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The number of U.S. households with kids under 18 is about 39 million—33 percent of the country—and moms run more than twice as many single-parent households as dads.

“That’s a pretty big customer segment,” says Renée Israel, cofounder and chief marketing officer of snack chain Doc Popcorn in Boulder, Colorado.

Even as moms look for ways to provide nutritious, increasingly quick meals for their kids, they’re also working to balance mealtime with the impacts of a still-sluggish economy. Wooing this customer segment is becoming more important—and perhaps more difficult—every day.

A recent study conducted by Creative Consumer Concepts (c3) and Technomic shows that about a third of moms say they’re the sole decision maker in choosing a restaurant. Even when children employ strategies to influence where to eat, “these strategies are limited by boundaries set by parents,” the study reports.

As moms negotiate where to eat the next meal, they’re steering that selection based on a variety of factors, ranging from how comfortable a restaurant is for families to ensuring the menu appeals to kids of all ages.

“It’s important to mom that all of her kids can find something that they want to eat, so having a menu that scales is really important,” says Ian Davidson, senior manager of brand insights at C3 in Overland Park, Kansas.

Marketing aimed at kids is nothing new, but brands are finding that while toys may be a hit with the kiddos, the strategy can backfire with mom.

“One of the things that we’ve heard from moms is that they don’t love the toy,” says Lauren Barash, director of marketing at Moe’s Southwest Grill in Atlanta. The reason often has nothing to do with the type or quality of the toy. Many moms see toys as “one more piece of junk they have to bring home and throw away later,” Barash says.

Moe’s responded by revamping such classic toys as the fortune teller, where a simple sheet of paper is folded up origami-style and labeled with numbers and letters. “Our franchisees can print it out in their restaurants and hand them to the kids with their meals,” she says.

Because it takes more than one person to play the game, it’s a fun and interactive way to engage the whole family. Plus, Barash says, mom gets an extra bonus. “It’s just a piece of paper, so there’s no burden on the parent to add it to the toy collection when they get home.”

Of the other factors moms value, a good service experience ranks high on the list. Given everything a mom may be juggling, waiting in long lines isn’t something that entices them. If they do get stuck with a wait, Israel says, “You better be catering to them.”

Doc Popcorn locations hand out popcorn-filled paper cups so kids have something to keep them occupied, rather than leaving mom with the task of entertaining them.

Israel says that as a mom, she appreciates going somewhere that focuses on her children. “What can my kid do while I’m here, and what makes it work for them?” she says.

Davidson also believes service is paramount in a mother’s decision, with the need for fast-moving lines and food that’s prepped and ready as soon as payment has been made. A good in-store experience also revolves around an environment that’s clean, not only for the child—who often spends some time playing on the floor—but also for the mom.

“What we found is that moms actually judge all restaurant concepts pretty harshly on the cleanliness of their bathrooms,” Davidson says.

“When you think about that in terms of a mom with two kids under the age of five trying to navigate either a bathroom experience or a diaper change, it becomes really important for those bathrooms to be stocked, clean, and ready to go.”

In fact, cleanliness ranked higher in C3’s study than any other factor, including food quality, nutrition, speed of service, and even value. While almost three-quarters of mothers surveyed said nutritious offerings were essential, Davidson says, operators often don’t experience higher sales when offering those items.

The reason may relate to the fact that moms frequently view dining out as a bit of a splurge. Davidson says moms are willing to bend the rules when going out to eat, and they “typically don’t mandate that their children order that healthy option.”

Many experts say brands that haven’t already launched an initiative aimed squarely at the mom crowd could be missing out in a big way. Barash says Moe’s has tapped into the power of mom bloggers, a group that can wield significant influence in today’s Web-obsessed society.

In just one recent example, Moe’s sent information about a promotion to its 10-person, all-female Moe’s Blogger Advisory council. The effect was quick and measurable.

“One of our bloggers posted something quickly on her blog and then tweeted it out, and within about two hours, we had 100,000 impressions,” Barash says.

Those numbers may not compare to what many brands expect to see over the course of an entire promotion, but Barash says they still show the power these women have with their networks.

Business Advice, Consumer Trends, Marketing & Promotions, Story, Doc Popcorn, Moe's Southwest Grill