Here’s a scene that parents will be very familiar with. On a recent Sunday, my husband and I took our 2-year-old, Ella, out for brunch at an upscale restaurant in our neighborhood. We struggled to keep her still while collapsing our stroller and juggling our diaper bag and the arsenal of toys, books, and snacks required to keep a toddler occupied and quiet, all under the judgemental eye of the restaurant staff and patrons.
The only toddler-appropriate food on the menu was a fruit plate, which somehow took 15 minutes to arrive. Ella ate it in three minutes. For the rest of the meal, my husband and I took turns eating while the other entertained Ella so she wouldn’t cry or make too much noise. At one point, Ella began to melt down–possibly because she was starving and strapped to a sticky chair–and the servers started giving us dirty looks. Embarrassed and worried about disturbing people, my husband carried her kicking and screaming out of the restaurant, while I sat alone trying to enjoy my $25 french toast. When he brought Ella back, we were so weary that we gave up and let her watch an episode of Curious George on an iPhone (with the sound off, for the sake of other patrons). We scarfed down the rest of our meal as quickly as possible, feeling judged that we had stuck our child in front of a video.
That same Sunday, my colleague, Fast Company senior editor Kate Davis, was having a very different experience dining out with her 18-month old son, Ben.
From the moment she arrived at Manhattan’s Eleven Madison Park, Davis didn’t feel the judgemental eye that parents of young children normally get at restaurants. Rather than apologetically wrestling with her baby gear, the hostess greeted Davis with a smile and asked whether she would like the staff to take her stroller to the coat check room or bring it upstairs. She proceeded to a private family-only dining area set up for pre-meal canapés and cocktails, complete with a kids’ area full of pillows and toys. This meant that she could sip her champagne in peace for a few minutes while Ben happily played.
Davis wasn’t dining in an alternate universe; she was at an event organized by Nibble and Squeak, a company that hosts family-friendly dining events in 10 cities around the world. Melissa Elders, a former book editor who founded the company two years ago, has given a lot of thought to what makes the simple act of eating out less harrowing for parents with small children. Nibble and Squeak’s events are designed to give families a pleasant, memorable experience, but they’re part of a broader effort to create more spaces in society where little ones are welcome and parents can relax.
There’s been a spike in restaurants explicitly banning kids over the last year. Other establishments dissuade parents by barring the use of strollers and high chairs. As a result, parents often resort to child-friendly fast food or diner chains when they don’t have time to cook. (It’s no surprise that 34% of American 2-year-olds eat fast food on a given day.) But just because you’ve become a parent doesn’t mean your taste has changed. Moms like $25 french toast as much as anyone else. And besides, forbidding children or making restaurants hostile to families not only borders on discriminatory, it doesn’t make good business sense. Perhaps Nibble and Squeak’s events provide some insight into how to make restaurants kinder and more inclusive toward children.
Which brings us back to Davis and her toddler. Like parents everywhere, she had packed a diaper bag full of toddler snacks just in case there was nothing that Ben could eat on the menu. But Nibble and Squeak had thought of this, too. In addition to the fancy four-course lunch, there was a kids’ table, packed with organic purees, crackers, and cereal bars. “It’s actually very small things that signal to a child, ‘You are welcome here,'” says Elders. “We’ve found that when both children and parents are comfortable, everybody relaxes and the whole experience is better.”
The meal itself was also designed to be tasty to both parents and children. Guests and their children sampled butter-poached lobster with squash, roasted chestnut, and black cardamon sauce, and pork tenderloin with parsnip and black trumpet mushrooms. Davis and her son both had the vegetarian option, and surprisingly, for a finicky toddler, Davis says he chowed down like a champ.
Instead of worrying about keeping him still and quiet or eating as quickly as possible, whenever Ben got fidgety, she took him to the adjacent kid’s room. With toys and snacks available and their table within view, they could have fun while waiting for their next course. The private family-only setting also meant that it was a refreshingly judgment-free zone. No hard stares or dirty looks from other patrons when toys were thrown from high chairs or kids crawled under tables.
All of this peace of mind came at a high price–literally. The three-hour, four-course meal was a steep $300 per adult (kids under 2 were free). “We were definitely dining with the 1%,” says Davis. Of course, even for the wealthy, this wasn’t just a regular Sunday afternoon. Many patrons of Nibble and Squeak events attend as part of a special travel experience. At the event Davis attended, many of the families came from as far away as Ohio and London. For these well-heeled parents, visiting one of New York’s finest restaurants would have been impossible without searching for an out-of-town babysitter.
