More than just child’s play

By Emma Eversham

- Last updated on GMT

Revenue stream: Families can be a valuable source of income for pubs
Revenue stream: Families can be a valuable source of income for pubs

Related tags: Children, Public house, Alcoholic beverage, Inn

You don’t have to install a state-of-the-art soft play centre, radically adjust your menu or ignore other customer groups to attract the family market to your pub

When Graham Anderson and his wife, Sharon, took over the Eastfield Inn in Bristol it coincided with the birth of their first child. Having spent most of his working life in pubs, Graham had a fairly clear idea about what lay in store for him with his new business, but like many first-time parents, he was unsure about the impact a child would have on his life, particularly on his social life.

“I like going to good pubs as well as working in them,” he says, “and when you have a child you suddenly wonder if you’re still able to do it. When we took over the pub we thought ‘we wish we could go somewhere like we used to’, and being able to include children in the life you’ve always led is what a lot of people want too.”

Focus on families

PLAY AREA DOS AND DON’TS

■ Do match it to your venue. The Bull at Ditchling is a Grade II-listed pub, so owner Dominic Worrall was loathed to install a ‘bright plastic Charlie Chalk-style house’ in the garden. Instead, he commissioned a local joinery business to create a wooden play area more sympathetic to its surroundings.

■ Do update it regularly. Worn or broken equipment gives the impression you don’t care about your business. Three Cheers Pub Company buys new play equipment for the Rosendale and Latchmere pubs every year and refreshes outdoor equipment after the winter to ensure it works well and looks good.

■ Don’t place it in an area where it is likely to irritate guests visiting without children or where parents can’t keep an eye on their children.

■ Don’t be afraid to change things if they aren’t working. Graham Anderson at the Eastfield says his offering has evolved over time with plenty of ideas going by the wayside. He says: “We had a nice idea for a quiet book corner with bean bags. The vision was you would have lots of children sitting around reading but, in reality, they will only do that if they’re on their own. You have to try things and accept that sometimes they might not work.”

Catering for families was always in Anderson’s plan for the Eastfield Inn, but becoming a parent helped narrow his focus. The pub opened with a soft play area in an old skittle alley and a garden with play area boasting interactive and educational features. It now hosts an annual family-friendly New Year’s Eve party that winds up at 7pm and runs gardening classes and singing sessions for pre-schoolers among other activities.

“The area we’re in has quite a lot of families and, when we refurbished the pub, we knew that providing for them would be part of our offering,” he explains, “but once we reopened we realised they needed to be 100% of our focus. There was nowhere else in the area at the time where you could take children, so we set about filling that gap.”

Anderson’s decision to open a family-friendly pub in an area heavily populated by families may seem like a no-brainer, but even pubs without the same local demographic should consider catering for the family market.

According to the first Future Shock Report, from the Association of Licen-sed Multiple Retailers (ALMR), CGA Peach and CGA Strategy, parents of children aged under 16 account for almost 30% of eating and drinking occasions out of the home and 50% of parents with pre-school children eat out once a week, rising to 59% for parents with children up to the age of 16.

“Families are an important consumer market and businesses should not disregard them in favour of solely courting younger customers,” warns ALMR chief executive Kate Nicholls. “Parents with school-age children do not stay at home, they have active social lives and should not be discounted.”

The report shows that families eat and drink out more often than customers without children, making them a significant revenue stream for pubs to tap into. “Over half eat out at least weekly and 40% drink out of home weekly,” states Nicholls.

There are obvious business benefits to serving families, but knowing how to balance this customer group with the needs of people who don’t have children with them is not easy.

Dominic Worrall, owner of East Sussex pub, the Bull, at Ditchling, overall winner of the Great British Pub Awards in 2016, says it needn’t be too arduous if pubs focus on feeding children well and engaging them in the whole eating and drinking experience.

After abandoning a trial where the pub offered smaller versions of adult meals because it was “too confusing and too much choice” Worrall’s team created a special three-course children’s menu. It offered garlic flatbread and hummus or soup to start, main dishes like battered cod fillet and chips or mac & cheese, and desserts like chocolate brownie and ice cream for £9 in total.

“It’s simple, freshly cooked food. What it isn’t is your typical freezer-to-fryer food, which is all too common in a generalised pub environment,” says Worrall. “The menu is simply worded so the kids can understand it and has a simple, singular price point to make it easy for the adults.”

Staff at the Bull are also trained to speak directly to children to take orders, helping to engage them.

Worrall says having a three-course menu for children is also designed to make the eating-out experience better for the adults, because it helps children stay seated for longer, thus allowing parents and other guests to enjoy their meal or drinks.

“It’s not there as a money-spinner for us, it’s partly there for service reasons,” he explains.

Parents quite often want the kids to have something to nibble on to start with so that they can all have their main course together, like you’d have at home, says Worrall. Without this option, the kids often eat their meal first and get bored while the adults are eating. He says the kids’ drinks are not overly sugary either to avoid children becoming whirling dervishes.

