Hey Kids! It’s The Googly-Eyed Food Mutant Here To Bore You To Death! (Part 2)

An op-ed by Charlie Hopper (excerpted from this month’s Food & Drink magazine)

(continuation from yesterday’s post)

Let’s make your kid’s menu your long-term recruitment strategy.

1. Don’t dumb it down. Smart it up.

Kids are constantly pushing themselves to solve a challenge. Even the ones who aren’t doing so hot in the classroom.

It’s programmed into being a kid: try to figure this world out.

Take an honest look at your kid’s menu. The word searches are too easy, aren’t they? The mazes are too easy. The “What’s Wrong With This Picture” and connect-the-dots are too easy, and blatantly self-serving, too. No?

Hate to say it: the humor isn’t funny, either, is it?

(Ironically, the people you paid to put the kid’s menu together probably secretly want to write children’s books.)

Have you watched Sesame Street? It’s incredibly smart. Entertaining, too. So is Phineas and Ferb. Arthur on PBS is character-driven, and nearly as well written as The Sopranos. Kids are positively steeped in the bizarre humor of SpongeBob, and the intricate world of Pokémon. And out in the car is probably a library book about the Cat in the Hat, the Grinch, Horton, or Sam I Am’s reluctant friend.

That’s what they’re used to. Really unusual, fresh thinking.

So your Word Scramble of “rFench fyr” isn’t really doing much for them.

2. Hey kids, what time is it?

It might be family time, if you do it right.

TGI Friday’s has done a really good job over the years of finding ways to encourage conversation between parent(s) and kid(s). Sure, the parents want to relax and have some adult conversation, and perhaps the house Merlot. But get this: Friday’s frequently draws adult customers into thoughtful, enjoyable discussions with their progeny—a discussion that might never have happened without the kid’s menu suggesting it.

Said adults find the evening enjoyable and, more often than not, grant the offspring a Dirt & Worm pie.

Also, many memorable family-not-just-children’s hours have been spent at Macaroni Grill and other mid- to upperscale restaurants that encourage drawing on the paper table cover with a crayon. Subversive! Thrilling! Creative!

Doable?

3. For the love of all that’s holy, please, no googly eyeballs or big crazy lips.

(sigh)

I hope this isn’t your kid’s menu:

“Can you get Burger Joe through the maze to reunite him with his side of French fries?” This Burger Joe character is always a hastily sketched humanoid sandwich with old-fashioned sneakers and arms that point at nothing, and big crazy eyes. Often he has a stylized female companion, usually a drink of some kind, with a kissy pout, big eyelashes, and high heels. The style of the drawing is pre-1960 second-rate clip art.

At best, this menu designer forgot what it’s like to be a kid.

At worst, he’s a cynic.

I picture a crotchety old menu designer at night, dark circles under his eyes as he scratches out these bogus scrawls of living food, muttering to himself the same sentiment as the famous blooper where the kid’s radio host thought his microphone was off and said over the air, “Well, that oughta hold the little bastards.”

I bet the person who drew that sexy lady cola has decided kids are ADD-addled, pre-intellectual, snotty, crying, food-throwing mess-makers. He sees how you have to run the little floor-brush underneath where the high chair was parked. Ugh, he thinks to himself. Ugh.

He’s forgotten how bright kids are, even the ones who have been trained to whine.

If he were shrewd, he could maybe help engage the kids and their parents in something creative—not just induce the kids to bug Mom to look in her purse for a pen to help answer “How many plates of spaghetti has the googly-eyed monster-food-doofus hidden in this poorly drawn picture?”

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: kids are whiny, so why try to engage them? Oh, wait, that’s why they’re whiny: the cynic didn’t engage them.

4. Put yourself in the kid’s place, and maybe someday he’ll return the favor.

Her parents are trying to have an adult conversation. If she wiggles or makes too much noise, she gets shut down. She’s looking for something to occupy time.

Give her something worthwhile to do.

What would that be?

Well, kids like to show their parents how fast they can do something that takes a little skill, especially if they’re racing a sibling; they like to show they can figure out something kind of challenging; they like to be given a platform to be silly (not goofy-brainless, but silly—combining opposites, undermining dignity, imposing randomness on order); they like to work together to construct a story or alternate reality; and they like to draw.

There. You just engaged your future loyal customer.

It’s a huge opportunity.

And it’s worth much more than just what shows up on the check.