Giggles N’ Hugs: Where the Kids Are Alright

Joey and Dorsa Parsi’s kid-friendly restaurant is healthier than
Chuck E. Cheese’s and stresses a wholesome family experience

By Dana Rubinstein
     Sept. 8 (Bloomberg BusinessWeek) -- Try as she might, Dorsa
Parsi could not abide the scene at kid-oriented pizza chain Chuck
E. Cheese’s. The Los Angeles mother thought it was too loud and
grubby, and every time her daughter fell to the floor, the
self-described “cleaning Nazi” shuddered. Then there was the
lackluster pizza, the bête noir of health-conscious parents
everywhere. What was a Generation X parent to do when hankering
for a decent dinner out? Leave them at home with a sitter? Never.
     On Valentine’s Day 2007, a date that has become pivotal to
the professional narrative of Dorsa and her husband Joey, that
question took on added import. The family got a table at a
Houston’s steakhouse at Century City mall, near Beverly Hills. It
was to be their first dinner out since the birth of their second
child six months earlier. It did not go well. Their daughter
Yasmine, then three years old, collided with a neighbor’s table,
knocking over a glass of water. The middle-aged male victim
glared at Joey. Mortified, the Parsis devoured dinner, fled the
restaurant, and settled into the car for what would be a
revelatory five-minute ride home. As they were driving, Dorsa
turned to Joey and said, “I wish there was a restaurant with
really good, healthy food for parents as well as kids and with an
area where kids can run around and just be kids.” Or, as Joey put
it, in classic Gen X fashion, “Shame on us for taking kids to a
restaurant where we have to turn to our three-year-old and say,
‘Be something other than a child.’ ”
     Thus was born the modern parent’s multigrain alternative to
Chuck E. Cheese’s. They called it Giggles N’ Hugs, taking
inspiration from an Australian children’s band, The Wiggles. With
more than $700,000 in startup money, the vast majority of it his
own, Joey created a 4,500-square-foot restaurant in February 2008
in the upscale Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood. Though it
debuted at the height of the recession, Giggles flourished. In
2010, Parsi raised $2 million to add two restaurants. This year
he relocated to a space three times as large in the Century City
mall and began raising $12 million more to build the concept into
a kid-friendly chain. By the end of September, Parsi says, the
company will be publicly traded on the Nasdaq Bulletin Board
under the symbol GIGL. Today the restaurant averages 3,500
patrons a month and sees $120,000 in monthly revenue, about half
of it from birthday parties. “Jack Black had his party here for
his son a few weeks ago and he paid thousands,” boasts Joey.
     Australian shopping mall giant Westfield, which owns Century
City, has latched onto the concept. The next location will be at
a Westfield mall in Valencia, Calif., says Parsi. “We’re also
negotiating on the Topanga mall, La Jolla mall, San Diego mall
[all owned by Westfield], and eventually we will consider San
Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, and … the East Coast,” he says. By
2020, Parsi dreams of 150 restaurants nationwide, including
     It’s a bold vision. How practical it is remains to be seen.
And will they really stick with that name? The Parsis say yes.
(“What do all children need?” Joey asks. “Giggles and hugs.”)
Westfield spokeswoman Catharine C. Dickey declined to discuss
ongoing lease negotiations, but she did extol the restaurant’s
virtues for Westfield’s 124 shopping centers around the globe.
“The malls are providing an environment for families to shop
together, be entertained together, dine together,” she says. “And
so the kids-and-family offer is very important.”
     Parsi’s business model is rooted in two undeniable truths:
First, toddlers can be notoriously unpleasant dinner companions.
Second, today’s parents are willing to lavish vast sums on
products for their children, like the $1,000 Stokke Xplory
stroller, whose taller bassinet “optimizes eye contacts and
bonding between parent and baby.” So surely they’ll pay a premium
for ginger-glazed, wild-caught salmon ($15.95) while their
children play on a wooden pirate ship that’s cleaned three times
daily using a solution made from a white vinegar base. “The
beautiful thing about having children is it really joins classes
of people, socioeconomically and geographically,” says Dorsa.
“You see people who make $25,000 annual salary with the same
$1,000 stroller as the celebrity who makes $50 million a year.”
     The Giggles N’ Hugs menu reads like something that Gwyneth
Paltrow and Jessica Seinfeld might have cooked up during a
supermom coffee klatch on New York’s Upper East Side. There are
fish sticks made from fresh Tilapia fillets for $7.49. Chicken
Littles chicken fingers ($6.95) are cooked in trans fat-free
canola oil and for an extra $1.49 can be coated in flax seed
meal. Mom’s Tricky Treat Sauce sneaks a puree of spinach inside
the bolognese. There is an assortment of pizzas—available, of
course, on a low-carb “whole wheat lavash” crust in addition to
the ultra-thin, white-flour version. The adult menu includes wine
and beer; parents chauffeuring their precious cargo, the Parsis
note, rarely balk at the two-drink maximum.
     If organic-when-possible, relatively healthy food is half of
the Giggles N’ Hugs equation, the other half is the wholesome
play. The Parsis have outfitted their Century City location with
the pirate’s ship, a parent-propelled merry-go-round, and a
custom-built princess’s castle. Every evening, Giggles features
entertainment from puppet shows and face painting to disco. For
$60, parents with children three years and up can drop off their
little ones for a few hours of shopping. Adult aides are always
on the scene, ready to break up scuffles and facilitate play.
     Parsi never envisioned a future as a children’s
entertainment impresario. The voluble 41-year-old was six when
his family left Iran for what they thought was a vacation
visiting family in Nevada. While there, the Shah was overthrown,
the family’s assets were frozen, and they found themselves
marooned in the States. After graduating high school, Parsi
enrolled in Santa Monica College, but dropped out after a year to
work in finance. Parsi went on to become an investment banker,
marry, have kids, and undergo his Giggles N’ Hugs revelation.
     Joey and Dorsa, who trained as a corporate lawyer before
becoming a stay-at-home mom, now have big plans for Giggles N’
Hugs, and they don’t just involve restaurants. Like Gymboree, a
play space that spawned a children’s apparel empire, the Giggles
N’ Hugs brand could be attached to shirts, shoes, books, and
video games, Joey Parsi says. The possibilities are endless.
“We’re now branching out into a kids’ clothing line, into a kids’
frozen foods line,” says Parsi, whose wife is now pregnant with
their third child. “Best-case scenario, this thing will become
the next Chuck E. Cheese.”

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