Who’s holding the baby?

An look at the opportunity that presents itself in the family dining market.

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I’m one of those arguably selfish people who partied on for years and then left it relatively late in life to have children. Boy, what a culture shock! I now have a two daughters, the eldest four years and the younger two years old. Parenthood is an interesting double edged sword. On one side the joy we have gained from our children is immeasurable; on the other side my wife and I can count the number of uninterrupted meals we’ve had on one hand, and we are slowly learning to appreciate the subtleties of cold food.

Those experienced parents out there are probably by now saying‘ Yeah, so what. We’ve all been through this’. Well that’s my point. Nearly all parents with relatively young children go through this; at least those who can’t afford a nanny. As the kids get older it get’s a bit easier if you’re willing to throw money at a babysitter, but it still rankles me to pay someone good money to work for an hour to get the kids to bed then drink my wine while watching cable TV for the rest of the night.

What’s this got to do with our industry? Well I think there’s money to be made here. Give me a decent place to eat that offers a supervised crèche and I’ll be more than happy to throw money at it. When you consider that a babysitter might cost you $40 or more, if it cost me $30 extra for the crèche service, I’d still be coming out $10 ahead, and I’d save a bottle of wine; and the restaurant would have another profit centre — one with only labour costs. We’d probably go there a couple of times a month, and I suspect, so would a lot of other people.

Some restaurants and pubs already pay lip service to the concept of being ‘family friendly’ by providing a secure area, often grotty, which is full of broken toys, plastic balls and things the kids are usually not too interested in. Supervision is left up to the parents, which to my mind defeats the purpose of going there in the first place. You’re usually up and down from your seat like a jack-in-the-box rescuing your kids from someone else’s little psychopath, or to referee the frequent territorial disputes over the one interesting toy in the compound. Believe me, it’s never relaxing and does nothing to foster a loving marriage. Most of the time you end up arguing about whose turn it is to go and intercede.

To add insult to injury, these places often offer a ‘kids menu’ that is full of chips, chicken nuggets, fish fingers and the like, which the kids gleefully eat then refuse to touch a vegetable for the foreseeable future. You end-up swapping ten minutes peace for full-on battles and psychological warfare at the dinner table for months on end. Surely there must be a better way?

Part of the solution lies in altering the way we look at the industry we are in. Most of my clients look at themselves as being in the food and beverage industry and focus their attention on that aspect of their business, but once you rise above the bottom market level in the hospitality industry, a number of ulterior motives arise in the decision of where to go for the evening. Such issues as seduction, reward, special occasion, business, and the relief of the tedium of parenting kick in and it becomes a much more complex transaction than just feeding people.

Obviously the majority of the industry will not want to go this way and will prefer, for a variety of reasons, to stay well clear of dealing with anyone less than a metre tall. That’s fine, I’m not suggesting your favourite restaurant form a joint venture with the local crèche, although there is some merit to the thought. I am suggesting that there is a hole in the market that no one seems to have jumped into yet, that’s just begging for an entrepreneurial soul with a willingness to go a little outside the square.

I don’t want to go to have to go to a noisy barn of a bistro where I have to queue for my order, I don’t want schnitzel parmagiana or a fisherman’s basket, I don’t want a wine list from Southcorp, I don’t want to deal with staff who don’t know the difference between shrimps and prawns. Sure, we’ll do that now and again, but what about when I want to spend a little bit of quality time with my wife?

In my Utopian dreams, I imagine a place where you make a booking for yourselves and the children, then all dress up nicely and present yourselves at the desk. You are greeted by a warm, smiling person who says hello to the children, engages them then invites them off into a nice, skilfully supervised environment to play with other children and enjoy organised activities. Meanwhile my wife and I are ushered pleasantly to a table where we enjoy a mid priced, competently prepared meal that is complimented by a good wine list. After a couple of relaxing hours talking and enjoying each other’s company, we pay the bill and collect happy children who don’t want to go home.

I know it’s only a dream, but boy, I’d pay for the experience . . . time and time again.

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