Here’s a tough nut to crack: how exactly do you capture the hearts and stomachs of the millennial generation, one rife with complexities and contradictions?
If you pore over the data—and there’s plenty of it—three themes emerge: community, technology and good old-fashioned corporate storytelling. Boil it down further and the word is sharing. Shared tables. Shared plates. Shared technology.
“They are indeed our future—the future for all restaurants,” says Rachel Phillips-Luther, vice president of marketing for Zoës Kitchen, a chain of Mediterranean-inspired restaurants primarily in the South. “They will be our consumers tomorrow, so it’s best to understand them now.”
UNITED WE DINE
For restaurant owners fretting over the low incomes and high unemployment rates among millennials, consider eating habits overseas.
Europe and China have a long history of young graduates moving back in with their families, and using restaurants as communal gathering places. It’s to escape the pressures of home life and break bread, if not tacos, with friends and acquaintances.
Friends gather. Friends linger. Friends drink. All of which are potential assets to a restaurant’s bottom line. As a result, communal tables, happy-hour discounts and shared plates have become the norm, along with customizable meals and unique beverage options, which allow millennials to differentiate themselves within their respective cliques.
“Millennials are particularly tied to the social aspects of dining,” says Sara Monnette, director of consumer research for hospitality research firm, Technomic. “Baby boomers might spend more at restaurants, but millennials go out to eat far more frequently. It’s ingrained in their lifestyle so they’ll find ways to go out, even if it’s using the money they saved by moving in with their parents.”
Marketing firms often focus on measuring “need states” or what a restaurant absolutely needs to attract customers. Some need states are universal, like value, affordability and appealing flavors. But a wide swath of research shows that while health considerations play a role in millennials’ dining choices, they are often secondary to the desire to satisfy cravings. Another driving force, their laser-like interest in seeking deeply personal or unique fare.
“Restaurants can win millennials over by reinventing themselves in small ways,” says Terri Henry, a consultant who has worked with chains like the Daily Grill and O’s American Kitchen. “Introduce unique cocktails. Not a martini but a caramel apple martini. Spice up your food a bit. Add some ethnic dishes. But above all, create something new, something different. Uniqueness will keep them coming back.”
Bernhard Mairinger, the 28-year-old chef at BierBeisl in Beverly Hills, Calif., hit the target by giving returning customers off-the-menu bites in addition to his typical Austrian fare.
“I think millennials crave authenticity,” says Arlene Winnick, BierBeisl spokeswoman. “We’re introducing them to the kind of experience you’d only find in Europe. It’s unique, but it’s also very personal. There’s a relationship between the customer and chef, which keeps people coming back.”
TELL ME A STORY
Equally important to millennials is a restaurant’s ability to clearly communicate its ethos, says Cliff Courtney, chief marketing officer of Zimmerman Advertising.
“This is a generation that grew up watching ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ a generation that saw the economy crash all around them,” Courtney says. “They’re interested in companies that care about their consumers, their community and their stakeholders.”
He points to Firehouse Subs, which is making inroads across the country in part because of its rich backstory. Founded by firefighters, the chain donates some of its sales to help first-responders: firefighters receive safety gear and newer equipment, precisely the kind of feel-good efforts that elicit repeat business.
Initiatives that show a company’s commitment to the environment or using sound food sourcing strategies is also important.
“For millennials, value is not about finding the cheapest price,” says Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant analyst for the NPD Group. “They define value as quality food, fresh ingredients and good-tasting options sold at reasonable and affordable prices.”
THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
If there’s a Golden Rule for digital platforms—the ultimate in sharing—it’s this: be honest and accommodating, says Dennis Lombardi, the executive vice president of foodservice strategies for WD Partners.
“I get asked all the time, ‘How do I deal with a negative review on Yelp or a negative post?’” Lombardi says. “You have to address the problem in a way that wins over all third-party viewers of the conversation. You have to say things like, ‘I’m looking into your complaint from my side. Or why don’t you come in again. Dinner is on me next time.’ If you don’t manage your online presence, someone else will.”
The only thing more off-putting to millennials than no digital presence is a disingenuous one. Any initiative that feels pitched, gimmicky or inauthentic can do more harm than good. For La Coop: Bistro à Vins, a French-American hybrid bistro in Louisville, Ky., integrating its menu with its online persona involved creating a different French-inspired hamburger every Thursday and posting enticing pictures and menu descriptions, along with Twitter updates on the thinking behind each creation.
“(Millennials) want information at their fingertips (and) to know what brands are doing and why,” Monnette says. “If they find a restaurant they believe in, something they like and appreciate—they’ll go out of their way to support it.”
Peter Gianopulos is a Chicago-based food writer and an adjunct professor of journalism at Loyola University.
6 Steps For Attracting (and Retaining) Young Diners
Now that nearly 60 percent of millennials own a smartphone (and increasing numbers tote around tablets), free Wi-Fi is expected.
Build a Better Snack Case
Whether tailored to time-crunched millennial moms or young working professionals, snack kiosks that offer portable meals drive traffic and lead to repeat business.
Find a Symbol
By displaying symbolic ingredients (fresh vegetables or homemade jars of pasta sauce) and telling your story through eye-catching displays, you’ll communicate your brand quickly and unobtrusively.
Encourage Employee Feedback
Whether through creating an online forum, printing paper questionnaires or simply talking during evaluations, elicit ideas from millennial employees, who are likely keyed in to trends and tastes.
Reward Your Regulars
No group uses or expects to be rewarded more for their loyalty than millennials. Gravitate toward easy-to-use loyalty programs, especially those that rely on smartphones rather than old-fashioned punch cards.
Update Your Digital Toolbox
Companies like new BrandAnalytics have created tools that allow restaurants to monitor all comments made about their establishments across a wide spectrum of digital platforms.