McDonald’s might have fallen among the Millennials. According to the Wall Street Journal, consumers between ages 19 to 21 have been cutting Mickey D’s out of their diet at a rate of 12.9 percent since 2011. Even more notable, high-earning Millennials have reduced visits to traditional casual dining favorites like Olive Garden and Red Lobster by 21 percent, as noted by Forbes. Instead they are going out to eat at a new kind of eatery—the fast (and fresh) casual restaurant. Millennials are opting more and more to spend their food dollars at places like Chipotle, Starbucks, Panera, Five Guys and Qdoba where healthy ingredients are whipped together in front of customers and followed by a stream of digital content and online entertainment.
Healthy, Wealthy and Wise
Millennials pride themselves on having eating habits that are both more wholesome and more open to experimenting with the exotic than other consumers. Subsequently, the popularity of artisanal foods and funky flavors have spiked. Consider, for example, the oddball Lay’s offerings of late— Cappuccino and Bacon Mac and Cheese potato chip flavors— that were submitted by fans in the $1 million contest and the rising popularity of foodstuffs like Kombucha and ancient grains.
Now that grocery stores, such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, have gone more mainstream with organic, GMO-free foods, and specialty flavors, Millennials can find the latest and newest in food product development with a short stop at the market. Fast casual restaurants who take heed of these grocery trends are going to find the strongest following of this age cohort. Noodles and Company, for example, have designed their entire menu with options including organic tofu, grass-fed pork and flavor combinations ranging from Bangkok curry to Thai hot pot.
But even more than healthfulness and variety, Millennials want transparency.
The Perks and the Pains of Going Digital
Digital content broadcast over social media allows restaurants to engage with customers in a more holistic approach— and not just for sales and marketing of their specific products. Through digital content, like blogs and videos, consumers can get a better understanding of a brand’s beliefs— a critical element in generating a Millennial following. The importance of ethicality and transparency cannot be over-exaggerated when it comes to Millennials
Millennials take pride in being able to discern whether or not their favorite fast casual restaurant is up to par—and they like to share their wealth of knowledge with fellow Millennials.
With an abundance of bloggers who post their investigative work in deciphering the ingredient lists, food handling processes and environmental impact of restaurants, including generational favorites like Chipotle and Starbucks, a simple click of a mouse will tell a Millennial if they are eating at a restaurant that falls in line with their values.
Capturing the Attention of Millennials
What can restaurants and food brands do if they want to attract Millennials?
- Experiment with different flavor profiles in food product development
- Build authenticity by providing insight into the lifecycle of ingredients
- Provide in-house and online entertainment, i.e. games, trivia or apps
- Have a strong digital strategy for digital engagement
Millennials want to try new things, meaning they tend to be less loyal to brands in the aggregate. This puts fast food chains on the spot for the need to remain transparent and honest to their customers. While Millennials are pushing for this type of innovation in the food industry, it creates a more consumer-centric and altogether healthier fast food environment that can benefit the greater part of society. For consumers who have consistently complained about the strange list of chemicals used to enhance fast food, like McDonald's never-aging french fries and Burger King’s no-decay burgers, the freshness promoted by Millennials stands to promote a positive change in the concept of fast food.
For restaurants in the fast food industry who want to cater to Millennials, flavor innovation should be priority, but restaurants and food brands need to move outside of the box in terms of engaging their customer as well.