Getting parents to eat out is child's play

April 11, 1993|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Contributing Writer

As soon as we'd been shown to a table, the children made a beeline for Bub City's back room. They joined about 30 other noisy, enthusiastic boys and girls of various shapes and sizes who were busy playing the free carnival games, drawing on a big board, rolling out Play-Doh, all under the watchful eye of the smiling young staff at the Chicago restaurant.

Preschoolers and toddlers were having a great time, too, though they were supervised by their parents. "We come here every Sunday," said Gretchen Trofa, an attorney, who had one eye on her 18-month-old twins. "The kids won't sit still very long, so we come back here to play while we're waiting for our food and then they're ready to eat. We get a night out with the twins, and they're happy."

So were Matt and Reggie and their 4-year-old friend Nathaniel, though it took him a bit longer to warm up to the idea of playing without his mom in the room. They wandered back to the table long enough to eat -- ribs, fried shrimp, hot dogs and french fries ordered from the extensive children's menu -- and when it was time to go home, they triumphantly showed off the prizes they had won (a cowboy hat for Matt, a temporary tattoo for Reggie, a coloring slate for Nathaniel).

As for us grown-ups, we had a leisurely dinner eating food we preferred to fast burgers or pizza, enjoying adult conversation. There were no fights at the table, no chorus of "When can we leave?" no frantic attempts to entertain children who had finished eating before we'd even taken a bite. Even better, the children's activities were free. It was the first dinner out with the children in a while that I wasn't left wondering why we'd bothered to come. (Especially since I'd left 2-year-old Melanie at home with a sitter.)

Across the country, restaurateurs and hotels are beginning to get the message that today's families want more than children's menus and high chairs and that accommodating them is good for business.

Hyatt Hotels, for example, asked 20,000 children what they could do to improve their Camp Hyatt children's program. Give them their own restaurant, the kids said. The New American Cruise Lines, whose first ships will sail Christmas 1993, is already touting its supervised children's buffets so parents can plan on a romantic dinner on board.

The Hyatt Hilton Head has found its Little Captains Quarters Restaurant -- so far the only separate children's restaurant in the chain -- is drawing in locals at the same time it has upped the frequency of guest dining by 30 percent, reports food and beverage manager Scott Allen. (The hotel even has launched a frequent-dining program for children: Eat here 10 times and your parents eat free.)

The Holiday Inn Lake Buena Vista and the Holiday Inn Main Gate East in Orlando go a step further. The children eat free at the children-only Gingerbread House and Kids Kottage -- no one over 4-foot-8-inches allowed -- as long as mom and dad are dining in the hotel. (That goes for a single parent with three children, too.)

The restaurant's executive manager, Terry Henson, is convinced that the children's dining programs are a major factor in the hotels' success: They operate at more than 90 percent occupancy, the highest in the chain nationally.

"We go there every year and that's one of the reasons we stay there," says Debbie Darling, a Chattanooga, Tenn., housewife and mother of two. "Before, when we'd get back from vacation, I'd think I needed a vacation from the kids. This way, we get a break and get to eat a meal in peace, and we save money because the kids eat free."

Whether for vacation or for a dinner out, many parents today, especially those couples who both work full time, don't like to leave the children behind. They worry they don't have enough time with them. At the same time, parents lament the dearth of good baby sitters -- and the expense of hiring them. But no matter how well-behaved your children -- how much they like being with you -- a restaurant meal is simply too long. No matter how many coloring books you've brought along or how interested you are in their conversations, they're invariably going to get bored, crabby and make you miserable.

That's why families are flocking to places that cater to the children as well as the adults.

In the restored harbor town of Newburyport, Mass., for example, David's Restaurant offers a Kids' Room where the children are fed, entertained and supervised all for $3.15 a child. "Definitely this is bringing in business," says owner David Turin. "People come here when they otherwise wouldn't go out."

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