On the group's final visit, the kids were playing among the empty sofas. "There was a man sitting nearby on his laptop who decided to shout out at us about our children, saying he was trying to work. My friend asked the manager: 'Do you have a problem with me bringing my children into your shop?' and he said 'Yes'. We were absolutely stunned."
Starbucks' head office is "terribly sorry" to hear of the incident, and insists that "children are always welcome". The fact is that welcoming mothers with children, babies and toddlers can be a demanding business equipment has to be bought, menus have to be looked at, attitudes overhauled. So is it worth going after the junior customer?
Many in the bakery sector, however, report that they do not make any special provisions for babies and children in eat-in areas, although they sell items such as cute biscuits targeted at children. Those that do offer child-friendly facilities include Scottish chain Aulds. Development director Fiona Phillips says: "We normally try to provide baby-changing facilities, one or two high-chairs per shop and have a children's lunchbox on the menu."
But there is a problem with space, she says what is known as "pram jam": "In small coffee shops, if the younger customer is actively encouraged, the pushchairs and prams and toy areas can take up considerable space and reduce that available for tables and chairs. To cater well for children, the coffee shop tends to need to be bigger."
Steven Halstead, who owns Norwich's Cafe Morello with his wife Pam, is proud to fly the flag for child-friendliness. And his bank manager shares his pleasure. The café only has nine tables, but there is always room for a little one, even though parked buggies form a corral sometimes.
Halstead says: "We love children, and we love them coming in here. It started with a high chair and a couple of booster seats, and we installed changing facilities a couple of years ago."
The café's menu is all homemade and it offers child portions and drinks he says such as lukewarm hot chocolate which will not burn a child's mouth. His staff will heat up bottles and babyfood without any mention of "health and safety" which is often cited in cafés to avoid the inconvenience of heating bottles.
"The odd customer moans a bit if a baby is crying, but that happens very rarely. If anyone complains about breast-feeding I tell them to leave," adds Halstead, whose company ethos comes from the heart.
But being child-friendly has kept the business very profitable he says. The mothers with babies and older children tend to come in at quieter times, rather than the lunchtime peak, which allows a steady turnover throughout the day. And the café has built up a strong and loyal following in the area as the children grow up.
Outside the café sector, and at the other end of the scale, successful 782 pub chain Wetherspoon's growing success suggests it knows what it is doing. It is now targeting the younger market as it muscles in on traditional coffee shop territory. Wetherspoon's offers a kid's menu, designed by children's nutrition pin-up Annabel Karmel, coffee and cakes, plus other requisites of child-friendliness high-chairs, changing facilities, children's TV, drawing equipment.
Paul Ettinger, business development director of Caffè Nero reports a similar position: "A lot of mums and babies' clubs come into Caffè Nero and we make sure we have products that are suitable. There is an issue of space, however facilities for buggies for example. We have to make sure there is space for everyone."
Keeping it clean
Staying on top of cleanliness is also vital. A "what's-on" website reviewing Jane Smith's branch of Starbucks gives further insight. "The carpet area in particular is filthy and hosts a very large buggy brigade every morning," says one review.
"It has always been absolutely filthy, with food debris all over the floor in the sofa area and I'm sorry to have to say this it reeks of baby sick," says another.
A premises that encourages children will probably have to step up the cleaning schedule to make sure the environment stays pleasant for all. But for more traditional and old-fashioned businesses, currently happy in the comfort zone of serving old age pensioners, actually attracting a younger clientèle makes sense if the company is to survive and thrive. What cheaper way is there to do that than by installing a flipdown changing mat in the toilet and putting some high-chairs out?
Cafés and eateries that pass muster soon gain a reputation spread by word-of-mouth among the local "mums Mafia" and, increasingly, on social networking sites and websites with local listings, or those such as mumsnet and netmums.
The Jane Smith Starbucks story from earlier, for example, was subject of a lively debate on Facebook on the merits of petitions, boycotts and, perhaps, more "direct action".
Here's the end of that story: "We'd been going there weekly for at least a year, mainly as we thought it was child-friendly. Also, we all bought drinks and cakes for all of us each time, spending £20-£30. This man was sat using their wifi with just one small drink. I couldn't help but notice, over his shoulder, that he was actually shopping online, not working."
Maybe Jane should have asked the manager: "Do you have a problem with us putting £1,000+ a year off-peak revenue into your till?" The answer might have been quite different, something along the lines of, "Let me give the floor a quick clean."
Enter mum, toddler in tow, scanning the café as a checklist plays out in her head: high-chair, check; space to park the buggy, check; any sign of a toilet with baby changing facilities and a buggy-wide gangway through the chairs?
You may think that selling gingerbread men makes you child-friendly. Think again. Customers bringing babies and children into your premises are looking for a lot more than a few cute products for example:
l space to park buggies perhaps an awning or a back room could be used?
l high-chairs stackable ones that aren't too heavy to drag round
l baby-changing facilities and soap and paper tissues on hand
l bottle/food warming facilities motorway service stations offer microwaves, utensils and disposable bibs
l a play area for toddlers also make sure the front door is secure so they cannot run onto the road
l toys, books and drawing equipment.
l staff primed to help customers carrying trays if also pushing a buggy/pram
l good-quality/value food and drink for children organic super-premium products with super mark-ups fit that description with this demographic
l clean premises the floor should be clean enough to eat off as that's what may happen
l a friendly atmosphere.
Would your café cut the mustard?
Mums on the net frank assessments of local café establishments may be found online, on blogs and review sites. How would you measure up against these comments?
"Staff are always helpful and always offer to carry my tray to a table while I push the buggy."
"I thought this place was dreadful! Full of OAPs tut-tutting at my three-year-old and his friend, who were not even running around or anything! Never going there again and the food's totally overpriced!"
"Table corners are perfect height for bumping toddlers heads, there are no high-chairs or toys or special menus or anything. I cannot remember seeing a baby-change in the one tiny toilet either."
"I really like this café. It's clean, bright and has good high-chairs. The staff are great and always carry the high-chair to the table for me and bring my coffee too!"
"So great for bigger meets, obviously nice surroundings, plenty of space for buggies, Hipp organic babyfood jars for sale (a bit pricey though). They also have baby beakers, bowls, spoons and a microwave out on a table for you to use to heat up baby food."