As restaurants look to get consumers back in the door against the growing pull of delivery and takeout, some brands are targeting a growing niche within a coveted demographic: Millennial parents.
Armed with better food, more sophisticated entertainment and strategic discounting, restaurant brands are redefining the family dining experience.
“Kids programs are some of the most overlooked areas of casual dining,” restaurant consultant Aaron Allen of Aaron Allen & Associates said. “A lot of young families have less time to go out and the convenience of delivery is a more realistic option. You have to think — what is it about this experience that’s really appealing to families? It can’t just be that we have the crispier chicken tenders.”
Millennial parents are a large — and growing — demographic. According to the Pew Research Center, more than a million Millennials give birth each year, and the total number of Millennial moms — not including adoptive mothers or stepmothers — reached 17 million in 2016.
But to reach them, marketing tactics need to evolve with the times.
Kid-friendly options at legacy chains have stagnated, Allen said — “these placemats and coloring pages have been the same for decades” — but others have built their brands with Millennial families in mind.
At Firebirds Wood Fired Grill (above) — a Charlotte, N.C.-based casual steak and seafood chain with 49 locations nationwide — the kids’ menu is nearly as eclectic as the adult fare. Fish and avocado tacos are offered alongside classic kid favorites like mac and cheese and chicken fingers for an average price of $7 per entrée. Executive chef Steve Sturm says he does not shy away from introducing younger guests to more adult menu options.
“From our perspective, kids are a lot more adventurous than they used to be,” Sturm said. “They’re exposed to more varieties of foods than past generations were.”
Although Firebirds had a children’s menu from the day they opened their first store in 2000, it was not until the first menu revamp in 2005 that they began to rethink meal options for families by introducing the idea of “mix and match” entrées and two side dish options, allowing for more meal customization for kids and their parents.
“We want to provide an exciting meal with a balance of healthy and indulgent choices,” Sturm said. “Parents can pick a healthier side and kids can pick an indulgent one, for example. … Mom and dad can maybe sit back and enjoy a glass of wine.”
For Firebirds, marketing toward families is just as much about stimulating kids’ brains as it is about food. For example, instead of mindless coloring pages or word searches, their menu activity books aim to engage kids in discussions about empathy and integrity by telling the story of Firebirds’ partnership with charity partner Alex’s Lemonade Stand.
The Firebirds team also encourages chefs and managers to interact with kids who show interest in the restaurants’ giant grills by teaching them about cooking steak and seafood, and handing out chef’s coat t-shirts as souvenirs.
“We treat our younger guests like our older guests,” Sturm said. “We see it as an opportunity to gain them as customers for life.”
At Los Angeles-based fast-casual chain Tender Greens, the “little plates” (left), which are all priced at $7, are curated in almost the same way as the regular menu. Just like their parents, kids choose a protein — from salt and pepper grilled chicken, to steak or fried chicken — which is served with healthful side dishes like mashed potatoes and fruit.
“Millennials are so much more aware of where their food comes from and how it’s prepared and are in general more informed consumers,” Jack Oh, vice president of marketing for the nearly 30-unit Tender Greens said. “We designed our kids’ menu around how Millennial parents would feed kids in their own home.”
Even though the Tender Greens menu does include grilled cheese, a kids’ menu staple, creating that simple menu item was a highly curated process, Oh said, from choosing the right bakery for the bread to picking the best-sourced cheese so they “didn’t have to resort to sliced cheese from a packet on white bread.”
The strategy resonates with the chain’s customer base. Even when presented with more traditional unhealthy kids’ menu options, in an informal test at five Tender Greens locations, the most popular item was still the salt and pepper grilled chicken with a side of mashed potatoes and fruit, Oh said.
Still, established restaurant chains don’t have to completely rebrand themselves to successfully market toward the next generation of parents.
Cicis Pizza (above and top of page), meanwhile, doesn’t have a kids’ menu at all. Instead the Coppell, Texas-based, 550-unit pizza buffet chain draws families by focusing on the overall experience and offering budget-friendly deals like 99-cent kids’ buffets on Tuesdays.
In the 2018 NRN Consumer Picks survey, “family meal” was the top dining occasion cited by those who had recently visited the brand.
“Our key fundamentals have always been value, variety, and fun in a welcoming environment,” Bill Mitchell, CEO of Cicis Pizza said. “We’ve been improving our digital media landscape and tweaking our offerings while still being expressive of who we are at a reasonable price.”
While Cicis unlimited pizza buffet has been the core of their menu since the chain opened in 1985, the restaurant chain has tweaked their brand to appeal to Millennial families in other ways. Cicis is in the midst of rolling out a major brand refresh with Millennials in mind: more pizza choices, expanded game rooms and remodeled dining rooms with brighter colors.
Mitchell also said the brand will be rolling out more celebratory events like its recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-themed Tuesday kids’ nights which ran through mid-March where servers dressed up and the cartoon played on the TVs.
“If Millennials come out of their homes for a meal, they have to have an excellent experience,” Mitchell said. “We want our restaurants to be more memorable and engaging. One bad experience will not create a return visit and they’ll go back to takeout.”
Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]
Follow her on Twitter: @JoannaFantozzi
March 19, 2019: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Cicis.