PB&J, Mac & Cheese Step Out From Kids-Fare Shadow

Forget the kids’ menu — this isn’t your 7-year-old’s peanut butter and jelly.

Peanut Butter & Co.
Source: PB&Co.
Peanut Butter & Co.

At Peanut Butter & Co., the bread’s gone artisanal and the target customer is grown up.

The Greenwich Village restaurant, along with eateries that serve macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese and spaghetti and meatballs, are emblematic of the rise in restaurants designed for adults that feature traditional kids' fare.

“The reason that a lot of these items are taking hold is because of that comfort food factor,” said Sam Oches, managing editor of QSR Magazine. “Comfort food really resonates with people — eating something that is really cathartic, something that really resonates with the past is something that most people enjoy doing.”

As more restaurants pop up with menus built around a single item, the key to capturing today’s sophisticated palate is innovation, Oches said.

At Cheese-ology, a mac-and-cheese centric restaurant in Missouri, consumers can choose dishes featuring more than 10 types of cheese. But this cheese experimentation does not come cheaply. At around $14 for a large order, the bill will likely dwarf most childhood allowances.

“Twenty years ago, a grilled cheese was a grilled cheese,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president at the National Restaurant Association. “Now, not only have you got two dozen different types of cheese, a multitude of different types of bread platforms and then enhance it with various condiments, and it really opens up the door to the product’s customization to that particular customer’s wants.”

According to the National Peanut Board, the average child will consume 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before graduating from high school. Lee Zalben, founder and president of Peanut Butter & Co., turned his childhood love of the spread into a career. Each year, his company churns out about 100,000 sandwiches ranging from the aptly named Lunchbox Special to varieties with bacon or vanilla cream cheese.

Since the eatery’s opening in 1998, Zalben said the company has also found success in the wholesale peanut butter business. It sells flavors, including dark chocolate, white chocolate, and cinnamon raisin versions, to several big-name retailers, such as Wal-Mart , Target and Amazon.com .

Although being a niche restaurant can be freeing because of the many ways an item can be interpreted, the concept’s narrowed focus can also be limiting, Zalben said.

“We know that if we put things on the menu that don’t contain peanut butter, they typically aren’t going to sell,” he said. “It forces us to be really on our game and to focus on the experience that our customers are having and to continue to focus on quality and innovation.”

The rise in restaurants that feature children’s fare as the main attraction comes amid an overall decline in orders of kids' meals. Last year, 1.2 billion kids' meals with toys were ordered, down from the 1.4 billion sold in 2005, according to data from The NPD Group.

"Kids' meals are likely to still have interest for those under three- to four-years of age," said Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst at The NPD Group. "But kids older than four years of age — they want choices, and they want variety."

Still, Riehle forecasts that growth for these innovative restaurants is poised to continue in the long-term.

“Whether that ends up being a PB&J, grilled cheese or an omelet, the ability for the restaurant community to deliver in a positive and effective manner foods, which have good memories among consumers is something that has only been growing and will continue to grow,” he said.

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com. Follow Katie Little on Twitter @katie_little_.