How to build family loyalty at restaurants

Source: National Restaurant News
Written by: Ron Ruggless

Experts and operators say restaurants need to look at the big picture — atmosphere and service, along with menus — to foster family loyalty.

That family loyalty can lead to large-check repeat business, said Julie Casey, who has worked with such big brands as Outback Steakhouses and now consults on family experiences as chief executive of Radius Three Marketing. “Moms with kids going out to eat are willing to drive farther to a restaurant than other consumer demographics,” Casey told a National Restaurant Association show audience in Chicago last week.

Families are willing to drive, on average, 15.2 miles for a good family-dining experience, she said. “That has huge implications for you, especially if you are not kid-friendly,” Casey warned, “because they are going to drive right past you and go to somewhere else that is.”

Restaurant sales to families with children are showing strength, according to recent research from GuestMetrics LLC. In the first quarter, full-service restaurants saw sales growth of kid-specific items outpace increases in overall menu items.

Bill Pecoriello, chief executive of the Leesburg, Va.-based menu analytics firm, said kid-specific food sales rose about 12 percent during the first quarter of 2013 compared to the 1-percent growth achieved by the overall food category. "Additionally, the 12-percent growth was a healthy acceleration from the 4-percent growth in 2012," he said, "so kid-specific food appears to be picking up momentum.”

Guestmetrics found that of 600 kid-specific food items it analyzed, nearly 40 percent of sales came from just five items: chicken fingers, burgers, cheese pizza, chicken tenders and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Some restaurants are providing two kids menus, such as younger and older versions at Texas Roadhouse. “It is two different price points, and it’s even different choices as well,” said Casey, who has conducted research on kids' programs since 2007.

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Other restaurants offer parents the option of having dishes “toddler-chopped,” which saves them the time of cutting up items for the kids. “We tell our staff to not only ask if they want the food for kids brought out first, we also ask them if they want the kitchen to cut up the food before it’s served,” said Scott Wise, president and chief executive of Pots & Pans Production with seven-unit Scotty’s Brewhouse and other concepts in Indianapolis, Ind. “Your kitchen is probably going to hate it, but the parents love it.”

While the menu is important, other factors, such as atmosphere and service, play a big part in family loyalty, said Casey. “It is cross-departmental, it is cross-functional,” she said. “It is not something that’s just a new kids’ menu, and you say that’s family loyalty — it’s not. It’s big picture. It’s menu. It’s service. It’s amenities.”

The friendliness of the staff also enhances the experience, said Casey, whose surveys have found that parents like servers to talk with the children. “You can go back to your restaurant tomorrow and require every single one of your staff members to talk to every single kid that walks in the door, and I promise you that those families will be leaving and telling everybody how friendly the staff at your restaurant is — just by that one action,” she said.

Digital technology is also an option to entertain kids and make the restaurant visit memorable enough that they wan to return, Casey said. “Kids are playing on technology on the way to your restaurant. They are playing with it while they are there. And they are playing it again as they leave,” she said.

About 25 percent of kids in Casey’s studies took a mobile device such as a smartphone, iPod or tablet computer to the restaurant. About 41 percent want a restaurant’s kids program to include something digital, she said.

Texas Roadhouse, for example, has a tablet-computer coloring app that unlocks new content on each subsequent visit. “You can also push messages out,” Casey said, “and the kids can share the pictures on Facebook, email or print them out.”

Wise also noted that most families have smartphones, so he’s added QR codes to the menu that direct to links with photos of all the kids’ menu items, a Justin Bieber music video or a Nickelodeon game website. “They all link to something that is kid-friendly,” he said.

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In addition, activity sheets that the kids can take home should be a part of a restaurant’s children’s program. “That’s a huge, huge door opening for a restaurant,” Casey said. “They are going to take your brand home with them if this is better quality.”

Casey’s research found that children want updated content on those activity sheets. “You can’t drive family loyalty with the same tic-tac-toe sheet month after month after month after month,” she said. “You are essentially wasting money and throwing it out the door because you are printing a napkin.”

Wise also provides chests for the tables where children can pick their toys. He also emphasized fun, creating an octopus-shaped turkey hot dog with a mustard face, an idea he got from Pinterest, the photo-sharing scrapbook-style website.

Christopher Janush, vice president of marketing for the 37-unit Edgewater, Md.-based Greene Turtle casual-dining chain, said a brand audit produced a brand repositioning last July that put new emphasis on families, even though the concept had a sports-bar image.

“We wanted to target families with our sports grill-and-bar concept,” Janush said. Besides working on the menu, he said, the Greene Turtle’s televisions in booths now include the Cartoon Network and Nick Jr. as well as sports channels, the website and Facebook page features children in brand photo shots and menu covers highlight kids.

One planned effort is an extension of the adult “Mug Club” program in a kids’ version. “They will be able to take the mug home and bring it back in for a milkshake on Wednesday or something like that,” Janush said. “They’ll see the mug at home and get mom or dad to take them back to The Greene Turtle.”

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