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Adapt entrees for younger guests


Mama Fu’s Kids' Sweet and Sour Chicken with brown rice

Spice up your healthful children’s meals with fun flavors and ingredients. Mama Fu’s, an Austin, Texas-based “flex” casual chain, adapted a few of its popular Asian entrees to make them more nutritious and appealing to young guests.

“Asian food already has a perception of being a healthy choice,” said food and beverage director James Clark. “We wanted to expand on that.”

The chain, which serves fast casual-style weekday lunches and full service meals on nights and weekends, modified its top-selling kids’ item, Ninja Noodles, when it joined the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell program.

Participating restaurants offer 600-calorie meals that include nutrient-rich entrees, sides and beverages. The meals must include two servings of fruit or vegetables, whole grain, lean protein and/or low-fat dairy. They also must limit sodium, fat and sugar.

Normally, the Ninja Noodles includes teriyaki chicken and egg noodles cooked in oil. But Mama Fu’s steams the chicken for its Kids LiveWell meal. Sides include brown rice, carrots, oranges and edamame.

“If you make vegetables fun, it’s easier to get kids to eat them,” Clark says.

Here are some of the steps Mama Fu’s took to ensure customer approval:

  • Create items that appeal to older children or “tweens,” who may be too old to order items with cutesy names but not ready for a full adult meal. For example, Mama Fu’s modified two of its more “accessible” dinner entrees for kids: sweet and sour and teriyaki. The kids' versions include steamed chicken with broccoli, carrots tossed in sweet and sour or teriyaki sauce. Guests can substitute shrimp or tofu instead of chicken.
  • Pay attention to ordering patterns to create something with universal appeal. When Clark managed one of Mama Fu’s stores, he noticed that families often ordered lunch portions of adult dinner entrees for their children. Many also modified the dishes by ordering them without certain vegetables. So when Mama Fu’s decided to add the sweet and sour and teriyaki dishes to the kids menu, Clark suggested leaving off onions, red bell peppers and mushrooms. “Listen to what your guests are already telling you,” he says.
  • Test products with the right audience. Mama Fu’s tested the new dishes at stores with higher proportions of families with kids. Because Mama Fu’s offers “kids eat free” promotions on Sundays, the chain knew which stores should offer the test items.
  • Make it easy to give feedback. When Mama Fu’s tests new menu items, it prints cards with a description of the new item on one side and a few questions on the other. Three questions include a five-point rating scale; an additional open-ended question allows guests to offer comments. Typically, the chain tests new items four or five months before deciding whether to add them to the permanent menu, which it reprints every April and October.
  • Train staff about the new options and to interact with families. Mama Fu’s gets staff fired up with sales incentives and contests. Prizes typically include gift cards or a few Powerball tickets. “I like to say, ‘This could be a million dollar upsell,’” Clark said. But the best way to win a family’s loyalty is to engage their children, he adds. “Most of our servers know their regulars and which way they like their food.”
  • Promote your healthful options through social media. “That’s a big part of all our rollouts,” Clark said. “If you’re going to succeed in today’s market, you’ve got to be active in social media."

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