Serving The Youngest Customers

By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner, written for Specialty Food Magazine

Children are an ever-more-important element of our work in the food world. At the Deli, kids of all ages come in at all times of the day with parents and grandparents. At the Bakehouse and Creamery, which are located in an industrial park, parents show up with kids after school or around scheduled classes in gymnastics or dance. At the Roadhouse, we get families for lunch, dinner and brunch, far more than we anticipated when we opened two years ago.

Although I do not have kids myself and don’t spend a lot of time with them outside of work, I’ve become increasingly adamant, almost passionate, of late about the importance of giving great service to children. Kids of all ages should get the same personalized attention that all customers receive.

It Starts with the Food

When it comes to great food, kids, like adults, can tell the difference. Everything at Zingerman’s begins with our food, so we must make it the number-one feature for our youngest customers. All of our customers—young, old and in-between—can tell the difference between good food and bad.

We appeal to kids’ intelligence, to their senses of taste, smell and touch. For instance, the kids’ menu features the exact same quality dishes that we offer adults. This is, of course, a challenge; not every kid loves full-flavored food. But many adults don’t either. Since our commitment is to full-flavored, traditional foods, we must honor that commitment when serving children. One of the nicest compliments I’ve heard lately came when a regular told me that the Roadhouse is the only place where she picks food off her children’s plates.

It’s exciting to see which foods kids like. They do enjoy chocolate, marshmallows and cookies. But they’re also into better burgers, vegetables, barbecue, good macaroni and cheese, and more. One father brings his daughter in because she loves our fruit plates. In truth, the only major difference between kids’ interactions with us and those of adults is that the children are less likely to say they like something when they don’t. The difficulty of pleasing palates is not nearly as challenging as most would imagine.

The majority of kids appreciate good food. At the Deli, we have regular customers of very young ages who come in with their parents and together taste through a series of cheeses or olive oils to choose which one the family will buy. I love it. While the concept of everyone sitting down to family dinners is great, the family experience around food also extends to shopping, going to the farmer’s market, growing vegetable gardens, etc. When we have children standing in front of four different olive oils (as opposed to looking at Trix, Froot Loops and Cocoa Puffs), we’re contributing something positive to the family’s food and dining experience and, in the process, their experience of each other.

A Honey Feast that Would Make Pooh Proud

A Deli staff member shared the story of a father and his ten-year-old son. The father wanted the boy to taste olive oils to experience what good products could be like. It was a bit awkward, one of those parent-child things. Although the son started out skeptically, he gradually grew more interested. And then, the staffer had the brilliant idea of shifting their focus from olive oil to honey.

Olive oil had been interesting; honey turned out to be magical. She gave him one varietal honey after another to taste. As he experienced the difference in flavors and textures, his eyes grew ever wider. He ended up sitting on the floor for 15 minutes reading the chapter on honey in the store copy of Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating while his dad waited for their sandwich order. For the father, it was a successful step toward educating his son on the ways of the food world—a little talk about the “olives and the bees, you might say. For the son, it might have been the start of a lifelong passion for better things to eat, at least for good honey. For the staff member? “It was one of my most rewarding customer experiences ever. That’s a big set of wins.

This belief in kids’ ability to taste the difference, to appreciate and enjoy good food, is the basis for giving them the same sort of positive service experience that we’re committed to providing. And it helps us build future generations of discerning, engaged, interested and food-loving consumers.

Great Kid Service

My interest is purely service, not short-term sales. You don’t need a degree in psychology to know that parents are influenced by their kids’ desires. But that’s not the point. We give great kid service because, for us, service is a goal in and of itself, not just a means to a financial end.

This point was driven home the other day by one of our staff members, an outstanding service provider and a new mother. She had seen a business that had miniature shopping carts for kids to push, each with a little plastic pennant on a pole, which read: “Customer in Training. I thought it was cute. But she quickly pointed out that kids are not “customers in training—they’re the real thing. Kids are customers too.

How does that happen? Usually in simple yet meaningful ways. It makes a difference when you speak directly to kids. Rather than talk through their parents (“How is little Johnny doing today, Ms. Smith?), I make eye contact and greet them, then ask directly how their day is going. I ask if they would like crayons and coloring books. As I pass through the dining room, I ask if they need more water.

They give answers, usually serious ones that are not flippant. And their responses are far more conservative than I expect. Kids usually turn down offers of additional French fries or sodas. They often say no to more water, even when their water glasses are nearly empty.

Parent-Server Relations

Nevertheless, it’s imperative to not go around the parents. Asking a kid if he or she wants a big bowl of ice cream without checking first with the parent will not help anyone. So, I always keep one eye on the parent to read his or her body language, tone of voice, etc. To slightly oversimplify things, if the scenario has to do with sugar or costs money, I always check discreetly with the adult.

All customers want to have some sense of influence over their interaction with us. They don’t like to be forced into a corner. And kids are no different. If we don’t offer appropriate choices around price or quality level, they will not enjoy the experience. They want to have a say in creating their destiny. So ask kids if they want ketchup with their fries. Most do; some don’t. Asking the question makes a difference. Valuing the answer is even better.

We give the same credence to young kids’ comments as we do to those of any other customer. One young regular told me that she thought a backwards “S on the kids’ menu was insulting. It was funny for adults, but for kids working hard to get their spelling correct. . . not so funny. We took it off. She also told me she wanted one of the desserts on the regular menu to be listed on the kids’ menu too. Done—we added a half-sized portion of her favorite pie. And, to go the extra mile, we named it after her.

In February, a ten-year-old customer was disappointed that we did not have his favorite gelato flavor (lemon) during the winter months. We made a note of his comment and then, three months later, when lemon was back in season, we left a message on the family’s answering machine inviting him to come by the Creamery to get a scoop. Small act; big thing for a ten-year-old.

Extra Miles for Kids

Basically, we follow the same three steps to great service when we wait on three-year-olds as we do with anyone else. Let’s look at the third step—“going the extra mile—doing something for our customer that he or she didn’t ask for, something that will ensure the person leaves saying some version of “Wow about his or her experience.

There are a million extra miles waiting to happen—it’s just up to us to make them take place. Give a taste of something. I usually select foods that a child might like and bring samples out to the family’s table. If the kid doesn’t like the dish, there’s no loss. The other night, a little girl (maybe eight) said that she loved our North Carolina barbecue. I remembered that we have some pig- related coloring books from the National Pork Board. I gave her one to enhance her pork-focused evening. Small thing, but it made a difference for that little girl and, of course, the rest of her family, in just the same way that giving an interested customer a copy of an essay on pork production would make a difference.

A few weeks ago, we had several families come in together to celebrate a dual birthday of ten-year-old cousins. The scenario started with a bit of tension—the family had called ahead and made it clear they needed all the food served at 8:30 sharp. That can be a sign of impending stress; that sort of direction combined with multigeneration dining is a warning. It turned out my fears were misplaced; they all had a good time. Near the end of the meal, we gave the two birthday boys Zingerman’s t-shirts as gifts. It cost us under $10. The kids were so excited that they tracked me down at the other end of the restaurant—now sporting their new Zingwear—to tell me, “These shirts are awesome! I have no doubt they received far more expensive and interesting presents, but by giving them something they didn’t expect, we might have made two customers for life.