Finding profit in healthy kids’ fare

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Kelly Parthen is co-owner of Bean Sprouts Cafe and co-author of “Bean Appetit,” a collection  of healthy recipes for kids. She recently made a “Palmtree Paradise” with her son Kale, 5, and daughter, 3.

Kelly Parthen is co-owner of Bean Sprouts Cafe and co-author of “Bean Appetit,” a collection of healthy recipes for kids. She recently made a “Palmtree Paradise” with her son Kale, 5, and daughter, 3.

By Monica Mendoza

Kelly Parthen and Sharron Seip know the kind of parent angst that comes with trying to find a restaurant that serves kids’ food that’s healthier than chicken nuggets or fries.

Friends since college, Parthen, who lives in Colorado Springs, and Seip, who lives in Madison, Wis., decided to fill that void four years ago and open a healthy kids’ restaurant, Bean Sprouts Café, in Middleton, Wis.

It’s a place where kids can be kids and parents can choose healthy foods like bite-size turkey burgers or whole-wheat pasta.

The café opened to rave reviews and this summer the pair opened a Bean Sprouts Café at the Madison Children’s Museum. Some 30,000 people visited the restaurant in its first week.

Since then, the two have entered partnerships with a half-dozen children’s museums across the country to open restaurants by 2012.

They are preparing to open a Bean Sprouts Café in Los Angeles in 2011, and they are in the midst of raising $1 million to expand and franchise their café.

Already, they have more than 100 franchise requests, Parthen said. And, in March, the two published a book, “Bean Appétit,” with healthy food recipes for kids, which landed them in national parent and food magazines. They were even featured on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

They always envisioned franchising, but they discovered a new niche through their partnership with the Madison Children’s Museum. They are now working with a franchise lawyer to develop models for the stand-alone café and the museum café.

“You think about it, the museums are feeding kids’ brains with such healthy stuff and then on the way out, you say, ‘Here is your hot dog and nachos,’ “ Parthen said. “If the mission is to feed brains with healthy stuff, then why not have food offerings that match?”

Parthen hopes to open a Bean Sprouts Café in Colorado Springs.

Jo Walker is on the board of directors for the Pikes Peak Children’s Museum. The museum has not been built yet, but when it is, she hopes it will have a Bean Sprouts Cafe.

“Bean Sprouts would be a dream partner,” she said. “It makes so much sense. Kids play, they get engaged, and they get hungry.”

It makes sense in the restaurant industry, too.

Healthy meals for kids was named as one of the hottest trends for 2010 by the National Restaurant Association, which surveyed 1,800 chefs around the country.

The Bean Sprouts Café menu was created by chef Gale Gand, a partner with the four-star Chicago restaurant TRU and host of the Food Network show, “Sweet Dreams.”

Gand, a mother of three, was excited that someone in the industry had kids exclusively in mind and included lots of fruits and vegetables on the menu.

While still in the development stages, the Bean Sprouts Café might already have the marketing muscle it needs for nationwide expansion.

Parthen and Seip worked with Kym Abrams, the independent designer behind the American Girl brand and many other famous kids’ products, to help with the Bean Sprouts Café branding.

Inside the book and the café, little vegetable characters dress the menu and walls with expressions like “bean our guest” and “create a master peas!”

If that weren’t enough to make kids and parents feel welcome, children enter through their own child-size door at the cafe, the tables edges turn upward to keep spilled drinks from hitting the floor, and the pastry counter is at kids’ eye-level.