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family-fun-pack-image.jpg CEC Entertainment
Chuck E. Cheese is offering Family Fun Paks to feed and entertain families stuck at home.

How restaurant chains are catering to families, kids during the coronavirus pandemic

Dickey’s, Chuck E. Cheese, more brands offer deals for children from free meals to at-home entertainment

Before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, families were already increasingly turning to restaurants for convenient, affordable solutions to put dinner on the table. Now that the whole family is at home 24/7 for the foreseeable future, savvy restaurant operators are pivoting, leaning into and rolling out creative at-home meal and entertainment solutions for kids and families.

“It’s a huge shift and huge stress for parents,” said Laura Rea Dickey, CEO of Dallas, Texas-based Dickey’s Barbecue Pit.

To alleviate some of that stress, the 520-unit barbecue chain has made a shift of its own, moving its decades-long tradition of kids eating free in its dining rooms to online.

“As we come into these challenging times, [we asked] how do we meet our key values?” said Dickey. “What would help as everyone is upended that extends the concept?

Dickey’s Barbecue Pit KEF_Extended.jpg

A chopped brisket slider with a side of mac and cheese is among the kids-eat free deals offered online (usually dine-in only) from Dickey’s Barbecue Pit.

In addition to kids eating free, Dickey’s has extended its 2 for $24 meal deal through April, launched new Family Packs (choice of two meats, three sides, plus rolls and sauce) online for a price of $34.99, and is offering whole meats by the pound and whole cuts of meat that can be broken down at home for consumption at a later date.

The message, said Dickey, is “we’re here, we’re open, let us serve you.”

Northborough, Mass.-based Bertucci’s Brick Oven Pizza and Pasta is also responding to the crisis by taking its long-standing kids-eat-free deal out of the dining room and online. Now, guests can get a free kids meal with every adult entrée of $8.99 or more for delivery or pickup.

“The parent has extra costs and they don’t want to leave the house,” said Robert Earl, CEO of Bertucci’s.

Bertucci’s is also offering daily Family Meal Deals for $32. Available for pickup, curbside or delivery,  each meal of the day includes four individual portions of an entrée, such as chicken parmesan, shrimp rossini or spaghetti and meatballs, plus side salads, rolls, and disposable plates and cutlery for four. Bertucci’s is also waiving fees for delivery orders.

When Orange County, Calif., public schools announced in mid-March that they would close due to COVID-19, Andrew Gruel immediately launched a kids-eat-free policy for carry-out at Slapfish, his fast-casual seafood chain which has four of its 26 stores in Orange County.  

“In times like this, we’re there, we’re open,” said Gruel.

Slapfish kids meals include items such as fish tacos, grilled shrimp bowls and chicken tenders, plus a drink and fries or fruit.

In addition to kids eating free, guests can add on to call-in orders at-cost staples, such as milk, bread, eggs and even toilet paper.

Gruel, who is currently working from home with his three children all under age 10, is also planning to roll out packages that families can easily cook at home, such as lobster roll kits, because, he said, “you have the time.” 

Other chains have created innovative ways to not only to feed families at a value but also to entertain them.

The week of March 23, Fresh Brothers, a fast-casual pizza chain with 19 locations in Los Angeles and Orange County, rolled out a Jumanji Movie Bundle that includes a large one-topping pizza, six fresh knots and Jumanji: The Next Level on digital for $29.99 with a promo code. The deal is available for phone, online, delivery and carry-out orders at participating locations while supplies last.

“[We wanted to] package something for families to make the time people are at home quality time versus forced,” said Geoff Goodman, CEO of Fresh Brothers.


A kids-eat-free fish meal now available at Slapfish.

Goodman said the first day of the promo, a Monday, was a huge hit, selling about 10% of the initial movie download supply.

“There is a lot of pent up demand not just for food, but experience,” said Goodman.

To meet the evolving needs of its guests in the current reality, Chuck E. Cheese expanded its delivery and carry-out options and launched new online entertainment.

“Chuck E. Cheese, the brand and character is a staple in many kids and young family’s lives and we want to make sure we maintain our position – from fun food, entertainment and even games,” said David McKillips, CEO at CEC Entertainment, the parent company of Chuck E. Cheese.

Among the expanded offerings are Family and Birthday Packs for various sized parties that include items such as large pizzas, goody bags with games, party favors and tickets to use on an upcoming visit, as well as new carry-out pizza or wings for $4.99 each.

The chain also recently launched a daily Afternoon Fun Break on its social channels, featuring custom songs, dances, podcasts and coloring sheets and games for families to enjoy together. Plus, Chuck E. will host a live stream on Facebook and Instagram every Friday afternoon.

“Right now, families want and need, delicious at-home meals and more options for at-home entertainment,” said McKillips. “That’s why we have expanded our delivery and carry-out options and launched online entertainment.”

Among the tools that many of these brands cite as helping them create and execute deals so quickly are having solid communications already in place, an in-house technology team and a good network of owner/operators.

“We can turn on the communications instantly,” said Dickey. “It was the key to our being responsive.”

Yet, these operators view offering kids and family deals as more than just a way to make a fast buck.

“It’s not to see how much money we can make,” said Fresh Brothers’ Goodman. “That’s not the point.”

Instead he said, it’s about “anything we can do to help families make time at home that they can look back on fondly.”

Similarly, Slapfish’s Gruel says, “Right now it’s about getting people in the door. It’s a reminder and a refresher that we’re in this community.”

Gruel is keeping costs in check by offering the kids deal for carry-out only. It works out financially as the raw costs for a kids meal, he explained, are less than the third-party delivery fees, which he says are still at about 30%.

While targeting kids and families may attract online orders now, operators are aware that they need to be thinking long-term, too.

“Every brand today is responsible for providing value back to their customers and this is our best way to show appreciation to millions of families who love to spend time at our family entertainment restaurants,” said CEC Entertainment’s McKillips. “As I’ve said to our entire team throughout this challenging time, how we act today, is how our guests will react tomorrow, when things subside.” 

Betrucci’s Robert Earl shares a similar philosophy:

“All of our peer group needs to be thinking about reemergence,” he said. “But until then the only words that should matter to them are delivery and pickup.”

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