Visiting a museum café is central to the experience of family visitors. Many families want to have a full day out at a museum that includes a break for food and drink. As a result, we want museums to consider the needs of families when they plan their catering offer.
To support museums to better tailor their cafés to the needs of families, we consulted families about what they need. We reviewed previous feedback from family judges for the Family Friendly Museum Award, data from previous family consultations for our Kids in Museums Manifesto and conducted our own survey of family museum visitors in summer 2021.
What we discovered was that family visitors did not always feel that museums catered well for their needs. 78% of those surveyed said they only ‘sometimes’ or ‘rarely’ found food in museum cafés affordable and only 22% felt they often a good variety of children’s food there.
This resource aims to offer insight into what families want from museum cafés and some top tips on how museums can make these amenities more family friendly. We know that it is not always easy to make changes in this area, especially where cafés are run by external providers. However, we hope that some of the information and survey data will at least be helpful in starting conversations.
Choice of food and drink
The families we surveyed wanted museum cafés to offer children’s menus and healthy children’s food. At the River Kitchen at the Museum of Making in Derby, there is a menu for children and the kitchen also offers child sized portions of all of the main meals on the menu. The menu includes a range of vegetarian and vegan options, and they can substitute ingredients to accommodate dietary requirements, such as gluten free.
Tate Britain has a Pick and Mix lunch offer for children which means that they can choose from a range of sandwiches, drinks and snacks in the café. Prepacked children’s lunch boxes are also popular at many organisations, such as those sold in the Garden Café at the V&A. These can be a good approach for a more informal lunch.
Up until the pandemic, the Soil Association ran the Out to Lunch survey using mystery shopper families to assess the healthiness and sustainability of children’s food in UK restaurants. On the website you can see the results as well as four simple steps for cafes and restaurants to take to make children’s food healthier.
Many families wanted to be able to have a short break in a museum café during a half day visit. As a result, it is also worth considering whether you can offer children’s portions of cakes and hot drinks. At the Horniman Museum and Gardens, the café menu includes babycinos and bespoke walrus biscuits based on the collection.
Vegan and vegetarian options
In both our survey and conversations with museum cafés, we saw increasing demand for vegetarian and vegan children’s food. Research shows that sales of meat are declining and there is increasing demand for plant-based alternatives. The Sainsbury’s Future of Food report suggests that by 2025 nearly one quarter of the UK population will be vegetarian or vegan. This is something that museums should start to consider in their offer for families.
Families with additional needs
For families with additional needs, museum café menus can come with particular challenges as they are only able to eat a very limited range of food. They find it useful to see the menu online before a visit with full details of allergy advice (note the recent changes in the law about labelling) and dietary requirements that can be accommodate so they know whether their needs will be met or whether they need to plan to bring their own food.
Affordability was the top priority for the families we surveyed when asked to think about what was most important about a museum café. Price is not only a barrier to visiting a museum café but can feed into decisions about a whole day out at a museum. This is highlighted by the following observation from research into audiences at DCMS sponsored museums in London in 2020 by Morris Hargreaves Macintyre:
“Audiences in our study described how visiting a free museum doesn’t mean a free day out. They calculate the cost of travel and food and drink into the mix…The cost of food and drink at museums, as well as a lack of family friendly choice, is a barrier, perceptual and real, to attendance for those in lower socio-economic groups.”
It’s difficult to give hard and fast rules about what children’s food should cost in a museum café. You may want to benchmark the cost of food and drink with other local cafés and see how your prices compare, as well as review any feedback your museum has received from family visitors. It is also worth considering the cost of a day out at your museum, imagining a family group visiting and all the costs they might incur during a day out.
Baltic Art Gallery is using the Poverty Proofing approach more commonly used in schools to understand the barriers to visiting among families from areas with higher levels of deprivation. It might be worth considering this perspective when looking at your café and any provision you make for families to eat their own food at your venue.
You may also want to think about how you communicate about the prices in your café, especially if you think they might be perceived as slightly more expensive than neighbouring eateries. Can you communicate about how a visit to your café supports the wider work of the museum?
Families wanted museum cafés to be as easy as possible to visit. This includes having the space and facilities they needed, particularly if they had younger children. They wanted to see enough space to move around with a pushchair, which is also essential for wheelchair users, and adequate seating.
For smaller children
Families with younger children felt that highchairs were important as well as provision to heat up baby food or bottles. Guidance from the Health and Safety Executive states that there is no health and safety reason for a café to decline to do this, it is down to their customer service policy.