“I’ve been to an awful lot of pubs where kids are running around and parents are hiding behind their newspaper and you can feel the tension among other guests. We try and manage that and ensure the kids are engaged and fed well and it seems to work.”

Anderson, whose pub won the Star Pubs & Bars Best Family Pub in 2014 and 2015 and is a finalist in this year’s Great British Pub Awards, agrees that providing children with quality food and engaging them in the ordering process helps create a more harmonious environment.

“The presentation of our children’s food is given the same care as the adults. The kids probably don’t notice, but the parents do and understand that we care about their children too,” he says.

“Often a waiter will just talk to the parents and ask them what their children will have, but we make a point of asking [the children] what they want. It’s also a cheeky sales tactic too, because once the child says ‘I want this’ it’s difficult for them to say no.”

Approach to products

MENU ADVICE – PLEASING SMALLER APPETITES

The pressure to provide healthy dishes for children to help cut obesity has not gone unnoticed on pub menus. But customers aren’t always seeking healthy when ‘treating’ themselves to a meal out of the home. Children also have very different appetites, leading to questions over quantity. 

“Striking the balance between trying to offer healthy and something they’re actually going to eat is a big thing for us,” says the Eastfield Inn’s Graham Anderson. “We know that they want fish and chips or a burger, so what we try to do is ensure it is fresh and the best it could be. We offer sweet potato chips instead of ordinary potato chips and can add salad if they want.”

Three Cheers Pub company recently introduced smaller plates (grilled hake, mini sausages, etc.) for £5 and larger plates (6oz mini steak, veggie burger, etc.) for £8 to appeal to different tastes and different size appetites. “Our new addition of smaller and larger plates depending on the child’s appetite has worked really well,” says co-owner Tom Peake. “We know parents dislike waste and love value for money, so this works really well.”

As with the Eastfield Inn, the majority of the pubs run by the London-based Three Cheers Pub Company are in residential areas and surrounded by families looking for somewhere to eat together and meet friends and family.

Nevertheless, the pubs also need to attract customers without children. As co-owner Tom Peake says, even the parents who have come in for coffee with their babies in the daytime or visited with the family for Sunday lunch, expect a different ambience when returning for evening drinks with their partner or friends.

The pubs supply colouring-in books and indoor games for children, with two in the group – the Rosendale and Latchmere – offering outdoor play areas featuring climbing frames, Wendy houses and climb-on toys.  However, it is the pub’s approach to the core product – the food, drink and atmosphere – which has the biggest impact.

The pubs serve ‘healthy kids’ menus filled with fresh fruit and vegetables’ in varying sizes for ‘different size appetites’. It also offers a ‘decorate your own fairy cake’ as dessert, which Peake says keeps everyone happy as kids have the fun and eat the icing before the parents eat the cake.

“We place looking after kids as a high priority,” says Peake. “We know if they are happy then their parents and our other customers around them will be happy.”

One pub operator that often scores highly with families is JD Wetherspoon (JDW) and it is one of three licensed retail brands most likely to be visited by parents aged 25-44 with children under 16 according to the Future Shock Report.

Interestingly, as JDW spokesperson Eddie Gershon points out, its pubs have no attractions for children, just a popular and affordable children’s menu, good hygiene ratings and a family-friendly atmosphere.

“Ultimately, families and their children enjoy visiting Wetherspoon pubs knowing they can enjoy good-quality food and drink, for adults and children alike, with value-for-money prices and service of the highest standard,” he says.

Outside of the food and drink offering, it is worth noting that pubs with defined zones will tend to cater better for all parties.

“We’re quite lucky that we have segregated areas at the Eastfield,” says Anderson. “We have a separate bar area where children aren’t allowed after a certain time. They can eat there in the day, but as there’s nothing there for them to play with, the drinkers and those without kids will migrate to that end.

“We have a separate room that used to be the skittle alley that has loads of toys in it. That’s out the back and everyone who goes in there is in the same boat. We don’t tell people where to sit, but by what you put in each area they naturally gravitate towards it.”

Worrall also sees the benefit of having subtly defined areas. He has just invested £8,000 in creating a bespoke wooden play area built around a tree in an unused area of the Bull’s garden.  Although it was a big investment he sees it is ‘another stepping stone’ to pleasing his customers.

“It warranted the same level of attention as I would think about when choosing the wine list or where we are going to buy our game from this season,” he says in defence of splashing out on bespoke play equipment. “I want everything to be brilliant and I think what we’ve ended up with is a wonderful, playful and safe environment that keeps the children out of the way of those customers without them.

“If you don’t prepare for kids coming then it’s going to be a really uncomfortable experience and that will make people feel unwanted and I would be horrified to think that anyone would feel like that at the Bull. It’s not about bells and whistles, it’s about attention to detail and the level of service. I would encourage other people to embrace the market, but be prepared.”

Related topics: Marketing

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