Little smashers

Little smashers

Midway through 2017, a survey by the British Nutrition Foundation found that 29% of five to seven-year olds thought that cheese came from plants and 13% of eight to 11-year-olds thought that pasta came from an animal.

The need for food education among children is evident. With a huge presence on the high street and in British culture, restaurants have their part to play.

Smashburger UK has taken it upon itself to educate children in what it knows best through its dedicated children’s menu. The activity booklet features a colouring page, the food and drink options, and perforated pieces for children to create their own burger in the way that Smashburger does.

Educaterer

“The most important thing was to get the message across to children that they’re eating fresh food,” says Smashburger UK sales and marketing director Iain Duncan. “It’s not frozen food deep-fried – it’s fresh, understanding what the ‘smash’ for Smashburger is. In the perforated pieces, you can create your own little smash iron and pretend you’re smashing the meat. And every child does it. Guaranteed. Then the education comes in for the parents; the parents are helping them fold the pieces, so you are also teaching the parents that it’s fresh food. It’s like a family education.”

Duncan may now work in sales and marketing for the burger brand, but he grew up in his parents’ restaurant, serving at the age of 10, and represented Smashburger UK at the 2018 National Burger Awards live final. As a result, he wants children to have the same opportunity to experience cooking. He recounts his experience with Hard Rock Café, which around 10 years ago, looked to develop packs of seeds to give to children. This follows a mention about Smashburger UK managing director Tracy Gehlan’s grandson, who is “always in the kitchen” and a friend’s son handing out canapes at a Christmas party while wearing his Cath Kidston apron. All of this is inspiring him to evolve the interactive menu.

“I’ve been working with a company called Craftis,” he explains. “It’s the country’s leading kids activity pack producer – they do Virgin planes and trains, and hotel groups. We’re in talks about creating a kids’ pack. The next stage would be a bag, and inside is a chef’s hat, a cotton apron, recipe cards, the kids’ menu and a little plastic smash iron. I want to start an interest in food or cooking at home with mummy and daddy, to get the message across that the food they’re eating has been made by somebody and get them interested in cooking.”

However, such an addition to the offering costs money – £50,000, to be precise, when you are required to order 50,000 at £1 a pop. When you are only charging £4.95 per children’s meal (which will increase to £5.95 with the introduction of the bag) and competing with other brands that are offering ‘Kids Eat Free’ in the school holidays, it becomes an even bigger price to pay, but one that Duncan is hoping will pay off.

Kids mean business

In the last 12 months, Smashburger UK sold approximately 300,000 main courses, 29,500 – or 10% – of which were kids’ meals. Looking to appeal further to families and build on this market, the brand is changing how it communicates the children’s menu at the entrance, replacing ‘Kids Menu Available’ with the relevant options being included on the window menu itself.

While the kids’ meals seem to be popular with their target market, it is the milkshakes that have younger customers hollering for the adult versions. This means good business for Smashburger; if a child orders an adult milkshake with his or her child’s meal, it increases the average spend from £5 to £10. That being said, Smashburger has to be careful about pricing and value for money.

The drive behind the attributes of the physical children’s menu, food and drink aside, is to educate those children and get them excited to cook with mum and dad at home. Adding this value to the children’s offering is important to appeal to children and parents alike.

“It’s the kids that tell the parents they want to come,” believes Duncan. “What I’m reading from guest feedback is that children are the influencers of where the family eats. We got a message a few weeks ago; the mum typed it on behalf of her son, and he wanted to tell Smashburger that he really enjoyed his lunch and it was the best thing ever. We were so taken aback by how passionate the children are about their experience.”

A quality, memorable experience is top priority for the children, but Duncan explains that, above everything else, price is what matters to parents.

“It’s necessary for us to have a separate children’s menu because of the price point. It’s making dining out affordable for families. A predetermined price means that the parents know how much the bill’s going to be.”

According to Duncan, parents are unlikely to be willing to pay more unless there’s an attractive free gift, hence the chef’s bag. Even healthier drinks options, which would also see the cost of menu items increase, wouldn’t see the return on investment, despite recent reports that health is a big concern and trend in eating out.

Nutrition deliberation

Burgers, fries, hot dogs and fried chicken may not have connotations of health and wellbeing, but, like many operators, Smashburger has looked into updating its offering with health in mind.

Part of its menu update includes an increased font size on the call to action that nutritional information is available if customers request it. However, its interest in offering healthier drinks options was met with a brick wall, as Duncan explains “the cost of the packaging of those drinks is affecting our decision to include them in our menu.”

While the company had good intentions, there doesn’t seem to be too much pressure from parents to make it a reality.

“I don’t want to pigeonhole anyone, but if we had a restaurant in Clapham or Streatham, then I think the yummy mummies would be interested in the finer details,” comments Duncan. “If you’re in a shopping centre in Newcastle or in a retail park in Milton Keynes, they’re not bothered. Price is the priority.”

At the end of the day, Smashburger is not pretending to be the healthiest. Duncan himself admits that other operators are “doing better, with little crudités and grapes”, but this is not what the brand is about. Its customer base is different from The Ivy or McDonald’s. As is emphasised in the children’s activity booklet, Smashburger is about fresh food that is cooked in a specific way, and a unique experience for children and parents.

“We’re creating memories rather than just eating,” adds Duncan. “When a child goes to McDonald’s or Burger King, it’s just filling their bellies. When they come to Smashburger, it’s an occasion.”

Childish antics

Industry advice on children’s menu activity.

“It isn’t difficult to ‘hide’ fruit and vegetables in dishes, or to create menu items that appeal to children, and they needn’t add cost,’ says Creative Foods Europe marketing director Nigel Parkes. “In fact, they may even reduce it as they can be used to bulk out a dish, reducing the quantity of more expensive ingredients. They can easily be grated or puréed, then disguised among the other ingredients in common meal components such as pasta sauces, mashed potato and pie fillings.”

Pip Organic co-founder Karen O’Neill explains: “30% of our Pip Parent Panel spoke about the importance of treating their child while out and about. However, it appears that parents are often more lenient, not out of choice, but out of necessity. According to one parent, it is difficult to keep their child’s diet the same while out as ‘there are not always many options, particularly with vegetables, when you are ordering in restaurants.’”

“When developing new children’s menus operators can increase the appeal of their choices by using fun names or even creating characters and including exciting images within menus,” says Carpigiani UK sales director Scott Duncan.

“It’s great to have a kids’ menu for younger children – something fun and easy to eat with some finger food options that aren’t too messy,” advises Brakes food marketing manager Becky Hover. “But, as kids get a bit older, having a smaller plate of what their friends and family may be eating will be really appealing.”