All the buzz around wooing millennials makes it easy to dismiss baby boomers. But these folks, born between 1946 and 1964, aren’t riding off into the sunset just yet.
“They (boomers) are the ones keeping the restaurant industry alive,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for The NPD Group. “They go to all types of restaurants. They’re eating out more often. And they feel they’ve been neglected. If you meet their wants and needs, you’re going to get that loyalty from them.”
Restaurants targeting a younger audience need to rethink their approach, Riggs says. Boomers are driving sales and have increased their share of restaurant traffic by 6 percent in recent years. Meanwhile, millennials and Generation Xers in the coveted 18-to-47-year-old range have decreased their traffic share by the same amount, according to NPD.
Predominantly empty nesters with disposable income, baby boomers have the means and the freedom to dine out more frequently than other age segments. While the generations that preceded them spent less, research from the Nielsen Company and BoomAgers shows that’s not the case with boomers.
Bastille, a popular French restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, has been a hit with the 50-plus crowd since opening in 2006, says Michelle Poteaux, who runs the restaurant with her husband Christophe.
When Bastille relocated in January, several boomer must-haves drove the expansion: Carpeting to absorb noise, lower positioned lighting to make reading menus easier, substantial chairs with firm seats and comfortable banquettes with high backs.
“Boomers do not care about current trends,” she says. “What they really want is consistency and quality. They expect great service and a comfortable atmosphere. They understand that it is dining, not see-and-be-seen.”
Check the Attitude
While it’s easy enough to turn up the lights and turn down the thumping music, restaurant owners also need to check their attitudes.
“Remember: Bruce Springsteen is a boomer,” says Matt Thornhill, president of the Boomer Project, a marketing and research organization. “The feeling of your waitstaff, bartenders and greeters should not be that people over 50 are old. If they’re coming out to see you at 7 or 8 in the evening, they are a long way from a nursing home.”
Boomers don’t want to be treated like their parents, so don’t even think about using the “early bird” special label. If you want to drive early dinner traffic, try “first seating,” “pre-theater” or even “happy hour” menus, with smaller portions and smaller prices.
Boomers relish time with their grandchildren. Create specials that encourage dining out with the grandkids. “Instead of puzzles on the kids’ menu, add some questions for kids to ask their grandparents (such as) favorite movies, favorite food; anything to start a dialogue,” Thornhill says.
Targeting boomers does not mean overlooking younger guests, considering that millennials and Generation Xers will eventually reach boomer age.
Shaw’s Crab House, a longtime stalwart of boomer patrons in Chicago, recently celebrated its third decade of business. One of its keys to success: cultivating a younger crowd without compromising the expectations of its regulars.
Young guests typically sit at the casual Oyster Bar, which features live music at night. Older patrons prefer the main dining room. Special events work here, too. The restaurant hosted a crab dinner earlier this year, which drew older customers. An event that paired cocktails and oysters attracted mostly millennials.
“We need to try new things without changing who we are,” says Steve LaHaie, Shaw’s senior vice president. A few years ago, Shaw’s added sushi to its menu after numerous requests from younger customers. “Now the older crowd is following, too,” he says.
Digital Immigrants Use Tech
Boomers aren’t Snapchatting, but the older end of the demographic is catching up with the younger end.
“What we’ve learned over the years is that boomers are very modern and very sophisticated,” says Anita Walker, vice president of marketing for North Italia, an upscale restaurant concept with locations in Arizona, Texas, Colorado and Kansas. “They’re more inclined to communicate online like the rest of the world does. They’re there, and they’re watching.”
All customers are encouraged to leave feedback on the North Italia website, Walker says, but it’s the boomers who respond most frequently. Old-school methods of marketing, like direct mail, don’t work, she says.
"This is a huge and diverse group. You need to understand your own market and who’s coming in."
-Mary Chapman of Technomic Inc.
“This is a huge and diverse group. You need to understand your own market and who’s coming in,” says Mary Chapman, senior director at research firm Technomic Inc. “Pay attention to what they say to servers, and ask them what you can do to make their experience better.”
No one likes inconsistency, but boomers tend to be less tolerant. “I used to change the menu all the time, but there are certain things that our regulars have come to expect,” says Matthew Karp, owner of Plates Catering and Restaurant, a new American restaurant in Larchmont, New York, that draws mostly boomer patrons.
“Most of my regular customers come for our traditional items like roasted chicken,” he says. “Now, I keep our core menu in place and change our specials more often.”
Everyone wants a good dining experience, from a well-executed menu to solid service. But when it comes to certain segments, hitting certain touch points resonates more.
“What I like about this group is that if they’re treated well, they are here every week,” LaHaie says. “They truly can save a business.”
Monica Ginsburg is a borderline boomer who writes about business and dines out in Chicago.
Know Your Demographic
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Build A Boomer Business
Boomers have certain expectations and intolerances when it comes to dining out. Here are four ways to win them over and keep them coming back.
Polish your service. Knowledgeable staff is important. Service approaches, such as serving women first and waiting to clear the table until everyone is finished, is noticed and appreciated by this group.
Don’t snub (or charge for) special requests. Train staff to take special requests in stride. Customers who ask for vegetarian options or split entrees should be accommodated whenever possible.
Don’t keep them waiting. No one with a reservation likes waiting for a table, which is especially true for boomers. They also don’t like losing their table, so build in the time to accommodate.
Make them feel special. Greeting customers by name, remembering preferences and offering samples of new appetizers or desserts go a long way.