Figuring out what kids like to eat that also pleases their parents has long been a challenge for restaurant operators. Parents want healthy fare for their growing offspring, but kids want something fun and tasty. Seafood is one item that can easily fit the bill, but has yet to widely infiltrate kids menus.
“There’s a tremendous missed opportunity with most of the industry,” said Julie Casey, aka The Restaurant Mom, founder of online kids' dining resource mykidsplate.com. “Kids and parents are agreeing they want to see seafood on kids’ menus.”
According to the 2012 Kids and Parents Discovery Survey, conducted for Kidzsmart Concepts with The Restaurant Mom and Cincinnati-based Directions Research, both kids and parents want to see seafood on kids’ menus. For example, when asked what food items from the adult menu they would like to see on the kids’ menu, more than a quarter of kids surveyed said seafood. When asked what items from the adult menu their kids ordered or would order if they were on the kids’ menu, nearly a quarter of parents surveyed said seafood.
But while seafood presents a big opportunity for restaurants, only 20 percent of kids' menus currently include seafood, down from 21 percent in 2011, according to foodservice research firm Technomic. Of kids’ menus that do include seafood, shrimp appears the most. Other seafood dishes frequently showing up on kids’ menus are fish and chips, salmon, fish sticks and fried fish.
“[Seafood] is perceived as healthier. [But] there seems to be some type of stigmatization around fish,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic. He also cites the higher cost of seafood compared to other proteins and the fact that kids’ menus are often loss-leaders as other reasons operators may not be taking advantage of the fresh, not fried, seafood opportunity.
Restaurateur Aaron Noveshen has long had success offering seafood dishes on the kids’ menus at his four Pacific Catch restaurants in California’s Bay Area. “Kids a lot of times are very aspirational—they want to eat like their parents,” said Noveshen. “Kids don’t want to be talked down to.”
That's why Pacific Catch’s kids’ menu largely features junior versions of the items that are part of the adult menu. Among the choices are California Rolls, fish tacos, coconut shrimp and salmon teriyaki bowls.
“We sell kids California rolls to two-year-olds,” said Noveshen. “That’s kids' food now. It does quite well.”
Across the country, Weathervane Seafood Restaurant, a 43-year-old family owned and operated seafood house with 13 locations throughout New England, recently revamped its entire kids menu to include more healthy choices. “We saw a need and a request from parents for healthier options,” said Jeremy Gagner, chief operating officer and the third generation of Gagner’s to operate the restaurants. “Families with children are one of our target markets, so appealing to them is something we try to do on a regular basis.”
So now instead of all fried, all the time, Weathervane’s kids’ menu features healthier seafood choices, including the claw meal: two whole lobster claws and a choice of two sides, plus a cup the restaurant’s signature seafood chowder. While fried clam strips and fried native shrimp are still the top seafood sellers, Ganger says the new items rank in the top five and have been performing very well.
Operators wary of adding seafood to their menus should consider not just adding it, but making it a fun experience as well, says Casey.
“Any mild fish that can be baked or broiled, not fried, with some sort of sauce on the side — that’s a win-win,” said Casey. “Build-your-own, dunking, sharing … The dipping and the fun and the interacting encourages tasting and eating of healthy things.”
Fun and interactively is a key part of the kids’ seafood experience at both Pacific Catch and Weathervane. At Pacific Catch, guests are greeted with snacks of edamame and goldfish crackers, and little guests are given chalkboards to write on while their parents peruse the restaurant’s daily changing chalkboard menu.
At Weathervane the new claw dinner for kids is served in a whimsical, red, lobster-shaped basket with a bib and a cracker. In addition, parties can request Lobster Lore, a three-minute tableside presentation that gives young guests the low-down on the crustacean, from how to tell its sex to where they live and what they eat.
“The idea of getting kids to eat seafood in a fun way—that’s part of getting kids to eat seafood,” said Ganger. “You have to put a fun spin on it.”