Parties with children under 12 account for more than $17 billion in annual restaurant spending, the National Restaurant Association reported in 2013, but that amount may be on the decline. According to an NPD Group report released in May, restaurant visits by families with kids under 13 declined by 1 billion over the past six years, while visits by adult-only parties dropped just 306 million.

Hardest hit was the full-service segment, which accounted for 70 percent of all declines between 2008 and 2013. It’s little surprise, then, that full-serves are doing more to attract kids and families. Children often have the deciding voice when choosing a place to eat, and to draw in today’s kids, restaurants are leveraging what this generation of youngsters knows best—cell phones, outdoor entertainment, and superheroes like The Avengers.

A 2013 survey by Common Sense Media revealed that among families with children age 8 and under, there has been a five-fold increase in ownership of tablet devices, from 8 percent of all families in 2011 to 40 percent last year. Additionally, 75 percent of all children have access to some type of smart mobile device at home.

Tech-savvy kids are a smart demographic for restaurants to target, as demonstrated by the 390-unit Boston’s Restaurant & Sports Bar, which has a presence in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. In August, the brand added a mobile app in the form of a 3-D augmented reality game aimed exclusively at kids.

“Our mobile app games have worked tremendously well in enticing our younger guests,” says Brad Bevill, vice president of marketing for Boston’s. “Mobile phones and apps allow our brand to take several steps ahead of competitors; we are creating a cool factor in the minds of children. In addition, this keeps our menus and brand inside our guests’ homes, which drives higher frequency.”

On the app, kids can create characters that accompany Boston the Bulldog, modeled after the company’s mascot. Children can train their characters, and as they build skills, their performance improves. Alternatively, the app offers games such as soccer, basketball, and hockey. The company also gives out Power Packs, take-home treats that come with coloring pages, crayons, games, activities, and temporary tattoos.

Similarly, Texas Roadhouse in October introduced a QR code on its kids’ menus, customized with a small graphic of mascot Andy Armadillo. Children scan the graphic with a smart device, which takes them to an iTunes page to download the Andy’s Art Kit app. From there, kids can create their own layouts with drag-and-drop icons and color schemes, and then share them online.

Farm Animals and Superheroes

Family entertainment colors every aspect of White Fence Farm, a restaurant situated on more than 12 acres of land in Lakewood, Colorado. Whitney Carloss, hospitality manager for White Fence Farm, says she thinks of kids first when developing ideas for the restaurant. The property includes two playgrounds, an animal corral to feed farm animals, a duck pond, gift shops, and an Americana Barn, which offers everything from live entertainment to homemade fudge.

Carloss says in addition to all these amenities, the restaurant works to make children feel special and appreciated, an idea other restaurants can easily adopt.

“One thing that sets us apart is our wooden nickels that are handed out to children after they finish their meals,” she says. “Once the children receive their wooden nickels, they go to the treasure chest and pick out a toy.”

Restaurants need not dream up all of the family-enticing projects themselves, however. Many establishments are taking advantage of an initiative by the Florida Department of Citrus, which teamed with comic-book publisher Marvel this fall to re-launch its Captain Citrus mascot. The mascot, originally conceived in 2011 as a life-sized orange, underwent a makeover and emerged a full-fledged superhero who is powered by the sun.

The campaign promotes the nutritional merits of orange juice and helps restaurants increase traffic and boost beverage sales in the process. The campaign includes menu placemats, digital comic books, and table tents.

“Captain Citrus is a fun, inspirational way to capture imaginations and share information,” says David Steele, spokesman for the Florida Department of Citrus (FDC). He says the program helps the FDC connect with consumers and eateries interested in pediatric nutrition, and encourages healthy choices early in life.

Steele says the FDC did not plan to release the campaign to foodservice so soon, but the overwhelming positive response to Captain Citrus encouraged the department to accelerate its availability to foodservice partners.

Feature, Marketing & Promotions