The People’s History Museum promote the family friendliness of their café on their website, including highchairs and bottle warming.
Also make sure that your café has a breastfeeding welcome attitude and if your organisation hasn’t already, consider signing up to the Breastfeeding Welcome Scheme. Ensure that there is a comfortable and discreet space to breastfeed available somewhere in your café or museum.
Simple play activities or colouring sheets for children were also popular additions to a café offer among the families we surveyed. These are part of the family friendly café commitment at the Museum of London Docklands and a great way to create connections between your café and museum collection.
Make sure you include your café on your visual story and that information about café facilities is clearly included on the family page of your website. For example, York Castle Museum has included both its shop and café in the museum’s visual story.
Our survey showed that families were increasingly interested in the sustainability of the food being served in museum cafés. They were keen to see museums working with local suppliers, serving sustainably produced food and minimising the use of plastic in packaging. They also wanted to know what museums were doing to respond to the climate emergency, so don’t forget to communicate clearly about how your café is working to become more sustainable.
This case study from the Horniman Museum and Gardens and Julie’s Bicycle shows how the Horniman has worked to make its café more sustainable through reducing the use of single use plastic, using food waste as compost, using local and sustainable food suppliers and increasing the proportion of vegetarian and vegan food on the menu.
The Food Made Good website has lots of guidance about sourcing sustainable ingredients and reducing the use of plastic in packaging.
Offering an alternative
Families in our survey felt that it was important for museums to offer something for those who did not want to eat and drink in the museum café. More than a third often took their own food and drink on a museum visit, the main reasons for this being the expense of museum cafés. The facilities they most wanted were free tap water/ water bottle refill and space to eat picnics.
Tap water refills were stopped due to the pandemic as a result of hygiene concerns. However, as more research is carried out on COVID-19 transmission, it is possible to offer refills safety and hygienically as this guidance from Refill shows. You can promote your museum offering refills on the Refill app and website.
82% of families were surveyed said a picnic area was important or very important to them when they visited a museum. Thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum, offers a dedicated indoor picnic area all year round.
This is potentially difficult in smaller museums, but if offering a permanent space isn’t possible, it might be worth considering whether something can be put in place for busier times for family visits like school holidays. For example, at Worcester County Museum, the school workshop room is used as a picnic area during school holidays. In spring and summer, it is easier to make use of outdoor space. If you have space available, you might want to consider purchasing a gazebo or similar so families can sit outside and eat with some shelter.
Make sure that your picnic area is cleaned regularly, is accessible to people with pushchairs and wheelchair users, that there is discreet space to breastfeed if desired, that there are recycling bins and that the space is clearly signed. Again, ensure that information about your picnic area and other alternatives to your café are included in family information on your website and in your visual story.
If your organisation is selecting a catering provider, make sure that family friendliness, welcome and accessibility are key elements in the tender documents and contracts. Selecting a café provider is beyond the scope of this resource, but there is more information in the AIM Guide to Successful Cafés.
As part of our research, we spoke to Benugo to understand their relationship with museums. From this work, we have the following tips about working with a franchise to create a more family friendly catering offer.
- Share information about your museum audience and times when more families are likely to be on site such as during school holiday periods. Regular communication and information dashboards can be really helpful.
- Use benchmarking information from other local cafés and customer feedback as the basis for conversations about price.
- Involve your café provider in an empathy journey, get them to imagine being a family coming to their café to understand the full experience from arriving at the museum.
- Be aware of potential constraints that come from the building where the café is located. Simple things such as tap water refills may not always be possible.
- Successful Museum Cafés Guide – AIM (Association of Independent Museums)
- What makes a successful museum café? – Museums Association
- Cultural Enterprises Academy – Association for Cultural Enterprises
Café food suggestions from families
- Not too sugary drinks (Fruit Shoots were mentioned quite a few times.)
- Fruit juice
- Flavoured waters
- One parent mentioned they liked Nando’s approach of giving you your own mini glass bottle of cordial with a water tap so you can choose how strong to make the squash
- Beans on toast
- Simple sandwiches or rolls, such as cheese, ham or tuna
- Fruit, such as bananas, satsumas, raisins and grapes
- Half of a jacket potato with a small filling
- Child friendly soup flavours such as tomato
- Pasta with garlic bread
- Fish fingers or sausages with chips
- Small packs of cakes or smaller cakes for children
- Snacks, such as veggie sticks, houmous, crackers, yoghurt, fruit or cheese (e.g. Babybel)
Created in partnership with Benugo and University of Leicester placement student, Beth Green