EARLS RESTAURANTS TO PARENTS: “BRING YOUR OWN HIGH CHAIR”

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.

Oliver enjoys a cup of miso soup at our favourite local sushi joint. The tiny restaurant, which is a popular destination among celebrities and NHL hockey players, seats fewer than 40 people and has two high chairs plus a booster seat!

Oliver enjoys a cup of miso soup at our favourite local sushi joint. The tiny restaurant, which is a popular destination among celebrities and NHL hockey players, seats fewer than 40 people, yet has two high chairs and a booster seat!

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:

Dear Carli,

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. 

Sincerely, 
Miko Bryson 
Earls Restaurants Ltd.

I thought the response was dismissive and not at all helpful, so I continued the conversation:

Dear Miko,

 Thank you kindly for your quick response to my feedback.
 
I appreciate that each Earls restaurant is unique and appeals to different markets; however, I must respectfully disagree with your assessment that requests for highchairs (or booster seats) are rare at the Robson Street location. As I mentioned in my initial comment, during our brief visit, which took place on a quiet mid-week evening, we were actually one of three families in the restaurant with children of age to require a high chair or booster. With Earls being a very well-known restaurant destination across Western Canada, and with this particular location being situated on a busy street that draws considerable tourist traffic, it would be foolish to think that families with small children would not wish to dine at Earls on Robson.
 
Regardless of the frequency of requests, however, a highchair or booster seat is a standard, inexpensive item that a restaurant should always have on hand in order to ensure the comfort and safety of its smallest guests. It is not reasonable, nor is it safe, to expect babies and toddlers to be seated propped atop unstable stacks of cushions and blankets. 
 
In the roughly 15 months that our son has been capable of dining at the table with us, this is actually the first time we have encountered a dining establishment that did not have proper seating available for him. Whether we have been dining at Earls competitors such as Cactus Club or Milestones, or at smaller upscale restaurants that typically do not cater to family dining, we have always been able to procure at least a booster seat. I think that if you were to call around to similar restaurants in the city, you would find that Earls is very much the exception by not having high chairs and booster seats available on the premises.
 
We enjoyed the food and service at Earls, and the staff were very welcoming towards our family. We were just disappointed that the restaurant appears to be deliberately set up to exclude customers with small children.
 
Sincerely,
Carli

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 :) .

17 responses to “EARLS RESTAURANTS TO PARENTS: “BRING YOUR OWN HIGH CHAIR”

  1. I would remove “premium” from their classification, too. The only thing premium about an Earles is the ridiculous prices they charge for below average fare. I also respectfully disagree with: “families should be politely turned away at the door”. Yes, change your liquor license – the legal way – but I don’t think it is fair or just to actively exclude a huge demographic. There are so many options (particularly because families with small kids usually dine earlier than the non-breeders): Seat the family somewhere far removed from the kid-less, so that their child’s cooties won’t come close to a gucci or prada bag, whatever. There are ways. IF the child becomes loud, unruly etc, and it’s obviously impacting another customer’s dining experience negatively, THEN politely ask them to leave. But that is a big IF, in my opinion. Most kids behave perfectly well in restaurants, if their parents are being vigilant.

  2. I live in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The Earls here does not have high chairs either. We went in with my one year old, we were told they didn’t have high chairs, so we turned around and left. That tells me they don’t want kids there. We went to The Keg. Left a bad taste for me.

  3. I have to say I agree with a lot of this, it’s one of the more thoughtful blogs I’ve seen on the subject. However, as a 26 year old with no children, I must say that I do enjoy dining at Earls in part because there aren’t many children detracting from the ambiance. Earls has done a poor job at straddling this line publicly, but they have managed to keep their environment less kid-saturated, without blatantly turning people away. This is the type of environment I prefer to dine in. I love kids, but what’s so bad about some places being places that are reserved for people who can sit on their own, use cutlery, and control their volume? Earls doesn’t want to altogether ban minors because families with children who are grown enough to act appropriately in a restaurant do not detract from the more adult atmosphere.

    On another note, I used to be a server at earls. They were actually a great company to work for, as far as putting myself through college goes, but that’s not the point. In all my time spent working there, I have to say I had MANY more customers request to not be seated by families with small children, or to be moved to a different table away from small children, than I had requests for a high chair or booster seat.

