Pizza doesn't have to try too hard to win over kids. It's cheesy, customizable and — perhaps best of all — requires no utensils.
What does take effort, however, is for a pizzeria to distinguish itself from others competing to serve those youngsters. To establish a relationship that can last well into adulthood, operators are creating menu items, designing activities and going outside the pizzeria to form relationships with kids.
A matter of taste
Instead of counting on the reliable standbys of cheese and pepperoni, some chains have designed toppings specifically with kids in mind.
Boston's The Gourmet Pizza president Doug MacDonald, who has children of his own, said it's important to consider what kids want to eat.
"Do you have what kids want?" he said. "You can have pizza, but it's got to be good pizza."
To find out what kids truly want, Boston's recently hosted a contest to determine the best pizza created by a kid. From hundreds of entries, a recipe for Spaghetti & Meatball Pizza from a 10-year-old Texas boy made the menu.
Coppell, Texas-based CiCi's Pizza also has items designed to fulfill kids' cravings, such as Macaroni & Cheese Pizza and Alfredo Pizza.
"(The Macaroni & Cheese Pizza) has been a huge hit for us," said Donnie Robertson, director of local store marketing. "We have a commercial right now — an 11-year-old kid, he's just discovering Macaroni & Cheese Pizza for the first time. He's lovin' it!"
He added that a kid can't go wrong with the dessert choices, brownies and cinnamon rolls.
The height of the buffet at CiCi's enables children to serve themselves, director of marketing Sara Hundley said, and they can select what they want.
"It's one point in time where Mom and Dad don't have to say no," she said. "The children are empowered and able to choose what they want based on their specific likings."
Kids often are swayed by factors that have nothing to do with taste or toppings as well.
"Look at what McDonald's has done: It's a craze — the Happy Meal," said Jennifer Jackson, Hungry Howie's director of marketing. "Kids don't care what's in that whatsoever."
The Michigan-based chain encourages franchisees to pass out coloring books, pencils, sunglasses, balloons and tokens. The act of giving a child something is what matters, she said, not the object itself.
Hungry Howie's also has created handouts for food promotions. Franchisees visit local sporting events and throw out mini-footballs redeemable for items such as Howie Bread.
"Parents are the decision-makers. They don't want to make dinner that night, but who gets to decide where the pizza's coming from?" Jackson said. "It's always the kids."
For Boston's The Gourmet, providing activities and coloring books is part of creating a comfortable environment for children, MacDonald said. When a child is seated, he receives a themed activity pack with an eight-page activity book and a Team Boston's cup and tattoos.
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"It's making sure that all of the components are there," he said. "When parents go in they get what they need, but when kids go in they feel that they're a part of it, that they've been catered to, as well."
Inside and out
Pizzerias attract the younger demographic through activities both inside and outside their walls.
CiCi's hosts the Lunch & Learn program for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The hands-on tours teach children about the pizza industry and explain a mathematical approach to making a pizza, then allow them to make their own pizzas with the assistance of the management team.
"The kids just have a blast," Robertson said. "They're smiling and laughing, they decide what they want to put on their little pizzas and they get to eat their pizza right there on the spot."
He added the program has driven a lot of business throughout the school year, as well as during the summer when kids from day cares, YMCAs and church groups come through the doors.
Hungry Howie's heads out to the schools to reach children. Franchisees donate student achievement awards — redeemable for a junior pizza with a drink — to schools, which determine how they will be distributed. They also host Class of the Month parties: The school picks the class, Hungry Howie's brings the pizza.
These programs are well accepted by customers and parents because they acknowledge children's accomplishments, Jackson said.
"We want to reward them if it's for doing great on their math exam or doing great for a science project, and I think it's just well accepted for everyone," she said. "Everybody's just happy to reward kids any way that they can, especially from a school perspective."
The company also partners with schools for fundraising projects, such as selling certificates for a medium one-topping pizza for $4 to schools, which sell them at their own price and keep the profits.
Going where the kids are also means creating a space in the online community. CiCi's has developed a site — YoRoto.com — that targets the 'tween-to-mid-20s age group. The site has videos, games and downloads featuring Roto, who is championing the art of shakerboarding — sign-spinning combined with acrobatics and break-dancing.
Roto began virally online by posting his videos on MySpace and YouTube. After partnering with CiCi's, he went to the X Games, the Little League World Series and the All-Star Games to gain exposure for the company and shakerboarding, Hundley said.
"It's making CiCi's top of mind while championing this cause of shakerboarding," she said, "which is a benefit to the restaurant because it's basically energized the system to emulate what he does on a local level."
No matter the strategy, making connections with kids early on can have a huge payoff, Robertson said.
"When those kids grow up, become teenagers and eventually have families of their own, it keeps us on the radar throughout their lives."