No kidding: casual chains make play for youth market

No kidding: casual chains make play for youth market – Claim Jumper Restaurants targets teen-ages with new products

Jack Hayes

When Irvine, Calif.-based Claim Jumper Restaurants began testing “JR. (Junior) Jumpers” menu selections about 12 months ago, the company was surprised pleasantly by how strongly teenagers and their parents took to slightly smaller burgers and medium-sized portions of top sirloin, quesadilla, and the best-selling fish and chips.

Since then Claim Jumper has been studying more carefully the adolescent segment of the kids market. Like others of its casual dinnerhouse peers, the soon-to-be-30-unit chain has found that teens and so-called ‘tweens not only are a potentially lucrative market but also represent a large pool of future employees and the adult customers of tomorrow.

Industry experts note that teens and ‘tweens make up a population totaling just over 40 million in the United States. New York-based NPD Group, which charts industry eating trends, breaks out two age classes that roughly define the ‘tween and teen segments: the age 10-to-14 group, or ‘tweens, has about 20 million members, and the age 15-to-19 group, or teens, has more than 20 million members.

“This is a lot of eating power, but the fact is that, unless they are dining with Mom and Dad, money is the key decision driving force for teens and ‘tweens,” says NPD vice president Harry Baker.

Because much remains to be learned about the influence teens and ‘tweens exert on a family’s decision to eat at casual dinner-houses, many operators said they for now are holding back from pursuing adolescents full throttle.

We still don’t know how much influence teenagers or that group in the middle we like to call ‘tweens are exerting on the family’s choice of which casual restaurant they are going to dine at,” admits John Beck, marketing vice president for Bennigan’s Irish American Grill.

According to Beck, Bennigan’s also recently experimented with smaller portions as part of a major menu enhancement aimed at older children and found “high receptivity.” Yet there wasn’t enough conclusive evidence to drive a culinary commitment.

“This has been a 24-month question for us, and until we’re able to secure that ‘tweener and teen decision-making information,” Beck says, “we’re keeping our focus on the adult market, 21- to 44-year-old men and women in $60,000 average households, since they represent 87 percent of our guests.”

Still, according to Beck, Bennigan’s is continuing to push its research experts for help in defining how casual dining can serve its family guests better without alienating core customers. The company anticipates it will have a clearer program in place by next year.

From NPD’s assembled data, Baker reports that the top 10 restaurant types visited by 8- to 12-year-olds last year were burger, pizza, concession, ice cream, chicken, sub/sandwich, quick-service Mexican, quick-service Chinese, convenience and doughnut establishments.

Thus, for ‘tweens, casual dining becomes an option only when they are out with families, Balzer says. Teens, on the other hand, have greater freedom to frequent destinations like Red Robin, Fuddruckers or Max & Erma’s with friends. As some operators report, catering to teens who have jobs or large enough allowances is good business.

“You go into a place like Max & Erma’s, and you see combinations of moms and dads and young kids,” Balzer says. “That unlimited sundae bar really brings in the kids.”

However, Balzer validates the difficulty of pinpointing current needs of the teen and ‘tween segment.

“Every new group of teens comes in with the philosophy that they’re going to be different–not like Mom and Dad,” he says. “So keeping up with this group is not the easiest thing.”

Bennigan’s Beck and other marketers in casual dining say that menu is only one part of the equation they are scrutinizing in determining how to attract teens and ‘tweens.

In addition, there’s a service element that recognizes the more complex needs of a family with kids and the way those needs vary based on the age of the youngsters.

For example, a family party arrives, and the adults want to order one of the new appetizers that have a 25-minute cook time. Should the server then suggest they order children’s entrees at the same time?

“We have to have that flexibility and knowledge to deliver the right experience,” Beck says. “We have the resources to build a bigger program, but we want to correctly integrate the best elements of merchandising, table seating, service speed and menu into the whole experience.”

At Claim Jumper, which operates in five Western states, that experience begins at the host station when party with children enters the restaurant, according to spokesman and community relations director Larry Bill. Guests immediately are asked whether any of the children will be ordering from the Little Jumpers menu, which was created just about the time when the company was founded 25 years ago.

This is the service staff’s first opportunity to field questions about “What’s on the Little Jumpers menu?” Bill says. It allows the host to elaborate on portion sizes and differentiate between the eight traditional Little Jumpers selections–such as C.J. Mac & Cheese, mini corn dogs and chicken tenderloins–and the five JR. Jumpers additions, including the JR. Rack of Ribs, that are part of the same menu, Bill explains.