    Many business men and woman go there to discuss business in a relaxing environment. It eventually got to the point where we had a non-official policy to seat families with small children in a certain area, near the back of the dining room. Even then we would have parents who were able to control their children asking to be moved away from the tables with parents who couldn’t.

    Quite often I’d have someone, not wanting to embarrass the table next to them, come and find me in another section of the restaurant and ask to be moved away from a table with toddlers. They would say things like ‘don’t they know this isn’t a kids restaurant?’ and almost sometimes insinuate it was the restaurant’s fault there were noisy children around. Basically, there was no pleasing everyone.

    Personally, when I become a parent I’d like to think I’ll be aware of places where small children are welcomed, not only by the company, but by the other patrons of the establishment. I have babysat my niece before and taken her to Red Robin or Chuck-e-cheese, while my sister and her husband went to a Joey or Earls restaurant and movie. When my children come of an age where they’re able to behave, order for themselves, sit on their own, perhaps earls would then make a good spot for some occasions, and a certain level of behaviour is expected. When I become a parent of rambunctious toddlers, I will expect sister to return the favour and babysit for me so my spouse and I can go out and enjoy a more adult atmosphere.

  4. One more thing I must add, after reading the other comments here. Wendy says: ‘most kids behave perfectly in restaurants’ that I must STRONGLY but respectfully disagree with. Of course it’s up to parents to control their children, but let me tell you that after working in a earls dining room for almost 3 years that is absolutely not true. Most kids roam the restaurant, talk loudly, cry, and do many other things that disturb other customers. The point here is not so much that Earls doesn’t want kids in the dining room, it’s that OTHER CUSTOMERS don’t want kids in the dining room. Earls is in a very tough spot in the middle here. Allowing kids without overly welcoming them is really the only option. Wendy also suggests they ask tables with noisy kids to leave. I can only imagine the controversy that would instigate. I can see the headline: ‘Earls kicks out family in the middle of their dinner for having small kids’

    • Hi Greg, Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, and for sharing your point of view as a former Earls employee. A mom friend of mine is a server at Earls and also speaks very highly of the company, despite not being able to get a highchair for her daughter at the very restaurant where she works!

      As the parent of a young toddler, I still fully agree with the concept of adult-oriented restaurants. If my husband and I have a rare opportunity to go out for dinner alone, I sure as heck don’t want someone else’s children ruining my experience! 🙂 Even when we are out for dinner as a family, I find myself irritated when there are poorly-behaved children nearby.

      Although our son is usually very well behaved in restaurants (and if he isn’t, we remove him so as not to disturb others), we wouldn’t take him to somewhere like Earls, for example, on a Friday or Saturday evening… or really any time after 7:00 PM. But I feel like an upscale casual restaurant should be an okay place to take a kid for an early supper on a weekday. Certainly our family has been warmly welcomed and accommodated at far nicer restaurants.

      More than anything, as you alluded to in your first paragraph, I think Earls needs to do a better job with PR on this issue. They seem to be playing both sides, and in the process, ticking everyone off. I would have far preferred them to be upfront with us, saying, “Just so you know, Earls is an adult-oriented restaurant, so we don’t have high chairs and booster seats available. If you’d like to stay, we are happy to accommodate you at an out-of-the-way table, and we can find some blankets and pillows to boost your son up at the table.” Then we’d have known the score, and been able to make an informed choice as to whether or not this was an appropriate place for us to dine.

      P.S. I agree with you that “most” children are not well behaved in restaurants. It’s a sad state of affairs, really.

  5. I only just learned that this whole Earls high chair debate had become such a controversy, and it really kind of tickled my interest because I remember it being an issue when I worked there. I started perusing the internet and reading up on it. Your blog post was one of the best that I read. Like most debates of this nature, there’s no black or white answer to the situation; there’s a huge grey area.

    I agree that Earls does have it’s head up their ass. Their PR on this issue is particularly bad. I like how you highlighted that in your post. What they should have had the balls to say is: “While we do not feel it’s appropriate to firmly state the age of children we want in our restaurants, we do feel a responsibility to stand up for our customers who, for the most part, enjoy a toddler-free environment. We don’t provide children’s menus/amenities not because we dislike children, but because it’s not the demographic we market too.”

