Giving free meals good for business
Yeoh Guan Jin 

IT’S the weekend, and you and your beloved are planning to splurge a bit on dinner. At the same time you can’t leave the kids at home all by themselves, so you have to take them along with you. But with the little tykes in tow, and constrained by a fixed budget, your choices are limited.

Few restaurants serve kid-size meals, which should come at a lower price, so you end up ordering adult portions for each of them, which they can’t finish anyway.

You could either pay for four or five adult portions instead of only two, or settle for a home-cooked meal.

Undoubtedly fully aware of the difficult choices we of the middle class have to make, restaurant operators have begun to offer free meals for minors. Then came other “extras” – play area for the kids, or colouring books to keep them occupied while waiting for their meals.

These days, making the kids happy has become a selling point for many in the restaurant business. Among the many “offers” for children, the free meal is probably the most mouth-watering.


Children eat for free

Early last month, Intelligent Money Sdn Bhd compiled a list of restaurants in Malaysia where children can eat for free. The list, published on its website, includes popular American franchises such as TGI Friday’s and Tony Roma’s to Asian favourites such as myELEPHANT, which serves Thai delights, and Sakae Sushi where ... you got it ... sushi is the main course.

(Intelligent Money offers various financial services, such as price comparison, and data on banking products.)

Of course there are conditions attached to the offer of free meals, lest a 10-year-old walks in and asks for a free steak while his father just sits there and watches him tuck in.

For instance, at TGI Friday’s you only get a free kid’s meal if you order a main entree. And only children aged 12 and below are entitled to the privilege of dining without having to pay.

At Tony Roma’s, the same conditions apply, but each family is entitled to only two free meals. So if you have three children, one of them will have to pay for his lunch.

At Sakae Sushi, free meals for kids are available only on Sundays. At all restaurants that offer such meals, you are expected to dine in. No takeaways for free meals.

According to Chaswood Resources Sdn Bhd, the owner of the TGI Friday’s chain, the objective is to make dining-in more conducive for the family. At its restaurants, children are given activity sheets to keep themselves occupied while waiting for the meals.

The same deals are offered at Italiannies, another chain managed by Chaswood Resources.

The free meals and activities for children have been good for business too. The company says that from its observation, people are more likely to dine out if they are assured that the restaurant is also child-friendly.

This strategy has similarly helped attract more dine-in patrons. For instance, at many restaurants across the United States, children who dress up as ghosts, goblins and ghouls get a special treat on Halloween Night.

A 2013 article in USA Today says that most families tend to dine at home on Halloween, making it the busiest night for pizza delivery boys. But it is a different story for restaurants that rely on dine-in patrons.

According to the paper, restaurant industry public relations guru Derek Farley has described restaurants as “ghost towns” on Halloween.

In some countries, the need to entice diners with more delectable offers has become increasingly urgent. For instance, in the US, which boasts the largest food and beverage industry in the world, the restaurant business is seeing a downturn.

US chain restaurants saw a 3% decline in foot traffic in June last year compared with the same month in the previous year. Same-store sales also declined 1%, the 16th month in a row of year-on-year declines, according to Business Insider.

Apart from cutting down on dining out, the Americans are also spending less on alcoholic beverages. Happy hours are not so happy anymore.

On the other hand, Malaysians are still dining out quite frequently, thanks largely to the fact that we are too busy at work to cook at home. Most days, having to whip up a meal once you get home from work can be a tiring routine.

On the other hand, we have also become more cautious with our spending following the implementation of the goods and services tax (GST). With the GST in place, dining out has become more expensive.

Nonetheless, the restaurant industry is bound to continue growing. After all, it is quite impossible for us to avoid dining out occasionally. From the humble food court and kopitiam to the celebrated Michelin Star restaurants, we patronise them almost daily.

So when they offer a meal at no charge, it becomes all the more delicious, even if it is only for the young ones.

Perhaps, that is why the word “free” is used quite freely in promotional material for restaurants and pubs everywhere. At the chap fun (mixed rice) restaurant, you no longer have to pay for your Chinese tea or winter melon soup.

At some pubs, you don’t get a discounted price anymore, even during happy hours. Instead you get a beer free of charge for every one or two you purchase.

And what a better way to cheer you up after a hard day’s work?

Yeoh Guan Jin is a veteran journalist. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 275.