FOOD FOR TOTS : Restaurants Find They Can Use Toys as Well as Taste to Win Over the Under-10 Crowd

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

When Ali Jack is especially good, her mother rewards her with a McDonald’s “Happy Meal.” If the piles of colorful plastic toys in Ali’s room are any indication, she is a very, very good girl.

“I like the french fries best, then the toys,” said Ali, a 4-year-old girl with flaxen hair. She has tried kids’ meals at Burger King and Jack in the Box, but she prefers McDonald’s. “It’s the best,” she says with a knowing smile. “Best toys, best fries.”

Her mother, Francine, says she tries to steer her children away from fast food. But when they do go out for a hamburger and fries, it is Ali who decides where they go.

With this in mind, the nation’s fast-food restaurants have increasingly zeroed in on children, not just as customers, but as family decision-makers. And they are wooing these tiny diners with everything from bathtub toys to refrigerator magnets.

“Our research shows that in 83% of families, the kids play a major role in where the family goes out to eat,” said Denny Lynch, vice president of communications for Wendy’s International. “And, 52% of the time, the toy offered influences where they go to eat.”


By spending more on toys such as the current “Potato Head Kids” series, Wendy’s figures it has boosted kids’ meal sales by 50% over 1987, he said. “We can’t out-advertise McDonald’s, but we can compete on a premium basis.”

Since McDonald’s pioneered the Happy Meal 11 years ago, virtually every fast-food restaurant has moved to offer special meals designed for children aged 3 to 8. Packed in brightly decorated boxes, these children’s meals feature standard food items, but include a special toy that changes week to week or month to month. Although total kids’ meal sales represent less than 5% of the overall fast-food business, companies are competing head-on to offer the best premiums.

Taco Bell is giving away animals from Hallmark’s “Zoobilee Zoo” public television show. Jack in the Box is featuring “Prehistoric Pros,” and giving away dinosaur-themed door decorations.

In recent months, McDonald’s has offered animals from Walt Disney’s “Bambi” and Jim Henson’s “Muppet Babies.” And a Carl’s Jr. summer hit featured sand pails, plastic cups and sunglasses tied to Life Savers candy.

All these efforts come at a time when another baby boom is moving through the economy, and restaurant owners are aware that sales to children are growing at a faster pace than sales to older customers.

Between 1982 and 1987, the overall growth rate for the fast-food segment was 52%, according to industry statistics. In contrast, restaurant sales to the under-6 crowd increased 74%.

In 1987 alone, people spent $3.9 billion feeding kids under 6 in fast-food restaurants. Nearly $5 billion more was spent on 6- to 12-year-olds.

“Both of these groups outpaced the overall dollar growth trend,” said Susan Lipske, vice president of the Crest division of the NPD Group in Chicago, which provided the statistics. The firm collects data from the quick-service companies themselves, as well as from 160,000 individuals who keep diaries tracking their restaurant eating habits each year.

No matter how innovative or educational the toys are, however, parents still worry about the nutrition, food service industry consultant William Norton says.

From a nutritional standpoint, “most adults would rather not” go to fast-food restaurants, he said. “They go there kicking and screaming because of their kids.”

Even so, Norton said, parents usually allow the children to choose the restaurant. He noted that McDonald’s is trying to develop more menu selections, such as salads, to tempt diet-conscious mothers who usually sip a soft drink while their children gobble down Happy Meals.

Norton, who is president of Foodmark, a Minneapolis food service consulting firm, said several fast-food companies are also test marketing different food items for kids, including grilled cheese sandwiches and hot dogs. “Hamburgers are not necessarily a kid’s favorite thing,” he said.

Many parents of children under 8 also admit that they only eat in those restaurants that offer special children’s meals and that don’t object to noise and crying.

“McDonald’s is even too quiet for us,” said one father of two children under 3 years old. “I prefer Chuck E. Cheese Pizza because you can’t hear a thing in there anyway.”

“If we make the kids happy, then we make the moms and dads happy,” said Linda Kravitz, director of youth marketing for McDonald’s.

The toys are usually designed by outside consultants and produced by the parent company. Restaurant owners are asked to pass along the cost of the toys to customers, but not make a profit on them. Most premiums cost restaurant owners between 40 cents and 75 cents each and change every four to eight weeks, depending on the popularity of the item. Every other company credits McDonald’s with setting the pace in offering top-quality premiums.

