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Mon 21 Dec 2009 04:00 AM

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Tough customers

They may be small, but kids mean big business: F&B operators from family-friendly outlets around the Middle East explain why targeting the ‘little bosses' when it comes to food means their parents will follow.

Tough customers
Sheraton Abu Dhabi offers kids the chance to decorate their own gingerbread house.
Tough customers
Kempinski’s Sailesh Balan.
Tough customers
The Surf Cafe at Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa.
Tough customers
Rivington Grill’s Chris Lester.

They may be small, but kids mean big business: F&B operators from family-friendly outlets around the Middle East explain why targeting the ‘little bosses' when it comes to food means their parents will follow.

Boasting beautiful beaches, picturesque mountains and culture-filled capitals, as well as a multitude of inviting hotels, the Middle East has naturally become an extremely popular destination for families.

But activities and attractions only go so far: to be a real hit with this client base, operators have to keep the kids happy: and this is where the F&B department must step up.

At Shangri-La's Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa, executive chef Beat Enderli typically sees 70% to 80% of the clientele made up of families with children during peak holiday season, while the remainder of the year sees that figure average out at 30-40%.

Le Méridien Al Aqah Beach Resort director of F&B Gian Raffaele Sabbatucci sees similar figures, noting: "This has always been a family-friendly resort and all the outlets here were introduced based on our customers' feedback, so this element was taken into consideration in the development of every offering."

At Doha Marriott, executive chef Reinhard Fuchs says about 60% of his clientele is made up of families.

"Usually the kids make the choice about where to eat; the parents will follow them," he observes.

Caprice Holdings Dubai executive chef Chris Lester, who heads up the kitchen at Souk Al Bahar's Rivington Grill, agrees.

"We developed our kids menu right at the start - we knew who our clientele would be," he says. "Accommodating the children was essential, because their parents are our customers.

"In the development stages of the menu, we looked at it from a wellbeing angle, but also at things that children like. It's all very well putting on things that are good for them, but they've got to want to eat it.

"At the end of the day, the children can often influence the parents about where they go to eat; if they're happy and comfortable with the food, the whole family will come back - and that's what it's all about, repeat business," he points out.

It seems targeting children can pay off - but with so much competition in this field, operators are continuously vying for custom by introducing new and unusual promotions and attractions.

Sheraton Abu Dhabi Hotel and Resort director of F&B Julide Nuss-Ozbilge notes that in addition to offering family packages for rooms which include a free meal for children below 12 years when eating with an adult, the property has established a dedicated children's corner at its Friday brunch, with games, DVDs and face painting.

"Kids love that and parents are quite happy about the ‘alone-time' they can spend with each other," she notes.

Kids staying at Kempinski Hotel Ajman are all offered a glass of bed-time milk free of charge, while Shangri-La's Barr Al Jissah Resort wins its kiddie clientele over with timely treats.

"Upon check-in we provide little ice-cream treats for the children, and we have plans to introduce a hot chocolate station during breakfast as well as a strolling cotton candy and popcorn cart," explains Shangri-La's Enderli.

"Of course, dedicated children menus are available at various dining outlets and as a standard practice, dishes are prepared free of trans-fat with reduced salt, pepper and chilli," he adds.

At Le Méridien's Penguin Club for youngsters, it has initiated a ‘Make Your Own Pizza' programme, which Sabbatucci says has proved "very popular with the junior chefs".

Meanwhile Doha Marriot has its Just for Kids Catering scheme, which was created "to provide busy mums and dads with nutritious alternatives to junk food", says Fuchs.

"This menu can be tailor-made to any party theme," he explains. "We will accommodate special dietary requirements, including requests from parents for fun yet healthy party goodies."

At Rivington Grill, Lester believes the key to keeping younger clients - and consequently their parents  - happy is being flexible.

"If someone wants to switch broccoli for peas or something, then we'll do that; if their mum wants something steamed or cooked without butter for them, we'll do that too," he says.

"We're here to accommodate; no menu is going to suit everyone so we simply try to be as adaptable as possible.

"These guys are our guests of tomorrow," he points out. "We've got to look after them so they come back. There is an element of education in there."

According to Sheraton's Nuss-Ozbilge, the main thing to keep in mind when catering for children is always the safety and security of the youngsters.

"As a company providing for children, you must ensure that whatever you are offering is fun-filled and at the same time that parents are confident that all is up to standard," she asserts.

As part of this, it is essential to check up on any lurking dietary requirements or any intolerance towards specific foods, notes Le Méridien's Sabbatucci.

Rivington Grill's Lester agrees: "For some reason, there do seem to be more allergies around nowadays.

"But parents will tell us what their children can have and then it's up to us to make that happen if we possibly can. It's about understanding their needs and being prepared to work around them."

Le Méridien's Sabatucci adds that promoting the benefits of healthy eating can be tricky. "Most of the time, parents order for their kids and the ‘little bosses' refuse to accept those choices when the order comes," he says.

"But the presentation of food plays a key role here; children's dishes need to be eye-catching and colourful to ensure easy acceptance - and minimum hassle for the parents."

Kempinski Hotel Ajman executive sous chef Sailesh Balan agrees that persuading children to eat fresh vegetables and healthy food can be difficult - "as is fielding a menu without chicken nuggets or fries, as kids are always asking for them," he adds.

But by keeping to youngsters' preferences as well as subtly adhering to what parents want, there is a balance to be struck.

According to Le Méridien's Sabbatucci, parents todays are "more conscious about food choices and want their kids to migrate from junk food to healthy nutritional foods".

"Starting to eat healthily at an early age is gaining in popularity - and when it comes to buffets, children love it when fruits and vegetables are well presented," he says.

But Shangri-La's Enderli says kids are still fighting for their right to junk food, while Kempinski's Balan notes that many "follow the unhealthy eating habits of their parents".

Sheraton's Nuss-Julide says she is "very disappointed to see that children continue to eat unhealthily here".

"But as a new F&B director in town, I want to increase the efforts of Sheraton Abu Dhabi in providing healthy options for children," she continues.

"We are planning to implement more items that kids will enjoy and that are eye-catching, but which are also healthy."

Rivington Grill's Lester admits: "I've seen parents here who only feed their kids rubbish, or won't let them try new things - but there are other options out there.

"I know kids aren't easy, but I think it is possible to strike a balance between feeding them well and keeping them happy."

Lester also points out that the Middle East has a notable eating-out culture, which children are involved in from an early age.

"It's part of the weekly routine for a combination of reasons - people seem to be very busy, produce in supermarkets isn't what it is in certain other parts of the world, families like to eat together, and restaurants have a great range.

"Kids here do eat out regularly and we're very conscious of that," he says. "So we do try to offer our younger customers something they'll enjoy and want to come back for - because very often kids will make the call on where to eat, so if they like somewhere, the family will come as well!"

For those who count families as a major portion of the clientele, it is vital to remember that your offering must appeal to the children as well as the adults - and by satisfying and impressing both parties will you see these customers quickly added to your regular client base.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve been asked to cook for a child?

"One of our little guests asked the chef to serve up a duo of hotdog and ice cream on one plate! He seemed to enjoy the combination." Julide Nuss-Ozbilge, director of F&B, Sheraton Abu Dhabi Hotel and Resort.

"One of the strangest requests we ever had from a kid was to serve him just mashed vegetables and mashed fish with no seasoning." Sailesh Balan, executive sous chef, Kempinski Hotel Ajman.

"We have actually had a guest request broccoli in chocolate sauce with vanilla ice cream for a child!" Gian Raffaele Sabbatucci, director of F&B, Le Méridien Al Aqah Beach Resort.