Restaurant Retrospective: The Evolving Family Restaurant Experience

Restaurant Retrospective: The Evolving Family Restaurant Experience

Restaurant Retrospective: The Evolving Family Restaurant Experience 1440 428 Chute Gerdeman

In the ever-evolving restaurant landscape, family restaurants are undergoing a renaissance, embracing an era of immersive, experience-based dining. Modern menus cater to both young palates and adults, while technology and imaginative play areas captivate children. This renewed focus on creating cherished memories and fostering togetherness makes family dining a compelling proposition in the competitive market.

The modern family seeks more than just sustenance; they yearn for an inclusive and memorable dining adventure that caters to all age groups, tastes, and interests. This shift in consumer expectations has catalyzed a wave of innovation in the family restaurant industry, creating a novel blend of dining and entertainment, seamlessly woven together to cater to the diverse needs of families.

From revamped menus that cater to health-conscious parents and adventurous young eaters alike, to play areas that go beyond simple slides and swings, these restaurants have tapped into the essence of family bonding and togetherness. As competition for family dining dollars increases, what do restaurants need to know to keep customers coming in? Read on as we explore the changing family restaurant experience, starting from the beginning.

Restaurant Experience

Evolution of the Family Restaurant Experience

While the concept of the family restaurant has been around for more than a century, it was the post-World War II era that really saw the rise in the family restaurant. The economy was booming and as more families bought homes in the suburbs, the shift in population and lifestyle created a new demand for dining options, filled by the rise of the American diner. These small roadside eateries had become popular in the 1920s and 1930s, offering classic comfort foods and all-day breakfast menus. By the 1950s, family restaurants and the precursors to family restaurants evolved from these diners, and we saw the formation of restaurant chains. Restaurants like Howard Johnson’s and Big Boy became well-known family-friendly establishments during this period, providing sit-down dining with an emphasis on affordable, family-oriented menus.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a further proliferation of family restaurants as suburban living continued to grow, and dining out became a popular form of family leisure. During this time, new restaurant chains and franchises that catered specifically to families began to emerge, providing unique dining experiences and amenities tailored to children and parents alike.

It was in 1971 that the McDonald’s PlayPlace further transformed the idea of family dining. It was a magical place where kids could play between bites of fries. Adults could sit and eat in peace while their kids climbed, clambered, and dived into the ball pit. McDonald’s launched PlayPlaces to build brand loyalty in children by emphasizing a family-friendly environment.

The idea of the family restaurant continued to gain steam through the next few decades, with kid-friendly restaurants like Ruby Tuesday, Applebee’s, and TGI Fridays providing high-caliber children’s menus in a setting where mom and dad could have a cocktail and a nice meal while the kids colored and solved puzzles on paper placemats.

What Happened to the Family Restaurant?

A paper placemat and a packet of crayons doesn’t cut it with today’s kids. And with the increasing popularity of experience dining, like barcades and food halls, the shift in consumer preferences continues to grow. Consumer expectations have changed considerably now that the children visiting these restaurants are digital native Gen Z and Gen Alpha, whose parents are often Millennials. Replacing paper placemats and crayon packs are tabletop tablets with electronic games to play while kids wait for their food. McDonald’s has been offering tabletop gaming since its Digital Play initiative more than a decade ago.

Whatever concerns there were about safety and cleanliness in kids’ play places before the pandemic were exacerbated during it, with more parents falling out of love with indoor play structures altogether. Combining health and safety with the modern convenience of fast-casual establishments, drive-thrus, mobile apps, and food delivery service—and dining in at family restaurants has fallen out of style.

Mobile Ordering and Drive Thrus                                                                

The very technology that increased children’s expectations in entertainment also led to the downfall of the play place. Everything can be ordered now with the push of a button – including a meal. Families started grabbing food on the go and taking it home during the pandemic, when consumers who were forced to stay in also started redecorating their homes and making it more fun to be there. To compete, family restaurants began offering online ordering, curbside pickup, and meals to go.

The decline of dine-in visits to family restaurants and fast-food chains has shifted the perception of fast-food restaurants to no longer being “third places.” Chains like McDonald’s recently cut back in areas like play places and seating and instead expanded mobile ordering while increasing and the number of drive-thru lanes.

