The results of a study carried out by Oxford Brookes University and the University of Queensland into the experiences of parents and carers visiting restaurants, pubs and cafes with their children, found that just small welcoming gestures made by staff were all that were needed to secure repeat visits and recommendations.
“It’s amazing how little we know about parents and carers’ experiences of going out to eat,” said Peter Lugosi, reader at Oxford School of Hospitality Management, who led the report. “Surveys are carried out that ask people to rank things like food, service and changing facilities, but there’s very little done about people and how they feel when they eat out.
“In the accounts people gave about their visits to both branded and independent places the reasons they gave for their loyalty were often the little things. Parents didn’t want special menus, they just wanted staff to talk to their children so they don’t feel left out, serve them first or give them something to keep them occupied while food is being prepared so they won’t misbehave."
Lugosi, a parent himself, told BigHospitality that restaurant staff should appreciate that families often invested a great deal of time preparing for their trip to a restaurant and could be put off future visits if staff were unwelcoming.
“It’s easy to think: ‘Oh, here comes the noisy family party’, but often the family has put in a lot of effort to go out,” he said. “They have to plan well to fit things around feeding and they’ve packed emergency packs of activities and toys to keep the children occupied. They will be conscious of where they sit so they don’t interrupt others. They realise they are potentially a burden so if front-line staff can appreciate that, then it can go a long way to making them feel better about the whole experience.”
Lugosi said making a venue accessible to families was also essential.
“One family who gave their account said they’d only visit places with double doors because they have twin children and it’s the only place they can get a double buggy through the door.
“Others said that simple acts by staff such as moving chairs around to get the buggy through the restaurant made a massive difference.”
While the report found that families don’t always expect foodservice businesses to cater for their needs, particularly in the evenings, Lugosi said there was evidence that welcoming families in the day made good business sense.
“If you’re looking to boost daytime trade the family market represents some superb revenue streams,” he said. “The parents we spoke to were more likely to visit in the day as they didn’t want to be out late with young children; they were consuming in groups and there was an element of rhythm and loyalty to it - there were repeat visits, so you’re getting a loyal customer base who keep coming and are likely to bring others during a time of day when you’re less busy. These seem like opportunities businesses can utilise."
The report - The hospitality consumption experiences of parents and carers with children: A qualitative study of foodservice settings - also revealed opportunities for restaurants to better engage children in food.
"The most memorable experiences for parents was when food was accessible for children," said Lugosi, who said restaurants offering half portions of adult meals rather than children's menus with 'the usual fried foods on' were popular with families interviewed for the report.
"Parents wanted good quality food that they'd eat themselves available for their children," he said.
While food doesn't have to be changed for children, smaller cutlery, cups with lids or smaller glasses and beakers were welcomed.
Lugosi's five top tips for catering for families:
- Start the experience before they come through the door. Poor access puts people off venues. Lack of parking, awkward access between the car park and the venue and even narrow doorways may discourage parents from going near your venue, especially if they have to manoeuvre buggies.
- Be hospitable. Even the smallest gestures, for example asking how old the child is, can make a big difference. Service staff acknowledging that parents are ‘doing’ childcare can reassure them that they are welcome.
- Mind that child. Focusing on the children as active decision makers is valued by parents and children. Nobody likes being ignored or talked over, including children. Engaging children in conversations, explaining dishes and encouraging them to make choices can lead to happier little customers.
- Happy child=happy parents. Talking with children, entertaining them and prioritising serving them before their parents can help to settle them. Keeping children content means their parents can relax. There is also less chance of them disturbing others.
- Get other customers on board. Just as small gestures of hospitality from service staff can make your place feel welcoming, the tutting and disapproval over breast-feeding or children’s noise by other customers can make it seem unfriendly in a heartbeat. Emphasise to other patrons that families and children are welcome.