    Parents don’t write to Kellog’s Raisin Bran complaining that their child doesn’t like their cereal. Parents don’t get mad at Smirnoff Vodka because their drink isn’t child friendly. Ok, I’m getting ridiculous here, but I think you get my point. These things are insinuated by a companies’ marketing, and by the nature of their product or experience.

    You suggest stating up front to customers that Earls isn’t a toddler-friendly restaurant (I keep using the word toddler, because that’s the specific age group we’re really talking about, not children old enough to understand what ‘manners’ are). I would find that insulting. To be told upfront we don’t want your kids here? No major restaurant chain could get away with saying that.

    Parents who are able to control their toddlers, and have respect for other diners, should be able to come in. I’m sure that you, your husband, and Oliver, wouldn’t disturb anyone because clearly you’re good parents. One sad reality I learned in the service industry, is that *many* people are not good parents. I’ve seen parents that let their children roam the restaurant while wearing shoes that SQUEAK every time they take a step. I’ve seen parents let their child go up to other tables and talk to whoever is dining there, just because the child recently began forming sentences and they’re sooooooooo cute. I’ve been asked to give children my ball-point pen and note-pad so they have something to draw on. I guess I don’t need to be able to write down orders, as long as your child has something to distract them, while you’re being an oblivious parent.

    Without providing amenities for toddlers, I think Earls is simply trying to send the message that this is not an environment suited for (most) toddlers. The idea being that hopefully bad parents, who don’t have the tact to know any better, will not return. With no colouring sheets, grilled cheese, or high chairs, lazy parents are unlikely to return with their children.

    That being said, I am appalled that whatever Earls you went to suggested propping up your lovely Oliver with pillows and blankets. That would have never happened at the location I worked at. That’s just pure stupidity. That was probably an idea the hostess’ cooked up on their own, to help the awkward situation, without management approval. Most of the managers I worked with had kids, and would never allow any staff to suggest pillows and blankets for safely accommodating a child.

    Working at Earls, I was often worried for children’s safety. There were lights near to the floor, which if touched by soft fingers could burn a roaming toddler. It was policy to only serve food on plates that were warm or even hot, so it wouldn’t suck the heat out of the food. I once had a parent blame me because their child hurt their hands on dad’s plate of steak.

    Although you wouldn’t take Oliver to a place like Earls on a Friday night at 8pm, there are plenty of parents that do. In fact 3-7pm is happy hour, and at the location I worked at, that would be one of the worst places/times to bring a toddler.

    Restaurants that are more posh than Earls may be more accommodating, but I’d bet they have far less volume, especially during peak hours. Fancy restaurants are generally smaller, servers work with smaller sections. Less customers are disturbed by children who should either be having a nap, or eating a happy meal from McDonald’s. Happy meals come with toys, and isn’t that what’s this is all about? Earls has no “toys” for children. They do, however, have floor-lighting, to provide a nice atmosphere, but if kids touch them, they’ll burn their fingers. The location I worked at would gross about $40,000 on a Friday night. A fancy restaurant might make that as well, but with far less volume, and far less people coming and going.

    Anyways I’ve written enough about this now to start a novel. I just find it truly interesting when subjects like this become so polarising, with few people willing to take a look at the more intricate details of the situation. Some of the most wonderful tables I served were good parents with good children. I worked at a very busy Earls, in a very urban/downtown location. Ultimately, it was the “business men” who didn’t want to be dining with kids, and they helped pay my university tuition with their tips. Families were nice, but they would tip about 15%. Business men would often leave me a 25% tip. I have given MANY married men directions to the nearest strip-club or liquor store. Are these pleasant family-oriented realities? No. But it IS the reality, and I wouldn’t want my child around that.

    I have a friend who works at an very suburban Earls location in Calgary, and they do actually have high chairs and booster seats. Location, location, location.

