Make Your Restaurant Kid Friendly Without Driving Diners Away

Welcome families — and watch your profits rise.
With a few tweaks, you can boost profits and increase customers by making your restaurant kid-friendly. (Photo: Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock)

For some parents, the decision between dining out and staying in rests on one question: Do we need to hire a babysitter? The added expense of childcare may put a restaurant meal out of their date-night budget.

Rolling out the welcome mat for kids can mean big business, said Stephen Zagor, dean of the Institute of Culinary Education’s School of Business & Management Studies. “One of the fastest growing demographics is families with kids,” said Zagor. If you make your restaurant a place kids want to go, their parents will take them there.

A bonus: Families tend to eat at off hours, which can increase traffic at your restaurant during slower periods, like late in the afternoon and early in the evening.

Here are some easy strategies to attract families without turning your restaurant into a play place.

Train your staff on children’s needs

You’ll want to give your staff some special training to create a welcoming space for children.

“Handling a table with kids is a little like going to war,” said Zagor. “Servers need to be able to get kids happy at the beginning of the meal.”

Hungry children get cranky, fast. To avoid a meltdown, servers should bring out some healthy snacks or bread after the family sits down.

Communicate with the parents about pacing. Some will want their children’s meals as soon as possible, even if their own meals aren’t ready. Servers should also ask moms and dads if anyone has food allergies the kitchen should be aware of.

Many children have trouble sitting still and speaking at a restaurant-appropriate volume. Their squirming and squealing can disturb other diners. “It’s up to the service staff to be very attentive and maintain control over all tables,” said Zagor. He recommended teaching servers polite ways of minimizing disturbances, such as moving families to different tables and finding quiet distractions for the kids.

“Waiting on kids is a higher level of service. There has to be a bond between the waiter and the children.”

Design a kid-friendly menu parents will love

The vast majority of children won’t go for smaller versions of entrees designed for adults. Restaurant owners need to design a special menu to win over the wee ones.

Stick to tried-and-true kids’ favorites, like macaroni and cheese, mini burgers, hot dogs, chicken fingers and sandwiches, said Zagor. Elevate the menu with healthy elements to win over parents. “The chicken fingers don’t have to be deep-fried, they can be baked with a healthy crust,” said Zagor. He recommended making mac and cheese more nutritious with whole grain pasta and broccoli.

Make a few design tweaks

To maintain dignity while appealing to families, spend a bit of money. The most important thing you’ll need is high-quality seating for kids.

“Safe, proper kids’ seating is a must. Be sure to offer families boosters, high chairs and restraint devices to protect kids from falls,” said Zagor. The staff should clean and inspect kids’ seats frequently.

Children’s voices carry, so another essential is sound-absorbent material around the family dining space. Zagor recommended applying sound-deadening finishes to walls and floors.

Fill a toy box with quiet diversions

You don’t have to turn your restaurant into Chuck E. Cheese’s to keep young diners happy. A restaurant Zagor once owned had a box of quiet toys that was a hit with kids. “Kids would drag their parents to the toy box,” he said.

Fill your toy chest with amusements for all ages, said Zagor. Babies and toddlers will have fun with blocks, rattles and balls. Older children love crayons and coloring books, mini board games and low-volume electronics.

Bank on parties

Zagor would like to let family-friendly restaurants in on a little secret: “Parents will spend way more than they should on kids’ parties.”

The party business isn’t right for every restaurant, but establishments that are already appealing to children can draw additional revenue by offering parties. “There’s nothing more profitable in restaurants than the party business,” said Zagor.

If space allows, create a special room or section of the restaurant to host children’s parties. Offer party packages that include special foods and birthday cake, party hats and games, goodie bags and fun decorations.

When making your restaurant more kid friendly, remember Zagor’s motto: “A happy kid is a happy parent.”

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