Is it possible to see the world through the prism of tomato sauce? As a parent, perhaps it is.
A few years ago, I visited York’s Skosh with Naylor 2.0 in tow. It was a scheduling error. Ordinarily, I do not visit good restaurants with the lad. Kids are not interested in Neil Bentinck’s beef tartare puris with kimchi, avocado and caviar, and I cannot abide performative middle-class parents who sit in restaurants loudly educating their children about presa and nahm jim. Interesting food is an adults-only affair.
But, anyway, we were late, Naylor junior was hungry and, in order to browse the menu in peace, I asked the staff if they could deliver a cheese toastie upfront. Not only was this done happily and swiftly but, as it arrived, so did the manager with a bottle of ketchup. Conspiratorially, in a stage whisper, he told the lad not to let anyone see it, as it was only for staff meals.
It was a moment of exemplary service I often think about. Not least last month when in a craft beer bar-slash-diner, I ordered for a gang of kids and as the chips arrived, asked for some tomato sauce. “We don’t do it,” the waiter replied. “You don’t have any anywhere in the building?” I pleaded. “No.” No explanation. No alternative offered. No cognisance that kids eating chips expect to dip them in Tommy K.
Yes, that complaint sounds frivolous; as if this column is turning into TripAdvisor. But hear me out. For this is indicative of a wider issue.
You want to ban children? Fine. I get it. But I am baffled by venues, usually hip, super-informal bar-diners, which appear to regard family groups as a lucrative but embarrassingly uncool hindrance. They will happily take money from parents (often, parents demographically indistinguishable from their childless clientele), but refuse to deviate from their aesthetic to accommodate kids. This is how you end up serving chips but, pretentiously, not tomato sauce.
Like any element of your offer, feeding kids (or rather, keeping their parents happy), requires engagement. Here are five contemporary tips:
1 You know those craft softs you stock, those blood orange and pomegranate seltzers? Kids won’t drink those and parents do not like paying £3 a bottle to find out, no matter how natural the ingredients. Please stock (some) recognisable pop.
2 The children’s menu should consist of a tomato-y pasta, pizza and a burger. Nothing else. Patronise those kids. They do not mind. And, if they eat uncomplainingly, neither will their parents.
3 Are pubs and bars that only serve wasabi peas and smoked chilli popcorn snacks deliberately trying to alienate children? If you cannot stomach stocking Quavers, then allow children to bring their own. Seriously. That might be the difference between a group spending £30 with you and walking straight out.
4 Get some old games from a charity shop; invaluable to a parent who is travelling unarmed. You would not believe how often a pack of cards or a battered draughts set extends a family lunch into a leisurely afternoon of spending.
5 Recruit staff who don’t hate kids. This is hard. Kids are weird. It is difficult to relate to them. But this whole process will be far easier if a few of your staff can talk to children confidently and hospitably, rather than frostily regarding them as a noisome – and noisy – nuisance.
This is not a plea that kids should be fawned over in venues, far from it. Kids should be unobtrusive: seated, quiet, polite. But trust me, in that endeavour, a little tomato sauce goes a long way.
This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the August issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here
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