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Improve menu choices for future customers

May 22, 2011
By ANITA HANABURGH , The Leader Herald

Why can't the restaurant industry come up with some more interesting children's menus? Seriously, the last four restaurants that I visited had the same offerings on their children's menus. One restaurant was a diner, one a family chain, one was a sidewalk caf in New York City and the last one was a fine dining restaurant with adult meals starting at $28. Certainly, they could offer something more interesting than the basic seven kid choices.

The seven items are overused:

1) pasta with meat sauce or butter,

2) fish sticks,

3) chicken nuggets,

4) macaroni and cheese,

5) toasted cheese,

6) hamburger or,

7) hot dog.

Oh busboy. I'm bored!

It feels as if we are telling our offspring this is what they should want, this is what they should like, this is what eating out is all about!

While mom and dad get the thrill of looking at an abundance of menu choices, the kids get the same old, same old.

Let's look at the reasons people eat out.

First, to get fed.

Second, to be social.

Third, to eat foods that are not typically available at home.

Are we creating children with no imagination? Are we creating kids with limited tastes? Are we introducing kids to the adventure of eating out or are we introducing them to the boredom of eating out?

One waitress justified the children's menu by saying, "Kids can order from the adult menu if they want."

Of course they can, for $28. However, mom doesn't want to pay a fortune for the children to "try" something new or order something they can't finish.

The restaurants and the parents may argue "This is what the kids want." When questioned, one restaurateur explained, "Over the years, we have learned that kids don't want the food offered on the main menu. If we add other items to the kids menu, they don't get ordered."

I agree and disagree. If we keep offering the "same old, same old" then the kids learn to eat the "same old."

I have two solutions:

1) Perk up the "stale seven."

Menu planners need to plan a menu to fit their future patrons. Restaurants, at least fine dining restaurants, need to devote planning time to the needs of their short customers. Transform existing items (i.e. macaroni to pasta) and add smaller servings of the existing menu pork, beef, salads, soup, and fruit to the children's menu. Consider the child's overall experience the menu, the service, the appearance and taste of the food.

2) Make it possible for the child to order from the adult menu. This can be accomplished by designating items that can be ordered in child-sized portions. As we designate heart healthy with a heart, restaurants could put a "C" or "1/2" or other photo next to items that can be ordered small-sized. An option could be half-order for halfprice to youths under 12. This could even be extended to the young-at-heart older than 65.

Oh, I hear the groans from the chefs. I'm not saying that all items need to be offered with child size servings. Chefs can select the ones that easily can be "smalled." Nothing special would have to be done - just cut the size of the item. All salads or soups can be easily split. For other items - steaks, chicken, lasagna, etc. - it would be the restaurant's choice.

Will it take the kids forever to choose from the menu? Maybe. They will be:

1) busy,

2) reading,

3) learning to make choices,

4) learning that there are many foods available,

5) getting excited about different foods,

6) wanting to return and try some others, and

7) enjoying being treated like the grown-ups.

Would smaller portions for a smaller price cut down on profit? It shouldn't if the items are priced correctly. Child-sized orders from the menu could bring in more profit than the existing children's menu and it could simplify the restaurant's overall menu system. Adding this option could actually attract customers and encourage ordering. Half items for half price or three-quarter price is better than no items for no price.

A close friend thinks this idea is crazy. Children want what they want, she explained. Parents don't want to bother. Restaurants won't want to bother.

I say, it's time to bother. That stale seven need transforming. The industry needs to plan for its future customers.

It may take time for the changes to be accepted, but it can happen. When I moved to Saratoga 30 years ago, I took my mom to the water bottling plant. She commented: "Paying for water in a bottle? It'll never happen!"

We can dispense with the dreary seven.

Restaurant Watch: Check out the children's menu at your favorite restaurant.




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