February 3, 2012

Get 'In' On the Biggest Trend In Foodservice

Nate Dapore  /  Fast Casual

As the president and CEO of startup, I'm always interested in other entrepreneurial endeavors. Specifically, I'm intrigued with where the idea originated, what purpose they fill and their plan for growth and long-term sustainability. Since PeopleMatter began at the Charleston Digital Corridor, I am particularly interested in the startups being developed in their offices. I came across Jennifer Bilbro, the founder of OutToEatWithKids.com, at the CDC's flagship.

Out to Eat with Kids started as a way to notify families of restaurants offering 'kids eat free' promotions or discounted prices on kids' meals. The concept began a few years ago when Jennifer took her 3-year-old son out for lunch and was charged $2.50 for a drink that was half Sprite/half water. After this experience, she began searching for local 'family dining deals' as a personal project for friends and family. This opened the door for Jennifer to begin running social media sites for a few local restaurants. When she realized the potential of tying the two together, OutToEatWithKids.com was born.

Jennifer started Out to Eat with Kids as a local concept, reaching out to locations close friends and family requested. The website she originally developed was about providing families with kid-friendly dining options. It was a year later that Jennifer really found the niche for the company.

What's the pull for foodservice businesses?

Recently Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurants Association (NRA), was quoted saying, "Children's nutrition is one of the strongest trends we're seeing in the restaurant industry right now." In fact, according to the NRA's "What's Hot in 2012" survey, children's nutrition and local sourcing are the hottest trends on restaurant menus this year.

But, as a restaurant owner, how do you capitalize on this trend and publicize your efforts? Where do you inform consumers about your healthy options, or that you offer affordable kids' meals? Using your own website and social media outlets require the consumer seek you out. Out to Eat with Kids is the only website of its kind, providing a place where parents and kid-friendly restaurants across the country can connect.

How it's Developed, and Where it's Going

Before going national, Jennifer came across an NRA article on the new initiative, "Kids LiveWell." Launched in collaboration with Healthy Dining, the program highlights restaurants offering healthier options on their children's menus. More than 15,000 restaurants were part of the launch.

Jennifer immediately recognized this partnership as the direction she needed to take Out to Eat with Kids. She reached out to Erica Bohm, vice president and director of Strategic Partnerships for Healthy Dining, and received advice on how to expand Out to Eat with Kids' reach.

Today, Out to Eat with Kids offers suggestions for affordable, healthy children's dining in major cities for all 50 states and D.C. The site also provides an "NRA 'Kids LiveWell'" button beside listings for restaurants in the program. The button links to the Healthy Dining page where "Kids LiveWell" menu options are listed.

"Every page has the menu linked on the site for those partners," explained Jennifer. "There is no other place for consumers to go and search for this. There isn't another place where restaurant owners can to go to advertise family dining deals or healthy kid options."

The latest addition to the Out to Eat with Kids arsenal is its mobile app. The app is a free download, available for the iPhone or Android operating systems, and provides a location-based resource to find healthy, economical kids' meals. Like the website, it lets users search the database for promotions based on location and day of the week.

Partnerships with the NRA and Healthy Dining, as well as Jennifer's early use of social media, are why OutToEatWithKids.com is becoming a critical resource in foodservice. It is on the path to being the resource for families who are seeking to dine out in places with healthy, affordable options with their families.

How to Get Involved

Currently, there are 12,000 restaurants across the country involved with Out to Eat with Kids. The number is growing daily. There is a team in place building the database from externally purchased lists, calls and emails. However, any restaurant can get ahead of the curve and add their location to the Out to Eat with Kids database. The company will even work with restaurants to create a children's special to feature on the site.

"We're going to change the way choices are made going forward," Jennifer shared. "With the restaurant industry's initiatives for 2012 largely revolving around kids' nutrition, it's the right time for restaurants to push what they have worked so hard on."