They may not yet be paying members, but how you treat kids in the restaurant can boost your club’s current, and future, bottom lines.
Today’s children are tomorrow’s members, and the dining room is a great place to start building their loyalty. If you embrace your members’ children with open arms-rather than simply accommodating them because you have to-you can increase restaurant revenues and make the club a favorite dining spot that the young ones beg to return to.
This is becoming increasingly important as many clubs try to reinvent themselves “in a family way” in the face of aging and declining memberships. Remember, too, that a child-welcoming family atmosphere is often the deciding factor for many potential new members among young couples who are considering joining a club.
There are many different tactics clubs can take to cater to their younger diners-and not all of them have to do with the food itself. Although you might be surprised by all of what they will eat, young children are rarely accomplished gourmets with discerning tastes. So instead of focusing only on what you’re serving, find ways to entertain the children while still providing them with healthy, but attractive, menu options.
The Hartford Golf Club in Connecticut actually goes a step further and encourages kids to play with their food-or at least with what’s going to be used to make their pizzas. “We allow the kids to select off the menu or choose to make their own pizza,” says Joseph Archazki, General Manager and COO. “We bring out the pizza box with pizza dough, a soufflé cup of marinara sauce, shredded cheese and any toppings they would like. They put everything together in the box at the table and give it back to us to bake.” Ten minutes later, the freshly made pizza arrives back at the table in the same box, baked to perfection. This has gone over well and offers kids something not found at more commercial chain restaurants.
More Than a Menu
Club menus are also a great way to create special appeal for kids. Most adult diners can read a plain text menu or listen to servers’ descriptions and still be filled with a sense of “ooh” and “ahh” about the different offerings, their preparation and the fine ingredients used. But most kids-even the ones who can read the menu-wouldn’t know the difference between mass-produced spaghetti sauce and a specialty that was painstakingly developed over weeks or months of tinkering in the kitchen.
But kids can still be engaged about food by adding special interest and interactivity to the menus themselves. For example, the Mendakota Country Club in Mendota Heights, Minn., took old game boards like Scrabble, Pictionary Jr. and Monopoly, glued the children’s menu to the backs of the boards, and laminated everything. Kids had fun looking at the menus to decide what they wanted to eat, and then after ordering were encouraged to play the games, or just draw all over them with crayons. This proved to be a good alternative to covering tables in paper (rather than linens); the adults still had an upscale atmosphere, but the kids were given something other than conversation for entertainment.
The Hartford GC has also taken several creative-and even high-tech-approaches with its menus to entertain its younger members, including teens. “I love seeing the excitement on a child’s face when presented with something special,” says Archazki. Two years ago, when Pokemon was hugely popular, the club used the trading cards to create a menu. The cards were placed side-by-side in a binder next to mini-menus that were designed like the cards.
Last year, the club put its entire menu on personal digital assistants (PDAs) for the kids, even adding games and pictures to provide entertainment long after orders had been placed.
And this year, for teenagers, the Hartford GC printed its menu on CDs, using labels designed in-house. The CDs, which also contain recorded music mixes, are presented at the tables in a small case, and portable CD players and headphones are made available for listening on request.
“At our club we have a lot of teenagers who will sit together without parents, so they enjoy the music,” says Archazki. “Other times, when they’re sitting with parents, a small set of headphones keeps everything in perspective. The dining areas are very casual.”
Learn While You Eat
Menus can also be used to help educate younger members, without sacrificing their entertainment value. The Granite Club of Toronto has used this tactic on more than one occasion. In 2001, after the club finished renovations in its dining areas, a marketing concept-The Art of Food, celebrating the marriage of food and art at the club-was instituted, and the kids were not left out. The art theme found a home on the children’s menu and a character, Pierre the Painter, was introduced as the children’s guide. An illustrator drew a pizza maze on the menu to highlight the club’s new pizza oven, and a “Where is Pierre?” game showcased the new layout of the restaurants.
A couple of years later, behavior became the focus of The Granite Club’s menu. At such a large club-with 10,000-plus members and around 1,300 children-high expectations for proper etiquette can easily go unfulfilled. To begin to address the issue, the club decided to start with the children, reasoning that it’s easier to tell a child how to behave properly than to tell an adult, whom you risk insulting. The adults will get the hint through the efforts with the kids.
After surveying staff in areas of the club that had a high concentration of use by younger members, the club’s communications team set out to develop a menu that addressed examples of less than desirable behavior. Characters named Becky and Bill B. Goode were invented and illustrated in situations that addressed various etiquette issues; and while the ideas were presented on the club’s menu, the topics were not limited to table manners.
This proved to be a great way to enlist parents’ support in controlling bad behavior, as it raised awareness-without confrontation-that kids’ behavior is noticed at the club, and established the expectations that should be met.
Beyond Hot Dogs and Chicken Fingers
When it comes to the food that’s actually served to children at clubs, it’s very easy to fall back on the old standards. It’s also true that many chefs prefer to focus their efforts on the “more fulfilling” adult menu, where their creative efforts and culinary skills have a much greater potential to earn appreciation.
