Coffee, café, play, Mommy and me

We believe that the first for-profit children's edutainment center (CEdC) was the Wol-Ha center we designed and produced in the main town of Cancun for one of our Mexican clients in 1995. That was part of a facility that also included a bowling center. That CEdC was the equivalent of about a 15,000-square-foot freestanding center. After Wol-Ha, we went on to produce both freestanding CEdCs, as well as ones integrated with other uses. Bamboola in San Jose, California, was a 24,000-square-foot indoor, 5,000-square-foot outdoor CEdC. Dinotropolis in Caracas, Venezuela, combined children's edutainment with children's entertainment. Totter's Otterville in the greater Cleveland, Ohio, area was part of Johnny's Toy Store. LouLou Al Dugong's in Dubai, U.A.E., was located in a mall. Paradise Park in the greater Kansas City, Missouri, area includes a CEdC combined with a family entertainment center.

An issue we address on all our projects is right sizing them for their markets. Projects need to be designed to accommodate what is called their "design day," which is a mathematically derived peak design occupancy based on an average of peak times on peak days. In the West, these peak days are typically Saturdays. In Islamic countries, it can be a Thursday, Friday or Saturday, depending on the country. The CEdC needs to be large enough to accommodate the design day peak demand, or it will be way too crowded. Likewise, you don't want to make the CEdC too large for its market, or the investment return will not be maximized. (See Size Does Matter: Selecting the Right Size for Your Center for more about right sizing).

In most markets, when we run the attendance projections, the design day calculation requires a CEdC that is 20,000 to 24,000 square feet, which is a sizable investment.

Our clients have constantly asked us for a way to develop a smaller CEdC that requires a smaller investment. Finally, one of our clients in Chicago, Illinois, challenged us enough that we broke through our paradigm of sizing. What if the CEdC was more narrowly focused on at-home moms and only open to the general public on weekdays - and on Friday nights, weekends and holidays, hosted only birthday parties? Ah ha! We no longer have to size it for Saturdays, as there is no public general admission and the number of parties can be controlled.

CEdCs do significant business during the weekday with at-home moms with preschool children. These moms want a place to meet with their friends while the children can be engaged in quality play. You don't need 20,000+ square feet for the weekday business. A smaller CEdC could be designed for the at-home moms with preschool market on the weekdays and could be solidly booked on weekends for parties based upon balancing the play capacity with the number of party rooms. A new model CEdC is born. We first started calling this new model an At-Home Moms Café.

There seems to be some telepathletic nature to new ideas. As we were evolving the design for the At-Home Moms Café, similar concepts targeting at-home moms starting appearing throughout the United States, the United Kingdom, and of all places, South Korea. These centers are being called such names as play cafés, parent-and-child cafés, family lifestyle clubs (a strange name that evolved in New York City, but then again, many things in New York City are strange) and 'Some Name' playgrounds.

The model we have developed for at-home mom cafés is based upon the successful CEdC model we have perfected over the past 11 years, but with a few play activities omitted and everything scaled-down (we previously scaled down some toilets for children in our CEdCs, so we haven't reduced any more in size). Our research shows that the at-home moms café will be the most successful in the 9,000- to 10,000-square-feet size range, plus the possibility of some outdoor space - a real plus. With anything smaller than that, you lose the variety of play activities needed for repeat appeal, plus you don't have the kitchen space needed to produce a varied menu that meets moms' desires.

At-home moms' cafes have some definite advantages, making them easier to manage. They are typically open for about eight hours each weekday. This means you can hire mostly a full-time staff to run them during the week. Full-time staff has many advantages, including getting to know regular customers better, and thus delivering better customer service. Women want to have a relationship with businesses with which they frequent. With a full-time regular staff, you can develop relationships with guests. For a weekday business, full-time workers with regular work hours are usually easier to find.

Then, on Friday nights, weekends and holidays, when the at-home moms café hosts only private parties, you can hire a part-time staff that's specially trained to run parties. The café is easier to run during these party times, as the menu is much more limited - basically pizza and drinks - and you know in advance all the food requirements for ordering and production. There are a lot of people looking for part-time work on weekends. Party hosts can be paid on a contract per party basis, so labor costs can be tightly controlled.

With many more women waiting until later in their professional careers to take off from work to have and raise children, we think the demand for at-home moms cafes will only continue to grow. One important factor that does affect their development is that you are predominately dealing with an educated and previously professional career mom, so she has high expectations for the quality of the facility, the food and beverage (this is not your nachos and hot dog crowd), cleanliness, customer service - all aspects of the business.

And speaking about food and getting back to South Korea, there are more than 10 parent-and-child cafés in Seoul, where the menus include Japanese noodles and fried rice. Cooking lessons are popular with the children.

We have identified close to two dozen play cafes of various forms that have opened throughout the United States. In addition to general admission and parties, some of the play cafés also offer children's and Mommy and me classes. Some play cafes have built their model on memberships. Some of them have great features. Unfortunately, some of them are either very small or done on the cheap, and we seriously doubt those will survive long-term.

We are currently working with three women entrepreneurs on developing play cafes in the Chicago, Illinois, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, areas and a Caribbean island. Finding and negotiating leases for locations is much more difficult than any of these developers originally imagined. One of the most difficult challenges, besides finding space at a rent that makes economic sense, is also finding locations that can include an outdoor play garden. Outdoor landscaped seating and play areas have a very positive impact on the appeal of the play cafés. Even in bad or winter weather, the views of the outdoors allow you to 'borrow the landscaping,' which has a dramatic impact on the feel and appeal of the indoors. And in good weather, when both moms and children want to be outdoors, the outdoor play garden overcomes the seasonality of an indoor-only space.

We look forward to working on the development of these and other play cafes. We're sure if you live in a major metropolitan area, you will see one or more variations of this new concept crop up soon in your area.