“The JR. menu has been in evolution over the past 12 months,” Bill says. “What we’re finding is the teenagers feel more recognized and happier about the choices. Another thing is the parents like the idea of paying less for the reduced portions.”

For example, Claim Jumper’s popular fish and chips plate, which is $14.95 on the main menu, sells for $8.95 on the JR. Jumpers menu. The top sirloin, which is $19.95 on the adult menu, sells for $10.95 as a JR. menu item. The chain’s average per-person check is $16.

And, as Bill explains, even though the chain doesn’t market its reduced portions to adult guests, Claim Jumper now finds more adults who come in with a small appetite are placing orders for JR. selections.

Nor does Claim Jumper market specifically to children, ‘tweens or teenagers, who conservatively represent about 15 percent of the chain’s guest count, according to Bill.

Greenwood Village, Colo.-based Red Robin–whose mission statement is “We want to take care of families better than any other restaurant concept in America”–says that 28 percent of its guests are under the age of 18.

With 190 company-operated and franchised units in 24 states, Red Robin is serving more than 100,000 meals a week to kids adolescent and younger, according to marketing vice president Neil Culbertson.

“That 28 percent is really about 40 percent higher than the 21-percent average for our segment,” Culbertson explains. “It’s because our appeal to kids from zero to 18–up to the time they leave for college–is universal.”

Part of the appeal is that Red Robin’s environment is upbeat and invites kids to be themselves in comfort, Culbertson says.

“Adolescents are into music and eye candy, and that’s our trademark,” says Culbertson. “We specialize in smoothies, shakes, strawberry lemonades, all kinds of specialty beverages the kids can feel more adult with.”

He adds, “We know the teens really like us because the team members treat them with respect. Many teen customers turn out to be great team members.”

In contrast to the low lighting and dark wood treatments that are found in more upscale casual venues, Red Robin restaurants are decorated with primary colors, creating a look the company calls “eclectic and timeless.”

Vintage movie and cult posters with likenesses of everyone from Michael Jordan to James Dean typify Red Robin’s interior. A black and white mural covers the wall above the exhibition kitchen in each Red Robin unit. The carefree scene depicts young adults gathering in a mood of relaxation, enjoyment and safety.

“Teens dine with us in groups,” Culbertson says. “They come in on Friday nights after the movies. It’s the welcoming feeling we give. That’s the best thing we do. And parents with younger children love it, too.” Servers and hosts are trained to decide who gets kids menus. Age 10 is the cutoff point.

Burgers represent 44 percent of food sales at Red Robin, according to Culbertson. Twenty-two burgers are on the menu as well as a short list of entrees, salads, sandwiches and appetizers.

“No one does burgers like we do,” Culbertson says.

For kids in the 6-to-12 age group, the restaurants provide game rooms. Approximately 150 square feet, the rooms feature interactive video arcades and “fantasy transport” experiences.

The brand’s birdlike mascot “Red” makes frequent dining-room appearances in the evening and is received enthusiastically by the younger guests. Those visits help to pass time, which is a key concern of Red Robin’s management. The average guest stay at lunch is37 minutes and at dinner 42 minutes, Culbertson reveals.

“From the time Mom and Dad place their order, they should have their food in nine minutes,” he says. “With this strategy the kids are not idle for along time. Besides, servers are taking kids’ beverage orders right away and making sure the kids are happy. There just isn’t time to get bored.”

Other casual brands approach the kids, teens and ‘tweens market from a variety of angles.

“Our salad bar is one of three things we’re doing to make teens and ‘tweens feel important in our restaurants,” says Rick Johnson, brand development and growth senior vice president at 585-unit Ruby Tuesday, which is based in Maryville, Tenn. “To know you can build your own plate is to feel a sense of empowerment,” he explains.

“Another thing we do is teach the staff to deal personally with all children, especially the older ones who are at the age of needing to feel seen and heard and respected,” Johnson adds. “We want to make these nearly young adults feel as welcome as our adult guests.”

Ruby Tuesday’s broader menu–in comparison with menus of competitors like Outback or Longhorn, which are more specialized–is likewise more accommodating to the teen and ‘tween age groups, Johnson says. Ruby Tuesday does, however, provide a separate menu for children age 10 and younger.