McDonald’s started out offering one or two promotions a year, said Kravitz. “But then the kids were disappointed when they didn’t get a Happy Meal.”

Young Target Audience

“McDonald’s first national Happy Meal was for ‘Star Trek,’ in 1978,” she noted, but “Lego Bricks were the first real door-buster” about four years ago. Twice a year, she said, the local franchises are encouraged to create regional promotions, instead of taking the national offering.

The ideal Happy Meal customer ranges in age from 2 to 10 years old. “Older kids are less in need of a toy to amuse them,” Kravitz said.

So far, McDonald’s is the only company that advertises its children’s meal on television, usually at the end of a commercial for other menu items.

The other companies, especially those which cater to adults, rely on in-store posters and decorations to attract the children. Spokesmen for several companies said they were forced to offer a kids’ meal as a convenience to their adult customers.

Paul Haack, vice president of product marketing for Jack in the Box, said the company needed something special to offer to children if it was going to compete in the family fast-food marketplace.

“It was really a defensive measure on our part. We are now looking at some other things on the menu that may appeal to children,” Haack said, adding that children’s meal sales only represent about 1% to 2% total Jack in the Box sales.

“We offer the child’s meals as a service,” said Linda Larsen, regional marketing manager for Carl Karcher Enterprises, which owns Carl’s Jr. She said Carl’s Jr. began offering a kids’ meal about two years ago as a response to the competition.

“We look for premiums that have play value in the restaurant,” Larsen said. “The toy has to be perfect for a 6-year-old.”

She said most parents are willing to pay the extra 50 cents or 70 cents for the toy because it is “still less expensive than going to a sit-down restaurant.”

On a recent morning at Ron Piazza’s McDonald’s in Lakewood, beaming Happy Meal customers were lined up, mothers and grandmothers in tow.

“If they are hungry, they eat the food, if they are not, they enjoy playing with the toys,” said Lynn Miller, a Long Beach mother who makes a weekly visit to a McDonald’s after attending a Bible class. There, Miller and her mother, Janet Pierson, visit, while Miller’s sons, Christopher, 3, and Jonathan, almost 2, enjoy their Happy Meals and play with the toys.

Lau Tai Shum, a bright-eyed 4-year-old in a pink lace dress, said her favorite treat at McDonald’s is hot cakes, but she’ll settle for a Happy Meal any time. “We are here at least once a week,” said her mother Star Shum.

“The Happy Meals are not a major portion of our sales, but we sell them every day,” said Piazza, who owns four McDonald’s in the Lakewood area. Piazza, who started with McDonald’s 21 years ago as a french fry maker, today employs 110 people at his restaurants.

“I can’t think of one Happy Meal premium that was a flop, although some are more popular than others,” he said.

Through the years, the toys offered have evolved from cheap plastic or paper throw-aways to substantial toys designed for long-term play.

Wendy’s Lynch said companies are motivated to offer better toys because children are a lot smarter and more worldly than they were a few years ago. In 1981, Wendy’s offered a coloring book and crayons as its kids’ meal premium. Today, that wouldn’t fly.

“Our research indicated that we needed to upgrade the premium,” Lynch said. “And, the competition has forced the entire industry to upgrade the premiums.”

He said the major toy manufacturers and cartoon producers, including Hasbro, Playskool and Hanna Barbera, are all working with restaurant chains to produce premiums.

New World

Working with nonprofit organizations is another avenue for Wendy’s and others. An upcoming Wendy’s promotion is designed to raise money for the World Wildlife Fund. It will feature children’s books about four different endangered species.

“We fully expect to raise $500,000 for the Wildlife Fund,” Lynch said.

The Happy Meal was created by a Kansas City advertising executive. Bob Bernstein said he was working on advertising for several McDonald’s franchises in the Denver area when, “our research showed we were losing a little bit of the edge with kids.”

His creative team decided to create a new meal especially for children. “But, we couldn’t just put it in a sack and hand it to them,” he recalled. “We were inspired by reading cereal boxes. . . . Our first 12 Happy Meal boxes had puzzles, games, riddles and connect-the-dots games.”

The first premium was a three-dimensional-looking card depicting Ronald McDonald, McDonald’s trademarked clown. “When we started, penny premiums--up to 5 cents--were the big thing,” Bernstein said. “Now, it’s a whole new world.”