IHOP, other restaurants lure parents with kids eat free deals

The battered restaurant industry is about to go wide on a risky tactic to nudge cash-strapped parents to take the family out for grub: Kids eat free.

Monday, IHOP will unveil plans to offer free kids meals seven nights a week for the next month.

IHOP's move, unprecedented by a national restaurant chain, is another signal of just how tough times are in the $566 billion restaurant industry. Restaurant operators have reported customer traffic declines for a staggering 22 consecutive months, the National Restaurant Association reports. Families are staying home: Visits from families with kids were down 5% for the year ended in June, NPD Group says.

Other chains have recently hopped onto the kids-eat-free bus, including Fazoli's, El Torito and even Ikea. One McDonald's in Louisville is handing out free Happy Meals to kids on Tuesday nights with each adult large Value Meal purchase.

"Free is magic," says Barry Schwartz, psychology professor at Swarthmore College. "It will seduce people into eating out who shouldn't."

Some parents get so giddy about free kids meals that they celebrate by buying desserts or drinks and spend more than if they had paid for the kids meals, says Barry Yow, whose website MyKidsEatFree.com is tracking the trend. And, he notes, many chains don't include drinks with the "free" meals.

Among the newer deals — all of which require the purchase of an adult entree for each free kids meal and apply to kids ages 12 and younger:

•IHOP. The IHOP freebie is for families who dine in between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. through Sept. 13. "We've got a full-court press on for families with kids," says Carolyn O'Keefe, marketing chief. "Families are looking for value."

•Fazoli's. The Italian chain with 251 locations has expanded its kids-eat-free deal beyond Tuesdays to include weekends through Aug. 30.

Business is soft, CEO Carl Howard explains, "If I have to give away something, I'd rather give away kids meals than adult entrees."

•El Torito. Since January, the West Coast Mexican chain has been offering free kids meals on Saturdays until 3 p.m. "The reason is the same as everyone else: to increase traffic," says Lowell Petrie, marketing chief for parent Real Mex Restaurants.

Over Labor Day weekend, the Ikea furniture chain's restaurants may have the best kids-eat-free deal: no strings. Parents won't have to buy anything to get free kids meals, spokeswoman Mona Astra Liss says, "It's about bringing traffic to the stores. You can bring in the whole soccer team."

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