“There’s something here for the teen and ‘tween age group in the salad bar, the sandwiches and the platters. It’s more than they’re going to find at the more focused-menu concepts,” he says. Johnson estimates that Ruby Tuesday’s 18-and-under guest population is about average for middle-priced casual dining, approximately 20 percent.

As at Claim Jumper and other casual brands, guest greeters at Ruby Tuesday have the task of qualifying which “kid” guests are young enough to be given a separate kids menu.

O’Charley’s has marketed itself for more than a decade with a “kids eat free” slogan that identifies the brand with young families, and the 150-unit Nashville, Tenn.-based chain is continuing to focus on younger children despite broadening interest in ‘tweens and teens by its casual-dining peers.

“In the past six months we’ve put together an eight-page kids book with different levels of activities for the different age groups up to the 10- and 12-year-olds,” says product development director Paul Schramkowski. “That’s going really well,” he adds.

While many O’Charley’s restaurants still offer free meals to kids, 60 percent of stores in the system now charge a minimal $3.49 per meal, Schramkowski says. The meal includes a reduced-size entree, snack and beverage.

“As we go into new markets, we’re moving away from the ‘kids eat free’ approach,” Schramkowski explains. But the brand puts a lot of attention on school and community events, producing programs to reward “students of the month” as well as kids who exhibit bravery in doctor and dentist visits, he notes.

The top-selling menu item in both the kids-eat-free restaurants and those where parents pay for kids meals is the chicken tenders plate. The No. 2 product is a small-portion sirloin steak, sized at approximately 3 ounces. Burgers, fried shrimp, macaroni and cheese and grilled cheese are also popular.

Teens and ‘tweens likewise are empowered by the privilege of making salad bar choices at Steak and Ale, according to senior marketing manager Sean Bertin.

“In our segment niche about half of the youngsters ordering from the kids menu are adolescents,” Bertin says. Best sellers, he explains, include the single grilled chicken and 7-ounce top sirloin.

Bertin says Steak & Ale prefers to attract the adolescent age group vs. a younger age group because the check averages of teens and ‘tweens tend to be higher. He notes that the six exclusively kids meals are mostly less than $5, he says.

“But the teenagers also get beverage and dessert included with their checks,” he adds.

The restaurants also provide activities to keep younger children involved so that parents can enjoy their dining experience, according to Bertin.

While 12-and-under kids represent less than 10 percent of Steak & Ale’s clientele nationally, local restaurants may adopt their own strategies to attract families depending on the dynamics of the trading area, Bertin says.

“Some restaurants with a higher mix of children reach out and do tours through elementary schools and day-care centers,” he says. “These can be two-hour tours with local fire officials, for example. Those 7- and 8-year-olds love walking in and out of the freezers.”

As at O’Charley’s, some Steak & Ale units develop meal reward programs with schools for students who achieve. Doctor and dentist visits may also be rewarded with meal certificates, and some unit managers and servers reward kids who behave well while in the restaurant with their parents. Some Steak & Ale units also feature kids-eat-free nights.

Two-hundred-unit Fuddrucker’s believes its choice of burger size and burger toppings bar are especially appealing to teens who either dine with groups of friends or with their parents, according to Scott McCullough, director of marketing.

“Our concept is attractive to kids, teens and ‘tweens because we offer that variety,” McCullough says. “They can pile those toppings a foot high–it’s very empowering.”

McCullough says Fuddruckers’ direct community involvement with schools in bookmark programs, promotions for kids and activities for the environment, such as the Fuddruckers’ Forest tree-planting events, all serve to endear the brand to children in the teen and ‘tween age groups.

“We do contests where these youngsters can win $500 for their schools,” he says. “Another thing is the Wurlitzer juke box giveaway to a youngster who writes the best story about ‘why family rocks,’ “McCullough explains. “We tie in educationally wherever we can, offering rooms in our restaurants for fund-raising nights, team parties, sock hops, you name it. We want to get the schools involved in our restaurants.”

Fuddruckers, with all of its emphasis, boasts a kids, ‘tweens, and teens guest mix of approximately 25 percent, according to McCullough.

“Sure, a lot of adults come in and dine with us at lunch, but in the evenings our restaurants are loaded with kids,” he notes. “It’s common to see busloads of kids traveling with school functions stop at our restaurants. We do these large parties for teen organizations, where we’ll grill a 5-pound burger, and the kids will all tear off their pieces. It’s a lot of fun, and they love it.”

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