April 1, 2015 |

Fans for Life — Kid-friendly restaurants build generational clientele

By Heidi Lynn Russell

kid-friendly restaurant, pizzeriaMia Figlia (pronounced, “Mee-ah Fee-lee-ah”) is Italian for “My Daughter.”

When John Boudouvas gave his Chicago restaurant that name in July 2010, it was to reflect “the two loves of his life” –– his daughters, Ellena and Angelina.

And the restaurant name says it all. Boudouvas works hard to strike a balance between offering fine Italian cuisine and pizza to adults while also making children feel welcome.

Even his daughters are involved with taking care of pint-sized and grown-up customers alike. Both are fixtures at Mia Figlia by meandering through the tables, chatting up the kids, ensuring everyone is happy with their meal and greeting school friends and their moms and dads. Boudouvas’s older daughter, now age 14, is also a hostess during Sunday brunch hours (Sunday’s menu includes pizza for kids, alongside items for adults like frittatas, honey mascarpone French toast and a “Figlia Bloody Mary”).

“The idea behind the restaurant was for people to come in and have a decent meal and not be stuck ordering your typical kid meal,” Boudouvas says.

Children are not necessarily what first springs into a restaurateur’s mind when designing menus and creating ambiance. That said, they are a strong customer demographic for most pizzerias and Italian restaurants. Boudouvas and others have found ways to achieve a happy medium between kids’ needs and those of adults. Here are their tips for you:

• Give power back to picky eaters. Pizza customization is what Your Pie, a chain founded in 2008 in Athens, Georgia, is all about, says Kelly Acosta, the company’s director of marketing. She’s a mom who knows about finicky eaters first-hand. Customers choose their dough, sauces, cheeses and toppings and watch servers make up their pies as they move through a line.

“You can come in and never have the same meal twice,” Acosta says. “There are definitely kids who get creative. My daughter gets sausage and pineapple. There are so many options that they can’t try at other restaurants like they can at ours. It’s just like choosing gummy bears on frozen yogurt –– it gives them the fun of choice.”

Boise, Idaho-based Smoky Mountain Pizzeria and Grill’s mantra is “High heels and high chairs, equally welcome.” Last year, the company took a creative spin to pleasing the picky crowd, says President Dan Todd.

“We have a ‘Pizza Palette.’ We had these ‘palettes’ custom-made for us. The plate is in the shape of a painter’s palette with a handle on the side. The ‘holes of paint’ are portion cups where the different items go,” Todd says. The server takes the child’s “work of art” to the kitchen for baking.

“The neat thing about it is that it keeps them busy for a little while,” Todd says. “When the pizza is cooked, we serve all of the kids’ pizzas in an upside down Frisbee. And it’s also neat to see kids around the community playing with a Frisbee from our place.”

• Keep ’em busy while they wait. With cell phone and iPad games now so easily available, entertaining Hops and Pie crayons, coloring bookchildren is not as difficult as it was in the past, Mia Figlia’s Boudouvas says. Wi-Fi access is not optional, and parents have no trouble connecting their gadgets at his place. He also provides a non-techie entertainment option: white butcher paper on tabletops with crayons.

Your Pie provides “coloring pizza maps” so that kids can color different toppings. And children also receive dough pieces while waiting in line to keep their hands busy. “Kids like their hands in things,” Acosta says.

Bright, colorful wall art may sound like common sense, but Acosta also recommends it as a distraction. Children are transfixed by prominently displayed murals of Italy and Instagram photos at Your Pie.

As for Smoky Mountain, there are old-school vintage arcade games in some restaurants, Todd says.

• Designate one night a week a “Kids Eat Free Night.” It doesn’t have to be your busiest night, but offer free meals to kids on a weekday when most people won’t venture out. Since its inception, Your Pie has offered kids a free combo meal on Monday nights if an adult buys a combo meal.

The same goes for Mia Figlia on Mondays, when kids eat free from a special menu just for them. On other days of the week, costs are low for parents, with kids’ menu items offered for $5 each.

And face it –– offering free meals to kids means making inroads with parents, Boudouvas says. Make sure you have menu items to keep them coming back even without the kids in tow.

“More than anything else, what I’ve realized is that it’s important to cater to kids, but at the end of the day, you want adults to have a glass of wine or something to drink with their items on the menu. Kill two birds with one stone.”


Kid-Centric Events

Consider opening your restaurant to the kids-only crowd for special occasions to build repeat business, says Dan Todd, president of Smoky Mountain Pizzeria Grill. For 19 years, his company has offered, “Christmas in the Village.”

“We close early on Christmas Eve and open the restaurant to all kids in the community. We offer free pizza and soda for as many kids that show up. It’s a great success,” he says. “Some of our locations are next to the Christmas tree lighting for the town or city we’re in. We have seen families come for the full 19 years we’ve been doing this. We have Santa there. We believe in going the extra mile.”

Smoky Mountain also has “The Mighty Mountaineer Club.” Kids fill out a postcard with their address and birthday. They get a card in the mail for their birthday offering a free pizza.

“It’s cool for them to get something in the mail. It takes time and effort for us to do this, but we see a lot of smiles,” Todd says.

Heidi Lynn Russell specializes in writing about the issues that affect small business owners. She is a regular contributor to Pizza Today and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.