His restaurants are among the best in the world, yet Emeril Lagasse always sets a place at his table for kid customers.
Back in 2001 when this magazine held a Kids Marketing Conference in Orlando, Emeril Lagasse made a keynote appearance. Star power is always a good thing at these kinds of events, but we took a bit of a chance because none of the restaurants in Lagasse's growing empire had a kids' menu at the time. As expected, he charmed the socks off the crowd. What wasn't expected was how passionate he is about feeding kids.
“They are our future [adult] customers and you're a damn fool if you ignore them,” he told the crowd back then. “It doesn't matter what kind of menu or restaurant you have, we are in the business of taking care of customers, no matter how young they are. You give them what they want. It ain't brain surgery.”
After leaving the conference, he says, his long-time friend and chef at Emeril's Orlando, Bernard Carmouche, urged him to create kids' menus in his restaurants that attract a lot of kid customers. “Chef Bernard said it wouldn't be a big deal to go that extra step and offer a kids' menu that's a notch above what many other more casual places offer. And he was right,” explained Lagasse.
What evolved from that conversation, beyond offering kid customers crayons and coloring material, were some next-level kids' menu items that pleased everyone, including Lagasse's accountant. A star attraction is a Kid's Fillet Mignon with Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Sauteed Haricot Vert and a Natural Reduction Sauce for $17.50. You won't find this on the menu at Chuck E. Cheese.
“The idea was to give kids what they want, like a good steak, a really good southern-fried chicken prepared from scratch, cornmeal fried gulf shrimp and a great pasta (cheese tortellini alfredo), because kids love pasta,” explained Lagasse. As for the $17.50 steak, parents don't blink, he says, because they know that what's on the plate will be well worth the price.
Consider also the Kicked Up Children's Hawaiian Plate at his island-themed Orlando restaurant, Tchoup Chop (pronounced Chop Chop). It features fried rice with pork, chicken or shrimp, a chicken egg roll and teriyaki chicken breast for $15. “When you have a theme at a restaurant you don't want to ignore it on the kids' menu,” says Lagasse. “ Its something kids don't see on regular kids' menus and they love it.” And, once again, parents don't mind paying the tariff.
This is an important point: If you operate on a level higher than casual, you don't have to stoop low in quality or price when feeding kids. In fact, that may be the worst thing you can do. “Kids today are far more sophisticated than they've ever been,” says Lagasse, who now has 10 restaurants “They've been exposed to a lot and they expect so much more than kids before them.” Lagasse's is among a growing tide of full-service restaurant operators who are now offering kids smaller portions of “adult food,” according to a recent report by foodservice consultant Technomic [see sidebar on right].
Reinforcing Lagasse's point that kids are more sophisticated than ever, look to the drink section on his kids' menu at Tchoup Chop. It features five drinks, each at a cost of $5. The cost of a drink alone there is more than a full kids' meal at many casual restaurants. But, again, parents don't balk because the drinks are so dazzling they stop kids in their tracks. “It goes beyond keeping kids happy so their parents can enjoy their meal,” says Lagasse. “It's about treating kids with respect and giving them something as special as what their parents may order.”
Check these you-had-me-at-hello kid drinks: Surf's Up (orange juice and passion fruit coulis with a splash of Sprite over ice), Banana Cabana (pineapple juice and cream of coconut served with a fresh banana and a garnish of grated chocolate), Big Kahuna (pineapple and orange juice with a hint of almond and a splash of Grenedine), Ramune (carbonated soft drinks from Japan) and Hang Ten (lemonade “kicked up” with strawberry). Hey, you splash some vodka or rum in any of these drinks and they could easily appear on the adult beverage menu.
As much as Restaurant Hospitality would like to think we helped Lagasse focus more on the kid dining-out experience because of our kids' conference, his getting remarried and having two kids this decade had more than a bit to do with it as well. E.J. (Emeril John), age 6, and Meril, age 4, showed the chef that kids are far more open to eating a wide range of foods if parents expose them to the possibilities. Sure, his kids like pb&j, but they'll also order foie gras in a restaurant, he says.
“When I did my show Emeril Green (on cable's Discovery Channel), I realized that you can't underestimate kids. You must be extremely sensitive to their needs,” he says. “Years ago, how many kids were vegetarians? Now there's lots of them and kids who have food allergies, too. It's not just about creating a kids' menu, you have to think far beyond.”
In fact, not all of Lagasse's restaurants have a kids' menu. Those that are patronized mostly by adults don't have separate menus. But all of his restaurant personnel are trained “to be extremely sensitive about the needs of kids.” So, when kids do end up eating in one of his “adult” restaurants, they are smoothly guided through the dining experience.
Lagasse says he began to fully understand how interested kids are in eating and cooking while on book-signing tours for two cookbooks aimed at adults — Emeril's Delmonico and Prime Time Emeril. “During those book signings I was getting huge crowds of kids interested in learning how to cook. It showed me that kids were becoming far more sophisticated when it comes to eating.”
As a result, he created a cookbook specifically for kids in the 4-10 age group called There's a Chef in My Soup. It was a huge success, despite an initial pushback from publishers who thought there was no market for such a book. While promoting that book, Lagasse quickly realized that a second cookbook was needed for kids 10 and beyond, and the result was A Chef in My Family. “When we created that cookbook we did so understanding that many adults never learned to cook, so it was written with them in mind as well.” It, too, was a huge hit. Recognizing that kids had far more experience eating ethnic cuisines than ever before, he created a third kid-related cookbook called A Chef in My World, which explained how many of the international dishes originated.
Beyond the cookbooks, the Emeril Lagasse Foundation was created in 2002 to improve the quality of life for disadvantaged young people who live in areas where Lagasse's restaurants are located. Over the years, his foundation has contributed millions to charitable organizations, including the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, which offers a four-year training program in culinary arts for high school students. Clearly, he's a man who puts his money where his mouth is.