Home Improvements

When families were stuck at home elbowing each other for work and homework space, it was a boon for the home improvement industry. Now, even though they’re free to get out, the home is a much more attractive place to be for many, and delivery services like DoorDash and UberEats make it easy to order from a local restaurant and let someone bring it to the door.

People Aren’t Going to Malls

Family restaurants built their business model on being in or near malls. Because more people are shopping online or in neighborhood shops, malls are not nearly as busy nor are they attracting the type of consumer who would have a family meal, and fast-casual dining is feeling the pinch. People simply aren’t going where family restaurants are located.

Play Places Aren’t Popular Anymore

Consumers have a much greater awareness of health and safety than ever before. Awareness of how unclean indoor play places can be, combined with other factors, including having enough staff to keep the play areas clean, has forced many McDonalds to remove their play areas.

Catering to New Generations

As the cost of eating out has increased, expectations of the restaurant experience have also increased. Nearly 84% of consumers say going out to a restaurant with family and friends is a better use of their leisure time than cooking and cleaning up. And there are new trends and family-oriented innovations attracting customers who are seeking a new and improved family dining experience.

Playground Alternatives

“Play corners” have become popular with the toddler set and do not require much space in a tight restaurant space, like these custom KFC play corner concepts in Europe.

 The emerging concept of “playscapes” and “experience walls” incorporate digital play is appealing to today’s tech-savvy youth. Many experts suggest that playscapes of the future will adopt a more solitary nature that incorporates the kind of digital play kids are used to nowadays.

Upscale Family Dining Experiences

Some parents are looking for upscale dining experiences for the entire family, and this demand is now being addressed by some Michelin-starred, award-winning restaurants that are taking kids into consideration when designing their menus.

“Here at COMO, we believe nurturing young palates is a must from the start. So we try not to make a children’s menu per se, but to incorporate a few dishes that are fun and interesting for children,” says executive chef Timothy de Souza in an interview for the Michelin Guide.

Barcades and Breweries, Family Edition

16Bit, with locations in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dublin, Charlotte, Nashville, Indianapolis, Easton, and Pittsburgh, have created the perfect eatertainment experience with old-school video games like Pac-Man served up alongside dinner. Other family-friendly arcade restaurants are on the horizon, like Fig + Farro in Minneapolis.

With the growth of U.S. craft breweries has come a variety of taprooms with play areas for kids and even room on the patio for the family dog. For those diners who want to bring the entire family along, they can go all out at BrewDog, where some locations feature a dog park for both kids and their furry companions to run free.

Healthier Children’s Menu Choices

Parents no longer want to feed their kids the standard corn dog or mac and cheese kid’s meals. They’re looking for healthier options. And kids’ tastes are evolving as well; many children prefer sushi to PB&J.

“To me, the kid’s offering doesn’t need a re-think. It needs a drastic change in order keep this valuable group of people in our venues—not to mention ‘woo’ the customers of the future—neither of which will be achieved with dry chicken nuggets and chips. Why do I rarely see kid’s food on Instagram? Simply because it’s not good enough.”
– Katy Moses, MD at KAM

Restaurant Experience

Diversity at the Diner

The family restaurant experience of today is not only offering better entertainment options and healthier meals on the children’s menu; these restaurants are also embracing diversity and inclusivity, offering spaces that accommodate various family configurations, be it traditional families, single parents, or families with diverse cultural backgrounds. More effort is being put into training staff to be sensitive to individual needs, ensuring that every guest feels welcomed and valued.

Friendly and Eco-Friendly

Many fast-food restaurants today are placing a higher priority on sustainability and environmental responsibility. From using eco-friendly packaging to implementing energy-efficient practices, they aim to leave a positive impact on the planet for future generations.

Family restaurants, like Denny’s, are also working to keep those families returning to their restaurants regularly by giving them the option to join loyalty programs that offer exclusive rewards and benefits, which encourage them to return and create more memorable experiences—while also leaning into affordability.

The successful family restaurant experience today goes beyond a mere meal; it’s an immersive journey where culinary delights, entertainment, and meaningful connections converge to create an unforgettable and enriching time for families to cherish and share together. Restaurants have an opportunity to lure in families with healthful food everyone likes, entertainment for the little ones (and maybe even the dog), and rewards programs that bring them back for more. 

Restaurant and food trends come and go, but one thing is for certain—the chicken sandwich is having a moment. Read more about our predictions for the next big thing in Restaurant Trends: What Comes After Chicken?

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