Generational Preferences Drive Menu Development, Flavor Trends

Generational diners Understanding generational differences is key to restaurant marketing and menu making.

Generational flavor trend analysis is based on the premise that members of an age group are molded by the shared social, cultural, economic and technological influences of their times. Understanding their mindset, experts say, is key to restaurant marketing and menu making.

Vast data has been collected about generational preferences. For example, when it comes to brand loyalty Nielsen's Global New Product Innovation Survey say nearly six in 10 global respondents (59 percent) prefer to buy products from brands familiar to them, while 21 percent say they purchased a new product because it was from a brand they like. Meanwhile, American Express says millennials — driven by social media — tend to be more brand loyal than any other age group, with 62 percent of millennials saying they tend to only ever buy a preferred brand.

But for simplicity’s sake, much of the data can be boiled down to a few main points for each of the principal groups.

Generation Z (born 1998-2012)

No one is sure exactly what to expect from Gen Z consumers, who range in age from single digits to teens. But as their purchasing power increases, it is likely that they will make waves in the restaurant industry. That assumption is based on their racial and ethnic diversity, which is the greatest in American history, and their fluency with technology, which is unsurpassed as well. They are the first true digital natives.

Reflecting the multicultural influences that Gen Z members experience, their palates are sophisticated and drawn to spicy chips, condiments and seasonings, reports the National Restaurant Association. Gen Zers also look for plant-based menu alternatives, expert say. In addition they respond to such menu terms as “natural,” “organic” and “sustainable.” They are

also enthusiastic snackers.

Growing up with digital devices, they are likely to rely on social media interaction for food recommendations and flavor trends to an even greater extent than preceding generations.

Millennials (born between 1981-1997)

The far-reaching trends of snacking, small plates, spicy flavors, customization and flavor mashups have been driven — if not invented — by millennials, which are defined as individuals approximately in their late teens to mid-30s. Pew Research pegs their numbers to be about 75.4 million this year, surpassing the baby boomers as the nation’s largest living generation. Given their enthusiasm and sheer numbers, millennials exhibit behavior that has been shown to have a wide influence on foodservice marketing and menu development.

Take snacking, for example. For millennials, eating is a largely unscheduled activity with snacks and meals occurring throughout the day, according to a report this year by the Private Label Manufacturers Association. Sixty-two percent snack throughout the day and 47 percent average four or more snacks a day.

Millennials have made bold, spicy flavors trendy. Note the Crispy Calamari with jalapeños, pickles and spicy remoulade at Dirty Habit, a bar-restaurant in the Kimpton Hotel Monaco in Washington, D.C. “I think the younger generation handles spicy food more,” says Kyoo Eom, executive chef of Dirty Habit. He adds that they are also more likely to share small plates than other age groups.

Millennials delight in customizing their food and having it made to order. “They want it when they want it and the way they want it,” declares Sally Sparks, vice president of consumer insights for Food & Drink Resources, a menu and product development company based in Centennial, Colo.

And this is the generation that made global flavor mashups famous — everything from the cronut — a trendy croissant-donut hybrid — to Korean-Mexican tacos. “Older consumers might look at two very disparate ingredients and say ‘Well, I like A and I like B, but I can’t imagine them together, so I won’t try it,'” says Sparks. “But millennials might think they would be really interesting together. They are just much more open to mixing and matching and experimentation.”

Complex flavor layering — for example, menu items that contain both sweet and spicy components — also are a favorite of many millennials, experts point out.

Generation X (born 1965-1980)

At Headquarters Beercade in Chicago, nostalgic foods reimagined by a chef resonate with 35- to 50-year-old patrons. An example is the Chianti-braised mini beef ravioli with gorgonzola served in a can, a whimsical riff on commercial canned pasta.

However, the appeal of such a dish can transcend generations. “Somebody in their 40s will think that is cool and come back,” says Scott Donaldson, executive chef of the arcade-bar-restaurant. “Somebody in their 20s will say ‘That’s awesome’ and put it on Instagram.”

Gen Xers were raised with a different attitude toward snacking than younger consumers, Abbott observes.

“The boomers and Gen Xers, we tend to act on snacks as more of a treat, things that were occasional, not every day,” says Abbott. “Whereas snacks today represent a right that the American consumer feels. It’s a very interesting approach.”

Like millennials, however, Gen Xers also can be adventurous when it comes to dining out, and appreciate more exotic, global influences like Asian and Latin American. They also respond to such menu terms as “fresh” and “authentic.”

Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)

In their rush to court millennials, restaurant marketers should not neglect their former trendsetting darlings, the baby boomers. That is because these fiftyish and sixtyish consumers still have plenty of dollars and appetite for dining out, even though they are graying.

Although boomers appreciate robust fare, they are likely to be more interested in healthful eating and nostalgic menu items than in exploring new, must-taste menu sensations.

Health and wellness are in fact on boomers' minds as they gravitate toward dishes that are high in whole grains, protein and calcium, or low in salt, saturated fat and cholesterol. However, boomers tend to have sophisticated palates and will not sacrifice flavor for better nutrition.

Meanwhile boomers “are not quite as adventurous in global and ethnic flavors as millennials tend to be,” says Melissa Abbott, vice president of culinary insights for The Hartman Group, a market research firm. “But they love to see the comfort foods that they grew up with made with higher-quality, cleaner ingredients.”


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