and their families--coming back. And that is what counts in the long run.

Some operators reach out to kids, as Busch says, by taking the more traditional approach, mimicking the large chains, using promotional materials and trademarked characters, as well as the standard kids' menus, activity place mats and crayons. Others employ less traditional, but no less effective, ways.

What it boils down to, says Melissa Garbiras, general manager and executive chef of Puccini & Pinetti Italian Grill & American Bar in San Francisco, is attitude. Creating a kid-friendly atmosphere entails more than "throwing a box of crayons on the table," says Garbiras. Operators and wait staff must create an environment that is warm and open to children.

Young patrons frequenting Puccini & Pinetti are handed crayons, if so desired, and an activity book that lists special places to visit in the city. But more importantly, "it's the attention we emphasize to our staff," says Garbiras. "We instill a heightened sense of urgency. And we look at children as equally as we look at any customer who comes through the door. We want to be able to understand children's needs."

This might mean being able to see "when we need to get a child something to drink immediately, or when to send out french fries. If a kid is acting up at a table, we try to send the food out quickly."

If there is a mess, no big deal, says Garbiras. "That's not an issue here," she says. "We're here. We clean it up."


Not all activities that reach out to children have to take place in the restaurant, Bill Fuller, executive chef of the Big Burrito Restaurant Group in Pittsburgh, discovered. Fuller, who has an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a master's in synthetics, was recently asked by a local chemistry group to conduct a science class for kids at the Carnegie Science Center. Combining his two strengths, Fuller chose cooking as his medium.

In showing the children how to make crme brlée, he was able to demonstrate "the transformation of simple sugars into hundreds of compounds." He also took the opportunity to introduce kids to his line of work.

"I talked about what cooking is," says Fuller, although he shied away from going into details of a chef's life, including 15-hour days. "I try to present a fun image of what we do."

It was the first time he had ever done this sort of thing, he adds. "It went really well. I would do it again. The kids had fun, I had fun."


Judging from the Web site of San Francisco-based ZAO Noodle Bar, the operation clearly is interested in kids. Take, for instance, the picture of the child who appears to be very much into his food. It wants children to learn to enjoy its cuisine and to be comfortable using chopsticks. How? The child in the picture is holding them: Rookie Sticks.

Adam Willner, founder, president and CEO of ZAO Noodle Bar, with five units in the Bay Area and another in Seattle, and his children came upon the chopsticks for kids several years ago, while shopping. He immediately sought out a supplier and began offering them in his restaurants.

"What we noticed right away," he says, "is they were leaving the restaurant. People were taking them home." This, in turn, prompted Willner to "put our name on them."

Rookie Sticks, says Willner, "are almost like a pair of tweezers. A 3-year-old can manipulate them. "Aside from pinching each other with them," he says, "kids seem to like them."

And the adults "recognized that it is good to have a tool that would help their kids enjoy eating out more."

Kids "often feel as if, 'Oh, I'm being dragged to dinner,' unless they're going Chuck E. Cheese's," says Willner. The Rookie Sticks "helps the kids to feel comfortable in the concept from the beginning."

Comfortable enough, Willner adds, that some children even venture beyond the menu's kid-friendly offerings into more adult fare.


Jack Weiss, a managing partner with Coco Pazzo Cafe in Chicago, is of the same mind. When the restaurant, a block from North Michigan Avenue and its world-class shops, opened five years ago, its customer mix was mostly young singles, professionals and suburbanites enjoying the city's cultural offerings. That has changed. Weiss estimates that families with children make up 15% to 20% of his customer base.

The restaurant's location has had something to do with it, says Weiss. Northwestern Memorial Hospital is a few blocks away, as are a host of pediatricians' offices and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, he notes, all of which draw families and children to the neighborhood. The restaurant's changing client base also is testimony to the area's changing demographics, says Weiss: more young families with children.

Coco Pazzo Cafe has the traditional offerings for children: an assortment of healthy menu favorites, such as pasta and proteins, including chicken, as well as butcher paper on the tables and crayons--"nothing unique, but it is greatly appreciated and it does occupy [kids'] time," says Weiss.

But the restaurant goes way beyond the usual. "We are very child friendly in terms of creating a visual and physical environment in which kids can be comfortable and [one in which] we can be sensitive to their needs and their parents' needs," says Weiss. Murals that continue around the room have "[Italian artist Amedeo] Modigliani-type figures that are interesting to look at." Hopefully we have a photo

Chairs were designed to be not too high for children, or too confining. "We try to make each group comfortable by putting them in areas depending on the age of the children" and the various child-type accouterments they might have, such as strollers and the like.

Coco Pazzo Cafe also accommodates young people with special needs, extending invitations to young athletes in town performing in the Special Olympics.

The foundation for all this is attitude, shaped a good deal, admits Weiss, by the fact that that he as well as Executive Chef David Jahnke are parents of young children.

"We're always available for any special requests that parents have," says Weiss. "Our chef will meet whatever dietary demands a child might have."

Coco Pazzo Cafe's reputation as child friendly is such that even local chefs like to take their own children there. "We do get some people from the industry who come with their children and enjoy eating here whey they have a few moments to be with their family," says Weiss.

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