Appealing to women diners is simple: Focus on low-calorie dishes and typical girly drinks, right? Sure, maybe 25 years ago.
As social expectations of gender roles change and blur, determining what female diners want is more complex and requires an approach that’s far from one-size-fits-all.
“It’s such a hard conversation to have,” says Chris Dexter, a partner in the Element Collective restaurant group, which includes Chicago’s Old Town Social and RM Champagne Salon. “It can teeter on misogynistic to say ‘women will like this.’ What does that even mean today?”
Still, it’s a question restaurants need to answer to stay relevant to customers and turn a profit.
“Women aren’t a niche market, they are the market,” says Beth Perro-Jarvis, a partner at Minneapolis-based marketing strategy firm Ginger Consulting.
"Women aren’t a niche market, they are the market."
-Beth Perro-Jarvis of Ginger Consulting
That means a tighter focus.
“If it’s food-related, we might target people who are much more gourmet or organic-driven or others who are much more convenience-driven,” says Perro-Jarvis. “If you don’t close the aperture a little bit and refine your target, you’re going to be in trouble.”
Changes in eating habits are also contributing to the way restaurants can market to female diners. For example, 24 percent of women are snacking much more often, according to a 2013 report from The Hartman Group.
Alex Benes, partner and culinary director at California-based chain Wood Ranch BBQ & Grill, found that his half-priced Wine With Us Tuesdays targeted more women and boosted off-peak sales. “We have groups of women having wine and appetizers at 3 p.m., a time that is normally slow,” he says.
RM has found success with certain menu items and promotions, Dexter says, noting that women place approximately 90 percent of its dessert, cheese and mignardise orders.
Listen and Learn
Learning more about the preferences of female diners doesn’t mean hiring a consulting or market research firm. Jamie Dunham, owner of Brand Wise, suggests that restaurants create their own informal focus groups.
“Women love to give you their opinions and tell you what your next great menu item could be, whether it’s through an informal focus group held in your restaurant or just some general questions sent out to your email database,” Dunham says.
Social media can also provide a wealth of feedback. “You get real-time feedback and insight into what the consumer wants, and in this case, what women want,” Dexter says. “At RM, the number of times I’ve seen a social media post saying, ‘this is how a lady wants to live’ lets you see what women are reacting to in terms of food and design. It can be very specific.”
Knowing which dishes or promotions appeal to current female diners can also help replicate that success. “I talk to managers and servers and walk through the dining room to see what’s selling,” Dexter says. “If you see it sell like crazy and the servers say it’s all women ordering it, there’s no cultural judgment there, but you know you’ve got it right with that dish.”
Restaurateurs think that healthier menus attract female diners, and most marketing experts agree. But because women define health differently, it’s worth considering special diets and preferences.
“Healthy has a broader definition than it did four or five years ago when it was more calorie- or fat-driven,” Perro-Jarvis says. “Now it’s more quality-driven. A woman might say ‘I’m happy to have the pork as long as it’s sourced well and I can order it without the cheese.’”
Dietary preferences, such as gluten-free or vegetarian, along with expanding definitions of healthy eating are drivers of an important menu trend across the board: customization.
At Wood Ranch, Benes says lighter options such as halibut, trout and salmon balance the barbecue-centric menu and appeal to his female audience. He estimates that 85 percent of the vegan burgers ordered at Wood Ranch are sold to women.
In Chicago, Chef Guillermo Tellez recently revamped the menu at Municipal Bar + Dining Co. to include 10 slider options, which are more appealing to his female diners than large burgers or sandwiches. He estimates 15 to 20 percent of female diners order the sliders wrapped in lettuce, rather than with a bun.
Subject to Change
As millennials enter peak consumer spending years in a few decades, they will bring with them a new set of attitudes about gender. White wine for the lady and Scotch for the gentleman isn’t necessarily the way of this generation, which views gender roles as somewhat flexible, according to a 2012 U.S. Chamber of Commerce report.
Subtle marketing tweaks, such as changing the wording of promotional materials, can often make big impacts. RM describes brunch as “your weekly Champagne fix.” It’s not an explicitly feminine call-out, but the tone reflects that women drive most of RM’s Champagne sales.
“Ultimately, the notion that one thing is female-friendly versus male-friendly is counter to how we try to approach it,” Dexter says. “We try to think more about a lifestyle, talking to friends and family and the type of women we’re trying to attract to find out what they like.”
Kate Bernot is the nightlife editor at Redeye Chicago and a freelance writer.
The New Rules
If a restaurant bases its marketing on outdated notions of what women want, it risks losing not only female consumers but men as well. Consider the old and new approaches:
- Hand the check to the male in a group
- Show images of women as either moms or at bachelorette parties
- Assume single women at the bar are waiting for a date to arrive
- Believe low-calorie is queen
- Label bar or dinner specials as ‘Girls Night Out’
- Steer women toward certain ‘lighter’ cocktails or dishes
- Assume that a male-female couple is on a date
- Wait for a diner to reach for the check, or leave it in the center of the table
- Share diverse representations of women, such as single moms, business travelers and grandmothers
- Know that single female diners may be business travelers or solo customers
- Customize menu items to serve diverse dietary needs
- Avoid labels altogether. Women can still find the specials that appeal to them
- Ask a woman what other drinks or foods she prefers and adapt recommendations
- Understand that millennials are more likely to have opposite-sex platonic friends