While this particular Nibble and Squeak event was designed for a high-end foodie crowd, Elders says that it is at the highest end of the spectrum. Many other dining experiences her company hosts around the country–and the world–cost a fraction of that. An event in Atlanta costs $44 per person, for instance, while another event in Harlem costs $111, including alcohol. “The Eleven Madison event was highly anticipated,” says Elders, explaining that they had to add additional days to accommodate all the demand. “But our mission is not just about fine dining. It’s about giving parents an opportunity to do the things they enjoyed before having children, like going out for a nice meal.”
Given that no other companies are in the business of planning toddler dining events, Elder had to come up with a new business model from scratch. She explains that Nibble and Squeak doesn’t actually make money from the sale of tickets–all of that revenue goes entirely to the restaurant. Since the events tend to take place either in a private room or before the restaurant opens to the public, the Nibble and Squeak events are an attractive proposition to these restaurants because they provide a new source of revenue.
The company makes its money from sponsorships by other kid-friendly brands that want to get in front of families with disposable income. Plum Organics, for instance, supplies all the snacks at these events and pays to be a sponsor. At Davis’s event, Martinhal Family Hotels & Resorts in Portugal had sponsored part of the event as well as the plush kids’ activity area and kids’ gift bags. (All events have some sort of dedicated children’s area, although it varies, depending on the available space.) Last year, Elders established new partnerships with diaper pail brand Ubbi, skincare line Babo Botanicals, kids’ styling service Collective Child, and accessories brand Itzy Ritzy, among many others. Elders says that sales have grown by a factor of 10 over the last year.
Nibble and Squeak is currently available in 12 cities around the U.S., plus London. While Elders manages the company from her New York headquarters, 25 parents across these cities serve as local hosts, which involves identifying restaurants that might be a good fit, planning the event, and being present at the meal to welcome guests. Some of these parents are staff members because they spend a large part of their time entirely focused on their Nibble and Squeak work. Others don’t get paid, but choose to volunteer their time because they feel strongly about the company’s mission to normalize eating out with children. These hosts have experience in a range of industries, from hospitality to finance to marketing, but all are passionate about food.
Elders herself loved going to restaurants before her now 3-year-old, Serena, was born. When she moved back to New York after a stint working in London, she decided to launch a little dining club to create an opportunity for similarly minded parents to go out for a meal. Then it became clear that this was a good business idea. Two years later, Nibble and Squeak is an international company, soon to add Hong Kong. Every few weeks, a Nibble and Squeak event happens somewhere around the country.
Changing The Culture
Nibble and Squeak is working hard to grow the company and make these events more widespread. This upcoming year it will be adding Orlando, Hong Kong, and other cities in the Far East to the network. But ultimately it wants to do more than host meals. It wants to help change the culture around bringing children out to restaurants. The company is currently compiling a directory of child-friendly restaurants in different neighborhoods so parents don’t have to keep going back to the rare restaurants and chains that are known to tolerate children.
Elders also wants to change the culture around dining with kids. This is something that other countries appear to be adapting. In some European countries, there is more cultural awareness about how to make eating out more comfortable for families. When Elders was living in London, for instance, the local pub was seen as a family-friendly space. It is open all day, so it’s a good place to get a 5 p.m. dinner with your toddler. Adults can order alcohol, and there is usually a child-friendly menu. Many restaurants in Prague take it a step further: Some come equipped with children’s playrooms, kid-sized utensils, and the rare but important diaper-changing station. Outside of McDonald’s playlands or Nibble and Squeak events, there isn’t really a similar concept here in the U.S.
From Elders’ experience with Nibble and Squeak, she’s found that relatively small accommodations like a kid’s area can have a big impact on a family’s experience. “It allows parents to relax a little since, they aren’t constantly worried about bothering other people at the restaurant,” Elders says.
And Elders also believes that children’s behavior also starts to change the more they are exposed to the norms of dining. In the parenting book Bringing Up Bébé, author Pamela Druckerman points out that many French toddlers are able to sit quietly through a meal at a restaurant. Part of this, Druckerman says, has to do with the fact that children are socialized to eat in public from a young age, which is in part because many French restaurants expect children to eat with their parents. “Children adapt quickly to their environment,” says Elders. “The more opportunities they have to eat at restaurants, the quicker they’ll learn how to behave. Of course, they’re still kids, so meltdowns are bound to happen, but they might happen less.”