  6. Buy a Phil&Teds Lobster chair. The thing is so portable (easily fits into our backpack turned diaper bag) and clamps onto almost any table with a substantial top. True, we typically only take it with us if we know we are going to be dining out, but one could essentially carry it with them whenever they are out and about as a family. So go ahead and stick it to those adult-oriented premium casual restaurants that don’t offer seating for little ones! By the way, if an establishment doesn’t offer a diaper changing station in the restrooms, my wife and I will whip out our foldable changing mat and do our business right in plain sight; sometimes on a dining table! Gross? Sure, but we do it prove a point and hope managers will take notice.

  7. Just to let you know I have worked at 3 different Earl’s for a total of 7 years. The target market for Earls presently is men from the ages of 19 to 35 who watch sports such as hockey or MMA. You may have noticed that the waitresses now wear tight fitting black dresses, and full on makeup. This is what that demographic wants.
    One other thing is that Earl’s has been sued and scrutinized for entire 7 years that I was there. They know that once the public moves on from a bad story about them they can go back to working the same way they had before. I have seen this happen countless times.

    • Very interesting!

      My beef is definitely not with their desire to be an adult-oriented establishment. I can certainly respect that, and I have no delusions that everyone in the world thinks my kid is as cute or well behaved as I do 😉

      I just didn’t like their mixed messaging, essentially, “At Earl’s, we love families…” but we won’t be bothered to take even the most basic steps to accommodate them. If you “love” families, then cater to them. If not, make it clear and transparent that you won’t accommodate their needs.

      I’d have had no issue if we were politely told up front, upon arriving at the restaurant, that they are really not geared towards having small children dine there.

  8. I have worked at 2 separate Earls, one that had both high chairs and booster seats, and one that had only booster seats. If a child is too young to use a booster seat, it’s usually appropriate to leave them in their stroller while the family eats. The Earls I work at now uses this strategy to make up for a lack of highchairs. Offering cushions is simply ridiculous.
    I do have to say that at my current job at Earls, we rarely have young children come in who require high chairs. We are located in a busy downtown business district, with a large portion of the lunch rush coming from the surrounding workforce. Yes, it is embarrassing when a customer asks for a high chair and you have to tell them you don’t have one. But this only happens maybe once a week (and I work full-time), if not less. I know Earls has been coming under a lot of heat for this issue, and I’d like to see it resolved as much as you would. I believe that what this Miko person wrote in their response to you is correct, at least about each restaurant and the General Manager being able to make decisions regarding matters like this. My old GM recognized the need for high chairs (many more families came to eat at that Earls than my current one), and so the restaurant purchased some.
    Sorry if any of this has been repetitive, I haven’t read all of the above comments – only your main post.
    Regards,
    Krista

  9. My family and I had the same experience recently at Earls. I have to say I’m disgusted with the level of criticism these guy Greg has dish out to parents! Lazy, bad parents, with misbehaved kids… I hope that when he has kids he gets one of those hyperactive, tantrum kid. Sometimes is best for people who don’t know anything about being a parent to not say anything.
    I agree with a lot of the comments that state that Earls is ridiculously pricy and not high end at all. I wonder what these so call a adults that don’t want kids while they are dining do when the huge group of loud stupid teenagers come to eat there? Is not a matter of being able to sit on your own, or order your own food, families should be allowed to eat at restaurants that are not for people 19+!
    I’ll never go to Earls again, kids or not kids. I won’t spend my money in places that care so little about families.
    Oh, and just for those that work at Earls, we were there early Friday evening, we were 1out of 13 families with kids there, all under the age of 9, one of the families had there own high chair.
    Hope that people who are so critical enjoy Chukee cheeses once they have kids!

  10. Don’t go there with your kids. Spend your money elsewhere. Your right to choose is as important as theirs to not cater to families. I have 3 kids, aged 7 and twins aged 2 – would never consider taking them at this age to an Earls.

  11. “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”–with the time you WASTED writing this article you could have gone to any number of locations with oliver. IMO you just wanted to be heard and use your sons name in an internet article. get off YOUR horse.

    • you do realize how ruse and deaming that sounds to people who work there right? like if u want respect then give it. and mabey dnt bring your kid to a place that, as you say, is pretty much made fr adults. dont cry cause the icecram man only has chocolate.

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