Last Thursday we were running behind schedule. We picked Oliver up from daycare and, having no suitable food on hand to facilitate the creation of dinner, decided that eating out was our best option.
We were in the mood for steaks and were headed to The Keg, but passed by Earls on our way, and decided to dine there instead.
Earls is not a family restaurant per se. Its target demographic is young, childless professionals in their late 20s. I know this because I was their target market a mere four years ago. That said, a restaurant does not have to explicitly brand itself as a family establishment in order to be suitable for families. Nothing in my previous experiences at Earls suggested to me that it was anything but a perfectly appropriate place to bring our toddler for supper on a quiet, early, mid-week evening.
We go out of our way to avoid designated “family” restaurants such as White Spot, Red Robin and Denny’s, as the food is often horrible (and never Paleo-friendly), and the constant refrains of screaming, whining children unbearable. So instead we take Oliver to real restaurants and insist that he behaves like a civilized human being. He nearly always lives up to our expectations, but if he’s having a rough day, we simply take him outside so that he does not disturb the other diners — or we ask for our food “to-go.”
But I digress. Back to Earls…
If you’re not familiar with Earls, it is a popular “premium casual” chain that started in Alberta more than 30 years ago. They have close to six dozen locations across five Canadian provinces and three U.S. states. The particular Earls we visited is located on Vancouver’s busiest tourist street.
We arrived and were greeted warmly, then shown to our table. As we approached our table, I requested a high chair or booster for Oliver and was told that they didn’t have any.
Wait — what?!
I gave the hostess a look of confusion, whereupon she confirmed that no, they did not have any seating for Oliver, but would be happy to provide us with a stack of cushions and blankets to boost him up to table height. Yes folks, a wobbly stack of patio cushions and blankets is Earls’ idea of safe and appropriate seating for a baby or toddler.
During the hour we spent at the restaurant, I noticed two other families with small children — one with a toddler about Oliver’s age, and another with a baby of approximately six months. This confirmed my intuition that we were not totally off-base in choosing Earls as a place to bring our child.
When we arrived back home, I submitted the following feedback via a comment form on Earls’ corporate website:
We were very surprised to find that this location, being right in the middle of a busy tourist destination, does not have a single highchair or booster seat on hand. Indeed, during what was a very quiet (not busy) weekday dinner hour, there were two other couples dining with small children, so it seems we are not the only ones who were under the impression this would be a relatively family-friendly destination for an early weekday supper. Stacked blankets and cushions are not a safe booster option for babies and toddlers.
The next morning, I received this response via email:
Thank you for taking the time to share your feedback with us.
We do forward all comments to the restaurant location to take into consideration for future planning.
At Earls we don’t operate as a chain, our restaurants are not all the same – they are designed for our established guests as well as the location of the restaurant. Every Earls restaurant has to make a choice as to what they offer based on their market; from the menu to the decor to the music they play and the volume they play it – even the lighting and the space between tables is a conscious choice.
Simply put, requests for highchairs are rare. Where we see the need, some of our restaurants do have highchairs, approximately a quarter of our locations, and just over half our restaurants have booster chairs. Most of those are located in more suburban locations.
Again, we thank you for your feedback and we hope to see you and your family in Earls again sometime soon.
Earls Restaurants Ltd.
I thought the response was dismissive and not at all helpful, so I continued the conversation:
And that was it. I’ve heard nothing from Earls since.
Yesterday I took to one of my local moms’ networks to vent my frustration and to forewarn the other moms in my neighbourhood that Earls was not a family-friendly destination. A few other mothers shared similar experiences, and then one mother told me she was sure this issue had previously made the news. So I did a little bit of Google searching, and lo and behold, it had. Four months ago. And I missed it all. Because believe me, I wouldn’t have set foot in there with Oliver if I’d known on Thursday what I discovered last night.
Back in January there was a massive media storm surrounding one local family’s experience with Earls’ highchair policies. It was so huge, in fact, that the controversy made it out of our local media and was even picked up by American sites such as MSN’s Embrace the Chaos and Disney-owned Babble. Parenting bloggers all over Vancouver and beyond took to the web to castigate Earls.
Here is what unfolded:
Long-time Earls customer Michelle decided to visit a North Vancouver Earls location with her husband and nine-month-old daughter. She was surprised to discover that they didn’t have a highchair (sound familiar?), nor did they offer changing tables in the washrooms. She politely expressed her concerns in this post on Earls’ Facebook page, which subsequently went viral, setting off a heated emotional debate about rights of families versus rights of people to dine child-free.
If you read through the comments that follow, you’ll see that Earls’ response to Michelle (and others who have since come forward with similar stories) was effectively a canned cut-and-paste response, just like the one I received. In other words, Earls is outright lying about requests for highchairs being rare, as the issue has been raised so many times that they actually have standard, prepared responses for these sorts of queries.
Michelle’s tale of woe made the local news, and then spread from there. Earls bumbled and backtracked their way through a poorly-managed traditional and social media response, in the process alienating both families and their target market alike. Their message? “Earls loves and welcomes families,” but we won’t consistently provide the basic, inexpensive necessities that allow children to dine safely and comfortably in our restaurants.
Earls claims it is an “adult-oriented” establishment, which is why they don’t offer highchairs at all their locations, yet instead of actively discouraging families, they are happy to take families’ money while simultaneously failing to furnish their restaurants with even the most basic accommodations.
I cracked up when I read Earls’ official statement on the matter, which was later amended to remove the following sentence: ”The restaurants, all of which are individually designed by a team made up exclusively of women, tend to be designed for the type of clientele who establish our restaurants, and requests for highchairs are rare.” I’m still trying to process exactly what that means, or how having a design team made up exclusively of women is relevant to the situation, or makes it okay for them to exclude highchairs from the premises.
Here’s the thing: I can remember what it was like to be childless, and to want to enjoy a quiet meal at a restaurant without someone else’s precious brats throwing food at my feet or running around grabbing cutlery off tables. I get it, and if Earls wants to create a so-called adult-oriented environment at its restaurants, I would support them wholeheartedly. In that case, though, families should be politely turned away at the door, or at least advised upfront that the restaurant is not particularly suitable for families. Heck, if they really wanted to get serious about their status, they could change their liquor licensing and make all of their locations legally 19+ — no children allowed. But as long as they officially maintain that they “welcome families,” digging in their heels and refusing to provide highchairs is nothing more than poor customer service.
To be perfectly honest, I think the folks at Earls’ head office just need to get off their high horses and accept what Earls is: an ordinary “premium casual” chain, no more special than their competitors, Milestones, Cactus Club, Browns, The Keg and The Boathouse — all of whom target the exact same demographic as Earls, and all of whom provide highchairs and/or booster seats at each of their locations. We have taken Oliver to far more upscale dining establishments — ones that clearly do not cater to family dining — and have never before encountered a place that didn’t at least have a booster seat with safety straps.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this controversy. If you’re not a regular blog reader and have landed here via Google search or other coverage of this issue, please keep the discussion civil .