Kathleen Weinberg, founder of Nibbles Play Cafe
Drop by the Nibbles‘ Play Cafe in the Arlington Heights suburb of Chicago and you will see happy moms and happy kids. It’s a simple concept of combining food and play in a safe environment that is popular around the country. Yet, Nibbles takes it further with live performances, movie and disco nights for kids, and of course storytime. This extra effort on top of the solid basics is what I think recently earned them the Nick’s Parents Connect Parent’s Pick Award for the Best Breakfast in Chicago. Parents know that the best topping on that bagel is a stress-free morning, and that’s what you get at Nibbles – kids play and you relax. And the place is spotless clean! Kathleen Weinberg, owner and founder of Nibbles, is very hands on – you often see her around helping kids and chatting up parents; you can tell she puts her heart in this business. If you are in the business of working with kids, you have to work hard – they are tough critics, since they usually speak their minds. Kathleen has worked hard to make this a success and I asked her a few questions to see what other moms who want to start their own business can learn from her experience.
Why did you decide to start your own business?
I knew I wanted to return to work when my kids were ready to go to school but knew I had to be able to control my own schedule so I could be available at home when I was needed. Before I had my children, I worked as a social worker in a state agency and loved my job. But the income is low for social workers and I needed to have flexibility.
I spent a long time determining what my real passions were, what I really enjoyed doing and what I believed in. I have always worked with families and their children and have a strong commitment to providing services to families. I love planning events for children, always loved working in restaurants. I also wanted to be able to create a space where families could hear live music. I hated going to some of the other indoor play areas where it’s loud, hard to watch the kids and there isn’t adult-friendly food…eventually I came to the concept of Nibbles.
When did you first open Nibbles Cafe? What was it like in the beginning? How long did it take you to get it off the ground?
I began researching the feasibility of Nibbles and developing a business plan when my youngest was 3 years old – once I had determined what my own passions were. He is 9 now. The process of going from the idea to actually opening took almost 6 years – some of that was because I was waiting for him to be in school – but it also took 2 years to locate space, sign a lease and about 8 months to get through building permits and doing the build out. The first year was truly a learning experience. Mixing food and children is very difficult and very labor-intensive. There were a lot of issues to work through – lots of tweaking to do.
How did you come up with the name of the restaurant?
My kids, husband and I tried out many names – narrowed it down to about 5 and then my son’s first grade class voted (I wanted to make sure that the kids liked it). We had to make sure the name could be trademarked so there were lots of restrictions.
Do you consider Nibbles more a restaurant or a play area?
Nibbles is really a hybrid of both which is what makes it a unique – and sometimes a difficult concept to explain. We are licensed as a restaurant; there is no government oversight of the children’s play areas – so we have to see ourselves as a restaurant first.
What makes Nibbles unique in your opinion?
Our staff’s commitment to making an environment that is very welcoming to parents and accepting of all children is something that makes us special. Our commitment to having lots of live music and performances is something that makes us different from some of the other “play cafes” that are popping up around the country.
How do you measure success?
We would be happy if we could make a profit but I think that just getting a business open, functioning, providing good service is a significant accomplishment. Providing an important service to the community, employing staff so they can provide for their families,….giving families a better alternative …I think these are all important factors when considering if you are “successful”
Is this the first business you ever started?
What effect has your work had on your kids and on your family overall?
Opening a business has been a significant hardship for my family financially and emotionally. It’s very hard to meet everyone’s needs while opening a business – but although I am exhausted – I’m a more happy person because I feel challenged. My kids have been involved in a lot of the decisions about the business and they see me trying to follow a dream, they are seeing what hard-work and perseverance can do. I read a study somewhere that children of entrepreneurs are very likely to be entrepreneurs themselves. I hope my kids are willing to take risks to achieve their dreams in the future.
What’s your process for creating the menu? What are the most popular items on the menu for kids and for moms?
Initially I had a chef develop my menu. Now we listen to customers, track items to see what sells, attend food shows, talk with our suppliers, watch what other restaurants are selling…it’s an ongoing process. We have some restrictions because of the equipment available in our kitchen. We try to keep the menu reasonable healthy and child friendly. The kids favorite is definitely dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. Moms are pretty diverse – our veggie/feta cheese ciabatta sandwich, mandarin orange salad – but everyone loves our pretzel rolls that we serve with soup and salads.
Finish this sentence, “I love my job because…”
I love a challenge, I love creating something new and I love hanging out with kids.
What are the challenges of owning a restaurant that targets kids?
Keepng everything clean and safe for young kids in a restaurant setting is almost impossible. Watching kids when the parents are there – how to handle a child’s misbehavior when their parents aren’t reacting to the behavior. Figuring out how to staff correctly and purchase the right amount of food when you never know if you are going to be busy or not (so dependent on weather!).
Nibbles has had a lot of musical and other entertainment recently. What are some of the kids’ favorites?
Stu (from Banner Camp) is definitely a big hit – he plays a lot of 70’s and 80’s music and lets the kids and parents sing along. He’s a riot. Also any princess themed activity and our teddy bear tea parties are popular.
What are your plans for the future of Nibbles?
We had hopes of someday opening more Nibbles but the downturn in the economy has put this all on hold. Hopefully we will make it through this and then we will consider growth – or maybe just be happy with one site and sit back and relax for a while.
What would your kids say if I asked them to describe their mom? What kind of mom are you?
I asked them for you – crazy, work-obsessed, nice, “tells me to clean my room all the time”….”no comment”! I’d say that before I opened Nibbles I was a helicopter mom and now my kids get a little more space, which might be a good thing.
What advice would you give to moms who want to start their own business?
This question is a little like trying to tell someone what it is like to have children – there really is no way to describe the intensity of your relationship and commitment you have with your children. It is similar owning a business – you are so all-consumed with making the business survive, it can be overwhelming. You need to be ready to have that level of commitment and you need to make sure that you have a ton of support from family and friends – make sure you use them. Do your research, get a good business plan software program, know your competitors and talk to other business owners.
Nibbles’ Play Cafe is located at 13 Huntington Lane, Wheeling IL (Map). You can find more information at nibblesplaycafe.com