But kids appreciate good food, too. Sure, they may not like mushrooms sautéed in white wine, garlic and butter, but believe it or not, they can get bored with the same tired “kids’ menu” options, too. They can also be enticed into trying new things and will almost always respond favorably when they do.
Recognizing this, Chef Nigel Didcock at the Granite Club in Toronto has made a real name for himself, not only within his club but beyond, through his efforts to reach out to kids and expand their culinary horizons. “I’m very sensitive to what we’re feeding our kids today. It just makes me mad when we don’t think of the nutrition we give our children,” says Didcock.
At the Granite Club, Didcock totally revamped the kids’ menu to replace things like hot dogs and macaroni and cheese with items such as grilled salmon with fresh vegetables, a boneless, skinless chicken breast sandwich, chicken quesadillas made with natural cheese, and a pasta offering tossed with tomato sauce and grilled shrimp. There was some initial uproar from the membership, he reports, so some things (including hot dogs) found their way back to the menu-but some of the new additions that had been well-received were also retained.
Even with that compromise, Didcock hasn’t entirely given up on reaching out to those who might not place the same value on kids’ nutrition as he does. He writes a column in the cl
ub’s monthly newsletter to help educate members on nutrition.
As with the use of menus for behavioral instruction at the Granite Club, these efforts to provide educational information about nutrition are designed to enlist the support of parents and have them help set, and enforce, healthier examples. Many parents know the right things to do, Didcock believes, but often end up taking the easy way out. Club dining rooms can help support their good intentions, he feels, by taking more of the unhealthier menu options out of the equation.
Give Kids Their Due
Through all of these efforts to reach out to the non-adults within their memberships, clubs need to take care to distinguish between various age segments, and also to not be patronizing to any group. Older, or perhaps just more adventurous or mature children, might resent any efforts that are made to single them out or give them special treatment. A better approach with “young adults” may be to offer smaller portions of regular entrées, or to be more flexible with regard to sauces, ingredients and menu substitutions.
For example, you may want to offer two additional options for a sauce: without onions and mushrooms for the younger diners, and with butter or cream reduced, or eliminated altogether, for the adult version. While this can make for extra work in the back, members will appreciate that you are trying to accommodate everyone’s preferences, and a more universally satisfying dining experience will make the additional time pay off with repeat business from the entire group.
The same considerations extend to serving younger diners. Some kids like to be treated just like the adults and get embarrassed when they are babied, but others enjoy the special treatment and remember that more than anything else. But all kids are like adults in one respect-they don’t like to be ignored, and they will respond favorably when they sense you respect them and care about their needs. If servers work in tandem with the kitchen staff to make sure that the kids in your dining room have a great time, too, they will beg their parents to return to their new favorite restaurant, and your dining minimums may be welcomed rather than cursed. C&RB
Summing It Up
· Keep kids’ menus healthy and try to encourage the adults to set good examples.
· Kids’ menus should entertain, not just list dining options.
· Host kid-centric events to boost the club’s family atmosphere.
· Afford kids the same level of attention that you give the paying adults.
Hot Dogs We All Can Live With
Processed meats and hotdogs, in particular, have been under fire as bad for kids, after reports that they were suspected of causing leukemia. The problems come from the sodium nitrate used to preserve the childhood favorite. It reacts with amines in the meat when cooked, to form carcinogenic nitrosamines-chemicals that have been linked to several types of cancer and leukemia. Other foods including some vegetables contain nitrates-both naturally and as an additive-but it’s the specific combination with the ingredients in hot dogs that causes the problem.
But there are nitrate-free hot dogs available, if you don’t mind forgoing the bright red color that many associate with freshness. With a little member education, kids will come to accept the brown-toned hot dogs as every bit as tasty.
Instead of making parents spend money on a sitter while they attend club events, have them bring the children along and spend that money at your club. Events that focus on children are a great way to bring families together. And whether or not your club has a child-welcoming family atmosphere can be the deciding factor for many young families considering joining a club.
The Hartford Golf Club in Connecticut makes a regular practice of this every Friday night when it hosts specialty kids’ buffets. Past themes have included a Fear Factor buffet, fast food, fondue, Chinese food and a backyard barbecue. After the meal there is always a specialty dessert such as milkshakes, cotton candy, fried ice cream or make-your-own sundaes. And, after the food goes down the hatch, the club gets the kids involved in an activity to round off the evening. Sometimes it’s putt-putt golf, other times it’s been remote control cars, giant blimp racing, junk food bingo, or giant basketball. But anything to keep the kids engaged and out of parents’ hair for just a little while is appreciated. There’s no limit to the type of events you can plan, and children are easier to impress than their parents, so have fun with these events!
If events built entirely around kids won’t fly at your club, consider making special accommodations at events where they will be out in full force. Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club in Bradenton, Fla., has kid-sized buffets. The spreads are elaborately decorated and filled with selections designed to appeal to children. And, for the vertically challenged, the tables are lowered so the kids can be independent and easily serve themselves without having to rely on mom and dad.