Bringing your kids out to eat or to bop along to live musicians in a play café is a near-essential part of parenting in Portland, especially during the long, rainy winters. But as beloved as family-friendly eateries are in this gastro-first city, many of us can’t fathom everything that goes into running a family-first establishment.
So we gathered the owners of three of our favorite local family-focused joints to get the behind-the-scenes lowdown on running a business that welcomes some of the industry’s toughest customers: parents and kids.
Pull up a chair with three of the city’s pillar businesswomen and nibble on their insights, from how they really see your kids to what you should do about the giant mess under the table. (The answer might surprise you!)
Our experts: Lisa Schroeder, founder and head chef at Mother’s Bistro in downtown Portland; grandmother to Bella, 14; Taylor, 13; and fraternal twins Julian and Oliver, 5
Kayla Husen: Co-owner of Roseway Play Cafe in North Portland, mom of two young children.
Kelley Peake: Founder of The Play Boutique in Lake Oswego, mom of three kids, ages 16, 13 and 8.
PDX Parent: Kids don’t necessarily make the best customers: They’re messy, loud, picky. Why center your business around families with young children?
Kayla Husen: [Husband and cofounder Bryan Husen] and I were finding as our children started toddling that there really weren’t many places that allow children to be a functional part of our everyday life. The big indoor play structures are fun, but that’s really more of a special occasion thing for our family, and traditional coffee shops don’t exactly welcome screaming and running toddlers. We wanted something that is both affordable and welcoming to the whole family.
Lisa Schroeder: The name of my restaurant is Mother’s. If I didn’t make it family friendly I don’t deserve to be in business! I wanted to be a place where families can eat any day, not only on special occasions. It also makes good business sense. My goal is to feed as many people in my lifetime as I humanly can, and this was a way to get the families, too.
PP: Did you grow up eating out or playing in public spaces? Did you have a kid-friendly café nearby when you were a child?
Kelley Peake: No, not at all. Creating a public space for the whole family started after I had my first child. Being a full-time working mom, I was always looking for fun memories to make for me and my family.
Kayla: I didn’t either. I think the times have really changed since we were children, and how we safely allow children to explore community is no exception.
Lisa: I was raised going out. I’d go downtown [in Philadelphia] and go out to dinner with my mom and dad. I’ve been surrounded by good food since I was very young.
PP: That brings up the topic of good food: Mother’s doesn’t have a kid’s menu of items that are all beige and deep-fried.
Lisa: People have been clamoring for better kid menus. We have the requisite grilled cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but we also have half-portions of pot roast and chicken and dumplings. I want my kids to eat healthy and for them to get their greens and proteins, so I make sure we have that for everybody.
PP: Is there anything you wish families would do differently, like tip better or take care of the mess under the table?
Lisa: We have the expectation that kids are going to drop food everywhere. If you have a 2-year-old in a high chair, it’s going to be chaos down there. If you welcome children, you welcome their mess, and we happily deal with that.
Kelley: Many parents are guilty of focusing all of their attention on their most prized possessions in life, their children, without really seeing the big picture. They tend to forget there are rules in place to take care of everyone and when something is an inconvenience to them, it might be very helpful to others. For example, we have a rule of no strollers inside the building. It is a major health and safety hazard. But what a pain it can be to have to unload the stroller!
PP: How does your family inspire your work — both its opening and its evolution?
Kelley: In my family we joke, Play Boutique is our third of four children. It started as a creative outlet for me to fulfill a need I was craving for my own family and 10 years later it has become a career I am so passionate about. All of my children have taken classes and have gone to preschool at PB over the years. I have lost count of how many parties we have had! And now, my 16-year-old daughter works in the café and is one of our best party specialists.
PP: What do you wish families knew about visiting your café or restaurant?
Kayla: I wish they knew that this is what we are here for. Children will be children, and our space was made for them just the way they are. We hope parents can let their guard down and relax a little bit, knowing that everyone here gets it.
Lisa: I would hope parents wouldn’t ignore children at a restaurant and include them in the meal and experience rather than try to keep ’em busy so you don’t have to deal with them. I’ve been guilty of not doing that. But there are so many teaching moments in a restaurant: how to talk to a stranger, how to say please and thank you, how to hold a knife and fork, how to have a conversation. Parents could take advantage of it.
PP: The restaurant industry runs on notoriously small margins, and it’s hard not to notice some of the beloved play cafés that have closed in Portland recently, like Pied Piper and Café au Play.
Kelley: Parents are willing to pay $20 for a spin or yoga class but do not see the same value in what places like these offer. That, combined with the fact that parents are the pickiest customers around, makes for a very tough situation to manage. Many parents want extremely high quality, yet pay very little for it. In this field, there is no financial wiggle room.
Kayla: Ultimately all businesses are run by real people, and at some point those people have to make decisions that are best for them personally. I have so much respect for the hard choices that those owners had to make, and we at Roseway will continue pushing forward.
PP: Aside from the food and drink, what are the challenges of running a family-friendly business that patrons might not consider?
Lisa: Having enough high chairs! Keeping the crayons sharp. And stroller parking! So many people have strollers that it’s a parking lot out there.
Kelley: Getting families to remember the rules we have in place to keep all kiddos and parents safe and healthy. Like, everyone wear socks! And no outside food allowed. There are too many of our littlest guests that have varying food allergies.
PP: How do you balance running a small business with family life?
Kayla: We don’t see them as two separate things. Our business is a piece of our family and our values that we extend to our community, and in turn our family is an integral part of running our business. Our children work with us daily, helping where they are willing and capable.
Kelley: For me, I have found that balance is not about doing multiple things at the same time. Balance is about giving yourself the freedom to let go of the guilt when certain areas of your life feel like they are failing. Some days, work will win and your kids will lose; other days, your kids will win and work will lose. Most days your marriage will take a back seat, and pretty much every day your own needs are neglected. Balance is when you let yourself be okay with all this. For me, that acceptance is balance.
Lisa: The only way I’ve been able to balance it is to promote a new general manager at Mother’s to free up my time. That way during the afternoon lull I can run errands or take my grandkids to a doctor’s appointment.
PP: Running any business, but especially a restaurant or café, demands long hours and boundless energy. What keeps you going?
Lisa: I now have six mouths to feed [my four grandchildren, their father and their other grandmother]. What really keeps me going is I have to keep them going. I also love feeding people, I love making people happy, I love seeing happy kids and families. That’s enough juice to get me out of bed in the morning.
Kayla: For me, it is incredibly humanizing and empowering to see families just like ours all day long. We see that no matter how different people are, we are truly so similar, and we’re all in the trenches of parenting just doing the best we can.