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Restaurants Banning Children: Is It Good for Business?

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How some chefs balance the risk of alienating customers with creating kid-free zones

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Photo: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Between 2013 and 2015, the food news world was rocked with stories of tiny tots being banned from bars and restaurants throughout the world. It was an era of last-straws. At Houston’s Cuchara, owners banned kids after an unruly child scratched their wall with a quarter, causing $1,500 in repair costs. At Flynn’s in Australia, “screaming babies” inspired owners to outlaw children under the age of seven. 2014 was also the year Grant Achatz, chef of three-Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant Alinea, tweeted that he was considering banning children after an eight-month-old “diner” wouldn’t stop crying, annoying everyone who’d come for the $200+ per-person meal. It caused such an uproar that Achatz went on Good Morning America to defend his comment.

The debate is still ongoing. “They throw olive oil on the floor, they upturn the water, they send the salt cellar flying across the room, they try to dismantle the furniture, they shout, they cry and above all, they hate fish,” the owner of a restaurant in Rome told La Republica earlier this year, justifying his decision to ban the under-five crowd. Just a few months ago, Jamie Oliver banned strollers from his restaurant Fifteen due to space concerns.

And every time a restaurant announces a policy that limits children, it goes viral — beyond just the think-pieces written by those rooted in the restaurant industry. Photos of signage are shared on social media; Facebook, TripAdvisor, and Yelp fill with reviews that have more to do with children than the quality of the Chilean sea bass. Those who want a child-free dining experience often cheer with delight, while parents and grandparents often feel personally persecuted or attacked by these rules.

“Governess And Boy At The Restaurant,” 1873.
Photo: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The risk of alienating customers in a service-oriented business is a real one (parenting blog Scary Mommy responded to the Rome restaurant’s child ban with an article titled, “You Know Who Hates Screaming Children In Restaurants The Most? Parents”). So the question is — how have these policies stood the test of time?

In July 2011, it was an easy choice for owner Mike Vuick to ban children under six at his Pittsburgh-area restaurant McDain’s (“just when did our precious ‘pets’ become everyone else's pet peeves? Are these bans even legal?” asked the accompanying news coverage). Vuick’s main source of business was the large driving range for which the restaurant was simply an amenity. “Our customers were golfers, older, conservative,” he says. “We did it on behalf of customers who said they left their children at home with a babysitter and now there’s a kid over there screaming their head off and ruining the customer’s dinner.”

Vuick had incidents where children were running in the restaurant and coming close to “knocking over servers carrying hot liquids.” Enough was enough, and according to Vuick, “20:1” the response to the kid ban was overwhelmingly positive. Before the policy, McDain’s was at 80-percent capacity, “and this just put it over the top.”

Vuick says that he did lose some business; customers who used to come with their children decided to stop visiting altogether. “But they were replaced by a whole bunch more people who came to support me,” he adds. The McDain’s restaurant closed a few years ago (Vuick recently turned 70 and “couldn’t keep up with it”), though the driving range is still open. During that time, Vuick says the age restriction was an overwhelming success.

Many of the restaurants that have limited children have done so in an effort to better use their space and improve a late-night atmosphere. In 2013, Houston restaurant La Fisheria decided to ban children under nine after 7 p.m. (Before that time, they continued to offer a kid’s menu to the under-aged crowd.) “Seven o’clock is not a time for children, especially when we serve drinks and wine,” the owner told local news station KHOU 11 after the policy went public.

But today, La Fisheria has a new location, new owners, and an end to that children’s policy. Anas Mousa, a partner, says “the reason why they had this restriction at the old location was because it was a small place. Now we have all this space to fill.” According to Mousa, while the first location had an occupancy of 99, its current location can seat 299. The old location was a “little romantic place, and if you got a kid running around the whole restaurant would hear it,” he says. “Now with a bigger restaurant, we don’t want to have restrictions because there’s no need for it.”

Unfortunately, while La Fisheria’s child ban quickly made national news, it hasn’t been so easy to let customers know that the policy no longer stands. Mousa says they regularly get phone calls from people asking about the restriction. The restaurant posted about it on social media, too, but there are probably customers out there who will continue seeing La Fisheria as an adults-only spot — at least late at night.

Whether restaurants catered to children wasn’t much of a concern until recently. Family sizes have fallen, making it more affordable for parents to take their one or two children out to eat than four or more. (According to Gallup polls, most people reported “four” as the ideal number of children before 1971.) Children who grew up in the 1960s or earlier often say that restaurant outings were either rare — and very memorable — occasions or something that never happened at all. In 1970s America, many women were still protesting the existence of “men’s only” restaurants or sections — whether or not children could come along was a serious afterthought.

Photo: d13/Shutterstock

Today, that’s all changed. As going out to eat has become a more regular (and therefore casual) event, children have been invited along and manners have changed — much to the chagrin of many restaurant employees.

“A lot of parents think they’re paying for the space and service and taking a break, and therefore taking a break from parenting as well,” says Liam Flynn, owner of Australia’s Flynn’s Restaurant. He instituted a ban on unruly children under seven last year in response to a crying infant and its poorly behaved parents. “There’s a lot of people that feel they are not accountable for their own or their child’s actions,” he adds.

Chris Shake, the owner of Old Fisherman’s Grotto in California, says that parents today are much more permissive than when he was growing up. “People just feel because they’re paying for service, that it’s their space.” Between 2009 and 2011 the Grotto slowly stopped catering to children — removing strollers, then its kid’s menu, then booster seats and high chairs, finally saying that children making loud noises or crying weren’t allowed at all.

“The more we did, the more we realized that our dining room got quieter, the guests were enjoying it more, and even some of the mature guests were commenting on how nice it was not to be around kids,” Shake says. “Over the years, you become callused from the mean and hurtful remarks parents say about the policy, but the good of it outweighs the negativity.”

“I’ve been here for 15 years and could see having children in this style of restaurant was not profitable to my business,” Flynn says. “[The restaurant] is too small, too intimate, and probably a bit too upmarket and too boring for kids.” Right after the ban was made public, Flynn’s had its best month ever business-wise, itself its own news story. While the initial popularity has fallen off somewhat, Flynn doesn’t believe that the kid’s policy has had a negative impact.

Courtesy Cuchara

While the child “ban” always ruffles some feathers, the approach taken by Cuchara restaurant in Houston may be worth emulating. Rather than a restriction, co-owner Charlie McDaniel explains the restaurant created a simple card that’s handed out to families. It begins, “Children at Cuchara don’t run or wander around the restaurant,” and continues with a list of other encouraged behaviors. “There are no restrictions, just etiquette,” McDaniel says.

Since the card came out, he hasn’t had any incidents of children crawling under other patrons’ tables, taking coins and scratching the walls, or other physical damages. “We have a lot of families that come here and have children that know how to behave,” McDaniel explains. It’s for this reason that they didn’t want to ban children entirely. “It’s really intended for the parents, not for the kid,” he says. Ultimately, it’s up to parents to set boundaries for what is and isn’t okay to do in a restaurant.

As McDaniel says, “Every once in a while someone gets offended by it — but they’re the [guests] you don’t want.”

Tove Danovich is a freelance journalist now based in Portland, Oregon.
Editor: Erin DeJesus