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In Effort To Spur Business, Restaurants Look To Lure Families With Kids

The Wall Street Journal ran a rather odd article titled, Restaurants Look Beyond Chicken Fingers, which purports to explain how the restaurant industry is responding to the recession by attempting to induce parents to bring the kids along to the restaurant:

Restaurants trying to get more families to dine out have a new recipe: Get rid of the French toast sticks. Put more broccoli and carrots on the menu. Let the kids eat free.

The industry is scrambling to counter a tendency by recession-pinched parents to leave their children at home when they go out to eat. Restaurant visits among groups with kids fell 5% in the 52 weeks ended June 30 compared with a year earlier, according to researcher NPD Group.

Restaurants are responding with revamped kids’ menus, healthier food and kids-eat-free nights. Such moves are tricky to do well because restaurants must appeal to young palates while addressing parents’ health concerns. This summer, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro Inc. and The Cheesecake Factory Inc. added their first-ever kids’ menus.

We would say the author is conflating two things that have nothing to do with each other: offering discounts or free meals to entice parents to visit the restaurant and offering healthy choices. It is not so much that they want the kiddie business at these discounted fares, but during tough economic times parents aren’t going to hire a babysitter, so if they don’t have family around willing to babysit, they either do take-out or cook. Restaurants are shrewdly noting that if they don’t need a babysitter and the kids eat free anyway, many parents may indulge themselves with a night out. It is probably a more effective psychological pitch than lowering the cost of everything by 5%.

When it comes to offering healthy choices, the article is an example of a kind of journalism that really doesn’t reveal much:

While awaiting a table at a P.F. Chang’s in Northbrook, Illinois, Saturday night, Andie and Ron Pearson said they hadn’t heard about the chain’s new kids’ menu, but lamented the lack of healthy kids’ options at other restaurants where “kids’ menus tend to favor hot dogs, Mr. Pearson said.

Ms. Pearson said she’d appreciate more healthy choices such as fruit and vegetables, especially since her five-year-old daughter, Alicia, loves broccoli. “Whenever restaurants offer fries and fruit, she’ll choose the fruit, but restaurants rarely offer that,” Ms. Pearson said.

A study last month by market research firm Mintel International Group Ltd. found that parents are looking for healthier alternatives to the standard kids’ fare of chicken fingers, grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni and cheese.

We are sure Mrs. Pearson is sincere in her desires, although we typically find restaurants pretty willing to swop out items if they have something else available that the kids prefer. But whether, on balance, children will choose healthy choices is questionable. We are not quite sure what to make of points such as this one presented in the article:

Even kid-friendly fast-food and family-oriented chains are also beginning to deviate from the usual by offering healthier and novel kids’ dishes.IHOP Corp., famous for its sweet-laden funny-face pancakes, now offers a Tilapia fillet for kids, served with steamed broccoli; an egg and pancake breakfast served with a scrambled egg substitute; and a kids’ fresh fruit dish.

We confess that we think that the Tilapia dish is on there to make the menu look good to activists, that most children have no need to order egg substitutes and we are not really sure how a kid’s fresh fruit dish differs from an adult fruit cup or fruit plate except possibly by offering less fruit.

The article also explains that Denny’s now has “added carrots, celery and cucumbers with Ranch dressing, vanilla yogurt with strawberry topping, and spaghetti with marinara sauce…” — all actions that we are in favor of, that might do a little good and, certainly shows some consciousness of societal concerns over childhood obesity and awareness of dietary changes.

But the executives in the industry understand that the pitch to kids is not really about healthy menu choices; it is really about money. The piece quotes Denny’s CEO:

“People with kids are uncertain of the economy, so they don’t need any discouragement from the industry from dining out,” said Denny’s Chief Executive Nelson Marchioli.

Many Denny’s restaurants are allowing kids to eat free on Tuesday and Saturday nights. Others, including IHOP and Baja Fresh Mexican Grill, also offer kids-eat-free nights.

If they let the kids eat free, they will drive some traffic, menu changes or not.

The article closes up with a quote regarding Mintel research:

Between the first quarter of 2007 and the first quarter of 2009, there was a 2.4% increase in kids’ restaurant side dishes containing fruit and a 6.8% increase in side dishes containing vegetables, according to Mintel.

“We don’t have data yet on whether it’s helping restaurants boost traffic, but having healthier options on the menu can’t hurt,” said Mintel’s Ms. Caranfa.

They don’t make clear whether Mintel is saying that of all kids’ items on menus, there has been an increase in those listed as containing fruits and vegetables or if those ordered contain more produce.

Of course, the real challenge is neither listing the items on the menu, nor having them ordered. The real challenge is getting children to eat the items.

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