Just about everyone loves to gripe about kids’ meals.
Parents complain about the food quality. Kids complain about the toy quality. And many restaurant owners complain that kids’ meals are just a fraction of sales.
But a funny thing happened at the Dallas-based sandwich chain Which Wich after the founder and his wife had their own kids.
They fixed the kids’ menu.
It’s one thing for a parent to be concerned about what’s inside a kids’ meal. It’s another thing entirely when that parent is the owner of the place that’s selling them. Which brings us to Jeff and Courtney Sinelli. Jeff is founder and CEO of Which Wich Superior Sandwiches, while Courtney is executive vice president. The concept has 378 locations in 40 states and eight countries. Not long after the births of their daughters—Story, now 6, and Sky, now 3—Courtney approached her husband and said it was time for a kids’ menu do-over.
“I wanted to offer the kind of meals that kids would ask their parents for,” Courtney says.
As Jeff remembers, his wife said that they had to do better now that they had their own kids. “I’m not even feeding these to my own kids,” he recalls her telling him about Which Wich’s kids’ menu. That stung. So he turned right back to his wife and presented this challenge: “Can you help me solve this?”
Her instant response? “I’ve got this.”
For Which Wich, the kids’ meal evolution was not limited to food quality, nutrition, and taste. It also involved concocting a way for kids to interact more with their meals. The move comes at a time when just about every fast-food and family-dining chain is tweaking their kids’ meals. IHOP and Applebee’s, both owned by DineEquity, recently nixed soft drinks from kids’ menus. Wendy’s also removed soda from kids’ meals in early 2015. And McDonald’s added everything from yogurt to Clementine options in recent years.
Why? Kids crave fast food. Some 34 percent of all children and adolescents ages 2–19 consume fast food on a given day, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics. And for the youngest age group, much of those sales are in kids’ meals.
The holy grail of kids’ meals is figuring out a way to appeal to both parents and kids. That’s not so simple, says restaurant consultant Linda Lipsky.
“The kids want taste. The moms say they want nutrition, but what they really want is convenience,” she says.
Which Wich went directly to a panel of moms coast to coast and asked them to help develop a better kids’ menu. It was all about balancing nutrition and taste—and, of course, fun.
“We could have played the health card to the nth degree, but we played on happiness,” Jeff says. “When you make kids happy—and moms happy—the world’s a better place.”
Among the changes to the kids’ menu—now in 15 test markets and ultimately scheduled to roll out to the entire Which Wich system—that the panel of moms helped put in motion:
Better nutrition. For younger kids, Which Wich developed Rollups, which roll up cheese and turkey but eliminate the bread. This is much easier for little kids to get in their mouths than thick-breaded sandwiches, Courtney says. The chain also improved the nutritionals on its sides. It now asks kids to pick two of these side options with its meals: whole apple, apple slices, baby carrots, or chips/pretzels. Drink options for kids’ meals now include milk, chocolate milk, juice, or fountain drinks.
Better taste. The grilled cheese sandwich went from American cheese on toasted bread to a combo of Cheddar and Mozzarella cheeses melted into buttered bread. It was renamed the Super Awesome Grilled Cheese. “We made it a lot more gooey,” Courtney says, adding that Which Wich now includes twice the amount cheese.
More offerings for kids with allergies. A PB&J sandwich that substitutes sun butter (made from sunflower seeds) for peanut butter was added.
Improved interactivity and fun. Each kids’ meal now comes in a three-compartment box including a custom “crazy” straw, branded sticker sheet, and a token that works in the store’s branded and bright-yellow M&M machines. The M&Ms replace the Rice Krispy Treats formerly placed in kids meals—and are a lot fewer calories. But parents can decide whether or not they want their kid to get a token in their meal, Courtney says.
At least one nutritionist insists that kids’ meals of any kind are troublesome and should probably be eliminated. “How are we shaping our kids taste buds?” asks nutritionist Cynthia Lair, author of Feeding the Whole Family. “Children learn to expect different food from what adults eat and get the message that their food should mostly consist of bland-tasting, refined carbohydrates.”
To that proposal, Courtney calmly utters the one point that every restaurant owner—and every parent—might agree upon: “You want to have something that kids will actually eat,” she says.